Source, subject, and reader: A farm worker weighs in on short stories about an agricultural community like her own
Graphic by Alex Hinton/Grove Atlantic/iStock aywan88/iStock stsmhn/Getty Images Liz Hafalia/US Geological Survey
Soraida Farias and The Counter’s senior writer on immigration and food, Tina Vasquez, read Jaime Cortez’s Gordo together.
Whenever I’m reading or writing about farm workers—whether it’s in reference to new bills, climate chaos, or a tragedy that hits the migrant agricultural community—I think of Soraida Farias.
Soraida and I grew up together for a short time in Southeast Los Angeles, until her father’s job as a farm worker took her to Earlimart, California. Our dads were friends, and I still have very vivid memories of her father, Salvador, visiting our home in Downey to bring us crates of grapes that he picked. Soraida still lives in Earlimart, where she has worked in agriculture for 15 years. She and her husband work the grapevines and live in a mixed-status, multigenerational home with their five children. Soraida is also the caretaker for my uncle Jose, who migrated to the United States with my father from Mexico in the 1970s.
Over the years, Soraida and I have talked as childhood friends, and we’ve talked as reporter and source. She’s been more than a source, really: As a 33-year-old second-generation farmworker, she’s helped me make sense of farmworker life, much of which is not very visible to those outside their communities and industries. The kind of relationship I have with Soraida, one that is both personal and professional, is at odds with how mainstream journalism views “objectivity.” But I’ve always thought that relationships rooted in community provide unique insights that are invaluable to reporting.
I’m always curious to hear Soraida’s thoughts on farmworker developments, and I sometimes check in with her about reporting and story ideas. So, when I read about Jaime Cortez’s Gordo, I naturally thought of Soraida. NPR has heralded Cortez a “literary star,” and he’s now synonymous with an area of Central California long-referred to as “Steinbeck Country.” Set in the 1970s, Gordo mostly takes place in a migrant workers’ camp in Watsonville, California, the town that inspired novelist John Steinbeck to write his Depression-era novel, In Dubious Battle. That a Chicano writer is laying claim to this region of California is significant: White American writers have historically written stories about the workers who toil there.
Most of the book’s stories are told from the perspective of a young boy named Gordo, whose parents are Mexican-American farmworkers living alongside migrant workers at the fictional Gyrich Farms Worker Camp. Gordo navigates the tragedy of daily life at the camp—including rampant alcoholism, abject poverty, abusive dynamics on the job and at home, and the threat of deportation—with incredible humor, even as he’s regularly bullied for his weight and rejection of his father’s machista attitude. It’s glorious writing from a person who grew up in the region, but I wanted to know: Would it resonate with actual agricultural workers? As I often do, I turned to Soraida for answers.
Soraida read Gordo with the intention of talking to me about whether the stories felt familiar to her or reflective of the realities of farmworker life. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. Italicized passages are from the book.
Tina Vasquez: You know, I just recently learned from my dad that your dad first came to the United States through the bracero program [a government-sponsored initiative that granted millions of Mexican laborers work contracts in the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s]. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t understand California’s geography, and I never thought a whole lot about how our dads got to California from Mexico. But I do remember being very confused about where your dad worked because my family didn’t really leave Southeast L.A., and there were no farms near us.
Soraida Farias: Growing up, I didn’t know my dad worked in agriculture. I thought he worked for Greyhound because we would pick him up once-a-month at the Greyhound station in Los Angeles. So I just started telling people he worked at the Greyhound station. The entire time we lived in Downey, I had no idea my dad was working in the fields. It wasn’t until I was 8 or 9 years old and I moved to Earlimart with him around 1996 or 1997 that I found out he worked picking grapes.
Tina: That would be a big transition to make. Downey is a pretty densely populated city in Southeast Los Angeles. Earlimart is a very small, unincorporated community north of Los Angeles, not far from Bakersfield. I imagine it felt very remote?
Soraida: Honestly, I remember being a little kid and feeling scared. Downey was a nice town, and Earlimart was just so different. It was so small, and I just remember thinking there was too much dirt everywhere. Earlimart didn’t even have sidewalks for us to walk on.
“Growing up, I didn’t know my dad worked in agriculture. I thought he worked for Greyhound because we would pick him up once-a-month at the Greyhound station in Los Angeles.”
Tina: That kind of sounds like the way Watsonville, California, is described in Gordo. So let’s talk about the book. What was your favorite story?
Soraida: For sure, the first story in the book, “The Jesus Donut.”
The van stops close to me and the other kids, and the driver opens the door and steps out. With his pink face, white shirt, white hair, and mustache, he looks like Mister Kentucky Fried Chicken. …The five of us circle around Mister Kentucky, and he has a big ol’ smile, like he’s gonna tell us the greatest secret ever. ‘Hablan español?’ he asks. … Then Cesar answers. ‘Yeah, we can speak Spanish. English too.’ Cesar is so brave, talking to that big pink, white-haired gringo just like that. … ‘Muy bueno. That is very good,’ says Mister Kentucky real slow, like he thought we couldn’t understand. Then he turns and opens up the two doors on the back of the van. Inside, it has four big silver metal drawers stacked up. He grabs the handle of the bottom drawer and pulls on it. It opens up, we look, and everyone is surprised.
‘Ooooh, so nice.’
‘No way, José.’
The whole drawer is full up with donuts!
When we moved in with my dad in Earlimart, we didn’t live in a camp like they do in the book, but one of my early memories was this one guy who would come by where the farmworkers lived and he would sell donuts. It was like he timed it because every time my dad would come home from work, this guy in a little car would come by to sell his donuts. And my dad would always buy me one. They were chocolate donuts with sprinkles, just like the kind you would buy at a donut shop. He also had different kinds of pan dulce, conchitas, and other stuff. The story brought back good and sad memories for me. There were kids around whose parents couldn’t even afford a donut, just like the kids in the story. There was actually a lot in the book that reminded me of my family.
Tina: What other stories reminded you of your family?
Soraida: Even though the story was about a present his dad gave him, “El Gordo” reminded me of my mom, who lives in Iowa right now and works at a Tyson pork plant.
I hear [Pa] open the front door, call my name, and stomp across the kitchen right into me and Sylvie’s little bedroom. Right away, I can smell beer, but not too much. … He puts a big box down on the floor right next to my bed. It’s wrapped up with rope tied in a messed-up bow on top. My nickname ‘Gordo’ is written on it in my pa’s big, ugly letters.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
‘A present,’ says Pa. It’s not my birthday and it’s not Christmas. I’m surprised to get a present.
‘Really, Pa? For me?’ I ask.
‘Correcto. It’s yours, Gordo.’
‘Just because,’ says Pa.
My mom used to buy us kids “just because” presents. There were four of us and we didn’t have much money when we were growing up in Downey, but she found a way to randomly get us little things here and there and she would say ‘It’s just because.’
The story “Chorizo,” about Gordo getting slapped for taking food from the “indios,” also made me think of work.
Past the tomato fields, I can see this family walking along the San Juan Highway. Right away, I know they ain’t doing so good. We’re not rich or nothing, but they look super poor, even from far away. … They get closer and I can see them clearly. They’re indios. They’re darker than Hershey Bar Pancho, and he’s the blackest in the family. … They introduce themselves. The father’s name is Xaman. The mother is Yuritzi. I never heard names like those before. Those are Star Trek alien names.
Tina: I thought that story was really interesting because Gordo makes a point of saying that even though farmworker families like his are very poor, they are better off than this Indigenous family that shows up looking for work. I once interviewed Dr. Ann López, the founder of the Center for Farmworker Families, who explained that food insecurity is a major problem for farmworker families—especially for Indigenous farm workers from Oaxaca who are without income during this time of year. What about the “Chorizo” story reminded you of work?
Soraida: He calls them “indios” in the book, but we call them “Oaxaqueños.” There are a lot of people who are Native [or Indigenous] from Oaxaca who work in the fields. They are Mexican people, but Mexican workers treat them different. A lot of them don’t have papers. They deal with a lot of abuse, and they are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to get fired or deported. They work harder than everyone. Starting around 2010, I noticed more Oaxaqueños working in the fields. Also Hondureñas and Salvadoreños too: Many of the Hondureñas and Salvadoreños have work visas [as H-2A workers].
Tina: Many of the scenes in Gordo take place at a migrant worker camp in Watsonville. There has been a lot of reporting over the years about the conditions in these camps, especially for the workers you mentioned who are temporarily here with visas. In the area where you live, what kind of housing do these workers have?
Soraida: From what I’ve seen, it’s not really like the old days anymore where they had camps. The people where I work who have visas live in motels that are paid for by the farms they work for. Buses go every day to pick them up and take them back to the motel after work. It’s actually kind of sad for them. Their whole life is work and the motel. They only have Sunday to run errands. Everything is very controlled.
Tina: It’s clear that a lot of the stories resonated with you, but as a farm worker reading this book, do you think it accurately reflects life in farmworker communities? Did it seem to you that Cortez was familiar with this world?
Soraida: You know what’s funny? A lot of the book didn’t remind me of farmworkers. It reminded me of L.A.
Fat Cookie takes a tiny yellow library pencil out of her pants pocket. She looks from one side of the camp to the other, like a spy. … With the back of her hand, Fat Cookie wipes a dusty spider web off the wall and then holds the tip of her pencil against the wall. … She writes ‘CHICANO POWER’ … in cholo letters that look like chino letters at the Golden Dragon, but they’re not …
‘Wow, Cookie. I didn’t know you were an artist.’
‘I just like to draw …’
‘Do your mom and dad know you can do this?’
‘My mom hates my drawing. She says I’m becoming a chola, asks me why I can’t draw nice things, the Virgin, ponies and shit. Fuck her.’
‘That’s not cool, Cookie, what you said about your mom.’
‘Fuck her,’ she says again, this time in a louder voice.
‘She brought you into this world, pendeja. She made you in her stomach and she pushed you out of her vaginus. That’s a fact. She gave you life, the greatest gift in the solar system.’
The way that the characters talk—their nicknames and how they are described— some of them sound like little gangsters from the 1990s.
“We party a lot because we’re stressed! The work we do is hard, and we get tired of work and the long hours on our feet. Once we get out on Saturday afternoon, we start drinking.”
Tina: The book is actually very funny, especially because it’s mostly from the perspective of a little kid. But Gordo also uses humor to describe some pretty traumatic stuff happening in his community. For instance, there’s a gender nonconforming farm worker who abuses their asylum-seeking girlfriend. One character gets deported. Also, alcoholism is always kind of hovering in the background:
Los Tigres are kind of famous for being champion drinkers in the camp. That’s a big deal, because all of the men at the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp drink on Saturdays like they’ve been walking through the desert all week to get to a Coors tallboy. The Saturday night drinking fandango happens all summer when the garlic and tomato harvests are happening. After dinner, the men bring broken branches and scraps of wood to the tractor barn to start a fire. It’s not even cold in the summer. I think they just like making fires. … My tio Hector brings his little red record player and albums. … My tio always carries a stack of records, but to be honest he only needs to bring one, because most of the night they play one thing again and again. Vicente Fernández. Oh my God, it’s always and forever Vicente. Vicente doing rancheras. Vicente doing boleros. Vicente shouting out the gritos. Ay ay ay! Vicente is the king of the drunk guys who are only happy when they’re sad.
Journalists also have a reputation for drinking too much. Do you think it’s fair to say the same of farm workers?
Soraida: Yeah, for sure. We party a lot because we’re stressed! The work we do is hard, and we get tired of work and the long hours on our feet. Once we get out on Saturday afternoon, we start drinking. I calmed down a little bit because back in April I had an incident where I busted my lip and my husband said I needed to do a better job of controlling my alcohol.
Tina: Why does the partying start on Saturday afternoon and not on Friday night?
Soraida: Because of our schedule. The work week ends Saturday afternoon; our only full day off is Sunday and for me—because I’m a mom—I spend Sunday running my errands, doing laundry, and cooking. After work on Saturday, we always have a carne asada. We go outside, we grill, we just chill and drink beer all night. Saturday is the only night I can go to bed late, and Sunday is the only day I can sleep until around 9 a.m. Usually I have to wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning, depending on where I’m working. The everyday routine is stressful and draining, so I guess drinking is how we have a little fun.
Tina: I think a lot about how stressful and dangerous your job can be. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you hear from me whenever there is big news about the farmworker community, like the recent story about the human trafficking operation in Georiga that trapped migrant workers in “modern-day slavery.” I reached out to you back in June when there was a heat wave that killed Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan farm worker in Oregon. When stuff like this happens, is it addressed at work? Do your co-workers talk about what’s unfolding in the news?
Soraida: Oh, we talk about all of it. When we hear stories in the news, all of us talk to each other. But also when something happens, we also attend these little—they’re kind of like classes or meetings. Somebody comes and tells us about our rights, and they tell us how we can be safe when there’s a heat wave or what the symptoms are when we should stop working and take a break. I think if they didn’t do that, a lot of people wouldn’t know what their rights were and they would keep working even if they got [heat stroke].
Tina: You have five children. Do you think any of your kids will work in the fields? Would you worry about them working in agriculture, given the conditions?
Soraida: I don’t think I have to worry about that. I don’t think they will do this job. I mean, my oldest son tried it once for a few days, but he hated it and said he would never do it again.
“I never worked in the fields when I was a kid, but I did help my dad with small stuff. I was always happy for him to come home from work because he would bring—you know those plastic bags you buy grapes in? He would bring home the bags and the little stickers that go on the bags that say where they’re from, and we would put the stickers on all the bags for him. Each of us would do maybe 30 or 40 a night.”
Tina: It’s not uncommon for kids to work in the fields with their parents, even now—and it’s not illegal. Did you ever work in the fields when you were a kid in Earlimart?
Soraida: I never worked in the fields when I was a kid, but I did help my dad with small stuff. I was always happy for him to come home from work because he would bring—you know those plastic bags you buy grapes in? He would bring home the bags and the little stickers that go on the bags that say where they’re from, and we would put the stickers on all the bags for him. Each of us would do maybe 30 or 40 a night. Those are the bags he would use to pack the grapes the next day. And every Saturday after work, he would bring home all the trays he used to pick the grapes and we would wash them for him. On Monday, he would take the clean trays back.
Tina: How old were you when you started working in the fields?
Soraida: I was 18 when I started with grapes, and I wasn’t ready. I actually didn’t want to work in the fields, but I got married very young and started a family. I wanted to help my partner financially, but at the same time I really didn’t want to work in the fields because my dad was really against it. My dad was still alive at this time and he would tell me, “Why does your husband want you to work in the fields? You could work somewhere else, you could go to college. You’re a citizen!” So, basically I didn’t work in the fields until my dad passed away of cancer in 2006. About two months later, I started working the grapes. My dad’s dream was for us to go to school and not to be in the sun all day like he had to be. But I had a family I had to help take care of, and my husband’s check wasn’t enough.
Tina: Do you remember what your first few weeks in the fields were like?
Soraida: Oh, I remember everything. I remember the first day because I wasn’t prepared. Most of the people working the fields are all covered up—they wear long sleeves and pants, bandannas, and hats. I wore long sleeves and pants, but I didn’t cover my face with a bandana or anything. It was horrible. My face was bright red. I got sunburned really bad, and all the pesticides got on my face. I was itchy all day and night. After that, I paid attention to how the women would cover up and I started to dress like them.
Tina: So do you think any of the farmworkers you work with would like Gordo?
Soraida: If they actually read it, they might think it’s funny. But I don’t know if they would be interested in actually reading it.
Tina: Now that I have a better understanding of your schedule, I feel bad asking you to read a 222-page book on your limited days off.
Soraida: It was nice to be able to sit and read! My son tried to get me to see if I could listen to an audiobook, but I didn’t want to. I could read the book and chill a little bit and relax. It felt like a little bit of freedom.