What was most important to me about working at Yoder Brothers during the summers of 1970 and 1971 was my fellow workers. It is also the hardest thing to write about. One reason for that is that 50 years later I recognize how self-absorbed I was at 19 and as a result I did not learn very much about the women with whom I worked, nor did I do much to keep in touch with them when I went back to college. Yet those women touched my life and my ways of thinking much more deeply than I realized at the time. It was their fellowship that brought me back to the job for a second summer, not the $1.30 that we earned per hour.
This is something I haven’t mentioned yet. Minimum wage in 1970 was $1.65. At college working as a waitress and in the cafeteria, I earned federal minimum wage. I knew what it was. When I applied for the job, I was told we’d be paid minimum wage; when the first paycheck came, I was flabbergasted. We were being paid $1.30 an hour. My first thought was that this was illegal, that they were taking advantage of the fact that most of the workers were immigrants who only spoke Spanish and could not really advocate for themselves. I called the same Cooperative Extension agent that had told me about the job in the first place, and he explained reality to me. There was a separate, lower, minimum wage that applied to farm workers. Therefore $1.30 was completely legal, but my view that it was exploitive and taking advantage of immigrant workers was also true. I learned later that the men who worked there earned $1.65 because they had more options as to jobs and would have left to work somewhere else if paid less than non-farm minimum wage.
The First Summer
When I started work there in June 1970 all of the other women who worked there were Hispanic in that they were all native Spanish speakers – despite significant differences in dialect. They came from several countries. The largest number were from Mexico, but there were women from both Central America and South America, the four countries that I am sure about are Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia, and Peru. All but one of the women had come to the United States as either teens or adults. That one woman, Conchita, had come to the U.S. as a very small child with her parents and had attended school entirely in the U.S. While she had grown up speaking Spanish at home with her parents, she was truly bi-lingual and spoke unaccented, colloquial English like anyone person who went to school here.
Connie as she was called, was my life-line in the beginning, helping me get up-to-speed in my Spanish. Like most kids growing up in California in the 1950's and 1960's I learned some Spanish vocabulary in grade school, and by middle school was taking formal classes in Spanish every year. I studied Spanish in school for 4 and a half years (middle school, high school, and a semester in college) and earned mostly A's (except in college) but really wasn't fluent until working at Yoder Brothers. Connie helped me with the work specific vocabulary, that hadn’t been covered in my classes. She also helped ease me into the social network by inviting me to her home for dinner twice, where I got to meet her mother, husband, and six-year-old son – and have my first truly authentic Mexican cuisine! Yoder Brothers was a temporary stop for Connie who with a high school diploma and other skills soon found a less physical office job somewhere else.
It was harder to be part of the group after Connie left since everyone else spoke only Spanish, but nothing teaches a language faster than necessity and total emersion. I soon made my best friend at Yoder Brothers, Gloria. Gloria had come to the U.S. because her brother suffered from a congenital illness than could at that time only be treated properly in the U.S. Like the vast majority of immigrants, she had not really understood how difficult it would be for her to find skilled work like she had in Mexico, especially lacking English language skills. She was having difficulty saving up enough money to bring her brother to the U.S. working as a field hand.
Gloria was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked like the fairy tale description of snow white: ivory pale skin, ruby lips, shining dark hair. One of the things that I was quick to observe at Yoder Brothers was that “Hispanic” covers a very wide range of racial and ethnic groups. Gloria looked like she would have been at home on the streets of Madrid. By comparison the oldest, most senior worker at the plant, Irene from Peru had the deep bronze skin and high cheekbones that we Americans associate with native Americans. The rest of the women ranged somewhere in between those two poles, representing a wide mix of indigenous people and European invaders.
In many of their home countries these differences in racial and ethnic heritage mattered a great deal, social status and opportunity varied based on a person’s degree of European heritage. Here in the United States those differences were largely obliterated; from the point of view of the larger society and employers they were all Hispanic immigrants, they could not speak English, and they were vulnerable to deportation, even documented immigrants though the undocumented were especially so. Here tenure in the U.S. and knowledge of how the system worked were the primary forms of status, not racial and ethnic differences within the group.
Sitting and talking with Gloria before work, at lunch, and after work really pushed my Spanish fluency. Unlike the other women whose conversations revolved around their families or their relationships, food and clothing, Gloria wanted to talk about music, politics, and religion or perhaps more properly about beliefs. She wanted to tell me about her life in Mexico and her family and learn about my life and my family. We explored our similarities and differences and we taught each other songs. I can only remember one of the many songs she taught me, because I have sung it often over the years to cheer myself up.
Ven a contar conmigo,
Si tristes estas.
Cuando te sientes deprimido
Ven a contar conmigo
Y el sol saldra.
Translation: Come sing with me if you are sad. When you are feeling depressed sing with me and the sun will come out.
One of the funniest things that happened to me that first summer was due to an odd lacuna in my Spanish vocabulary. Gloria lived in an apartment with Bonita another one of the Yoder Brothers workers, about a mile and a half from the Yoder Brothers plant. It was walkable, there were sidewalks the entire distance. But there was heavy traffic and in the summer it was hot. So early on, I suggested that I at least give them a ride home at the end of the day. It was on my way and not at all inconvenient. Our first ride was quite comical. Neither Gloria nor Bonita knew the name of the major cross street where I would need to turn, so I told them to let me know before we reached the intersection. So I’m driving along, and the first major intersection is coming up so I ask izquierda [left] or derecha [right], they replied “derecho” which I took to mean I should turn right, so I started to signal and make the turn and they started yelling “no, no, no” and pointing straight ahead. We went through this two more times. Finally, I stopped the car and looked at them and gestured to the left saying “izquierda?” they nodded, then I gestured right and said “derecha?” they nodded. Then they pointed straight ahead and said “derecho!” In all my years of studying Spanish I had learned left and right, but I had never learned that “straight ahead” is derecho. For days afterwards this was the subject of much discussion and laugher at lunch time.
In addition to providing Gloria and Bonita rides every day, I several times invited them to come to my parents’ house (where I lived) for meals, providing transportation to and from. At least once they both came, but two other times only Gloria came. They would invite me to eat with them, and I would accept their hospitality as to do otherwise would have been rude and insulting, but I would try to eat very little because they had so little. I felt very close to Gloria and I think she also felt close to me despite all our differences.
|fairy stone crystal|
At the end of the summer of 1970 when it was time for me to go back to school, Gloria and I exchanged lots of hugs and tears. She also gave me an amazing gift one that I felt terribly guilty about accepting but knew that to refuse it would hurt her immeasurably. We had talked a lot about our religious beliefs, and one of the difficulties that I encountered in doing so was that for Gloria, a Spanish speaking Catholic, no distinction in her conversation was made between Jesus and God, she referred to both indistinguishably as “Dios.” As a consequence, I had been unable to explain to her satisfactorily how while I had a deep and abiding faith in God, I was not a Christian. This was probably made more difficult because I wore a necklace that had a small locket and a fairy stone cross on it. I wore the fairy stone not because it was a cross, but because it was given me by my favorite Aunt and reminded me of trips on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I was overwhelmed when at parting she gave me the exquisite gold crucifix that she wore all the time when not at work. It had been a gift to her from her deceased mother.
At that point in my life I was pretty sure I wanted to be a Jew even though I was still ten years away from formal conversion to Judaism, I would have felt sacrilegious wearing a traditional Catholic crucifix with a tiny Jesus impaled upon it. In response I removed my own necklace, removed the small locket, and gave her my fairy stone cross, explaining how it was a natural mineral that grew in the shape of a cross, and who had given it to me. I kept Gloria’s crucifix close to me for the next 12 years, never wearing it, but holding it often and thinking about her. In 1975 my first graduate school roommate was a physician from Belgium, Arlette Lepot. Arlette’s primary language was French, but she was fluent in Spanish and German. We discovered quickly that I was marginally more fluent in Spanish than she was in English, so we sometimes spoke Spanish together rather than English. For a variety of reasons Arlette reminded me of Gloria and I ended up telling her the story of Gloria’s crucifix and gave it to her, because she would wear it and honor it.
Gloria was the only woman at Yoder Brothers that I kept in touch with after I went back to college. We wrote letters to each other in Spanish. Mine were pretty simplistic. So I learned that after I left that she and Bonita had been able to get better paying (but still very hard, hot and miserable) jobs at a laundry. Then the letters stopped and my last letter was returned. I lost touch with her and it was not until the next summer that I was able to learn why. Both Gloria and Bonita were undocumented so an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) raid on the laundry where she worked, caused her to go underground and leave the area. I’ve always wondered what happened to her after that.