Jorge Mendoza was the last man to receive a call. As he picked up the phone, he was still debating whether to go to work or not. If he went, what would the other men think? If he stayed home and lost his job, no one in the valley would hire him. And if he got deported, he would lose everything.
“Jorge,” the voice on the other end of the phone said. “Can we count on you today?”
Count on him? Hadn’t his friends and family always been able to count on Jorge? No matter what, Jorge managed to put food on the table. He got the rent in on time and bought new clothes for the kids each September. He even supported his mother in Mexico.
“I tell you,” Jorge began, after clearing his throat. “I am still making up my mind.”
“Jorge, there is only one way to go with this thing.”
Alan Carey, the union rep, hadn’t mentioned the day off. It was as if they were talking about something illegal, like drugs.
“I think there is more than one way,” Jorge responded. “If there was only one, it would be easy for me to decide.”
“We will only succeed if everyone goes along,” Alan argued. “They will know how indispensable you are, only if everyone doesn’t show up.”
And then he added, “How will you feel, Jorge, if you are standing in the vineyard all alone?”
Maria Elena Navarro was finally done. She lay in bed, every ounce of food having been heaved up out of her stomach.
Right then, she should have marched down the block to the apartment complex where the single men who worked in the vineyards lived. She should have stood on the blacktop, next to those big old American cars the men drove to the fields, and shouted, “Francisco.” She should have screamed until he opened the second-floor window facing the blacktop and saw her standing there, waving her arms. She should have waited for him to slip on his shoes, walk down the stairs and come out to meet her. Then she should have insisted they head over to the park and talk.
But what if after Maria Elena told Francisco she was pregnant, he walked away?
As if life wasn’t hard enough, there was this stupid day off. Sure, when that nice Lydia Hernandez from the union had asked, Maria Elena answered, “Como no. Of course.” What wouldn’t Maria Elena do to help her people? Didn’t she, who made so little money, put a dollar and sometimes two in the gold-colored collection plate, half of which Father Tomás said would help the poorest vineyard workers buy medicine and food? Hadn’t Maria Elena baked soft, sweet, sugary donuts like her mother taught her to do, whenever the church had a breakfast to raise money to send to Mexico? Had she ever said no when her neighbors Alma and Ricardo asked her to watch their three children?
Yes, Maria Elena would have done practically anything if that gesture could benefit another soul. And the day off sounded good. After all, Maria Elena had eyes. As she swished the brush around the toilet bowl, fluffed, folded and hung bath towels and straightened sheets, she could see all the wonderful things the rich gringos who stayed in the hotel had. They did not see her, Maria Elena knew. Even the owner’s wife, who sometimes called the maids in for a meeting, next to where the rich ladies went for their facials and massages, warned Maria Elena and the other girls to make themselves vanish.
“If the guests are in the room and you must bring them something – another towel, a bottle of lotion, a roll of toilet paper – just slip in and out, silently. Imagine that you are a ghost, that you float in and out of the room and no one can see you.”
Maria Elena understood this idea of being invisible. Her cousin, Jorge, who had helped her get across the border and got her hired on at the hotel, told her as much when she arrived.
“You do not have papers, Maria Elena, and so you must be careful,” he warned.
He was sitting close to Maria Elena. She could smell the aroma of stale onions coming off his breath. Maria Elena understood that the cards Jorge’d given her, the ones she presented to the owner’s wife, were not the same as real legal papers.
The sun came up as it did every day, except during the brief rainy winter months. That dependable sun ripened the grapes and turned the leaves red and golden. Surrounded by low brown hills, the valley had the perfect climate for growing grapes that were pressed into world-class vintages. The workers were perfect too – always on time, prepared to pick, weed and trim the vines, working overtime, if necessary, and never complaining or demanding more than the lowest pay.
On this day, though the sun climbed in the sky and brightened the seemingly endless rows of plants, warming the grapes that had already ripened, those ever-dependable workers did not show up. Throughout the valley, it was as if someone important had died. Fields were empty, hotel beds left unmade, and toilet paper rolls were not replaced. Used towels waited in damp piles on bathroom floors.
Even worse, restaurant kitchens up and down the West Coast and beyond, in cities as far away as Tucson, Denver, Albuquerque and San Antonio, were silent. No one turned the gas burners on. Not a soul grated cheese or stirred eggs or fried bacon. Even in the capital of the United States, senators and congressmen couldn’t get their usual poached eggs or a piece of toast or even a cup of coffee.
Manny Ortega was laughing so hard, tears leaked out the corners of his eyes. The phone had been ringing all morning.
“Damn,” Manny said after the first seven calls.
For fifteen years, Manny Ortega, the lowly representative from the 18th congressional district of California, where the summer heat could dry up a man’s soul and the fields of tomatoes and strawberries, lettuce and cucumber stretched for miles, had been passed over when committee chairmanships were handed out. He still occupied the same windowless office, at the end of a very long and empty hall. Though he’d raised money for eight presidential candidates and two had won, it hadn’t made a difference. Over the years, he’d tried to introduce his bill to legalize undocumented workers in the country, without any luck. Some senior representatives had turned Manny’s repeated efforts into a joke.
“Here comes Representative Ortega with his immigration bill,” they chided.
When the union approached Manny, his heart started to flutter. He got up out of his chair and faced the wall, where he sometimes pretended that he had a commanding view over the capital. Manny considered the idea, the likelihood of its success and the implications. He turned around and confronted the three men.
“What makes you think these people won’t go to work? They could lose their jobs. Hell, they might even get deported.”
“We have a plan to organize them,” one of the union men wearing a navy blue jacket with the vineyard workers’ logo on it said.
Manny reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. After studying the contents, he pressed several bills between his thumb and first two fingers, folded them in his palm and handed them over to the man he was now expecting a great deal from.
Even the organizers hadn’t anticipated the day off to last longer than twenty-four hours. In frantic conversations, with cell phones pressed to their ears, the men and women who’d come up with the plan agreed.
“Let’s go for it,” the president of the vineyard workers union shouted.
Manny Ortega was going to introduce his bill the very next morning, not a moment past nine o’clock. Debate would begin at ten, with a vote taken after lunch. If the bill passed, the workers would immediately return to the fields and kitchens, hotel rooms and construction sites. Failure could keep workers off the job indefinitely.
In the fields outside Fresno, California, ripe tomatoes began dropping from the vines. All around, the air smelled like an Italian kitchen. Basil was grown in that valley and waited to be picked, along with the cucumbers and lettuce.
Worse than food rotting in the fields was the gaping silence. Kitchens where ranchera music had blared, hotel corridors brightened by gossip traded in Spanish, and even the humming that drifted from men working atop hot roofs was gone. No one had realized that those workers created such a symphony of sound.
The next morning, a few minutes before eleven o’clock, the president of the vineyard workers union answered his phone.
“The bill,” was all Manny Ortega could say.
“Yes? What about the bill?”
The pause lasted way too long.
Finally, Manny confessed, “The bill has failed.”
He did not hear Alan Rodriguez respond, “Failed?” Manny Ortega had already hung up the phone.
The congressman slid several flattened cardboard boxes out from his closet, pushed them into shape, pulled strips of tape off a roller and pressed the tape along the cardboard seams. He carefully closed and locked the frames of his wedding photographs, along with the pictures of his four children, at their high school and college graduations. Bending down, he set the photographs, one by one, in the box. He did not bother packing the photo taken of him on his first day of Congress.
Records were broken – one after the next – as the weeks passed. The temperature, which normally fluctuated between eighty and eighty-five, had been hovering for days around one hundred and five. Some said the heat kept the day off going. In any case, the tomatoes and lettuce, basil, cucumbers, avocados and grapes didn’t stand a chance.
Fertile soil in valleys throughout the country was stained red and purple, yellow and green from the rotting fruits and vegetables. The air smelled like an open-air market in the towns where those who normally worked those fields had come from.
In the tourist town where Jorge lived with his wife and three children in a crowded trailer park, the normally crowded streets and sidewalks were deserted. Without the maids and busboys, cooks and spa workers, businesses found it impossible to open.
“This is a disaster,” the biggest wine producer in the valley screamed over the phone to his Republican representative. “You better do something or don’t expect any campaign contributions from us the next time around.”
After three tense weeks when the temperature had barely dropped below a hundred, a Republican congressman who had campaigned on a pledge to beef up security along the U.S./Mexican border, stood up on the House floor.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to our friends from south of the border,” he stated.
In the time it took to round up votes, another twelve hundred pounds of fruit and vegetables rotted. A thousand small businesses permanently locked their doors. Women grumbled and complained that the price of tomatoes and lettuce had climbed way too high.
The immigration bill that would legalize thousands of undocumented workers passed with a sizable margin. On hearing the news, Manny Ortega poured himself a glass of the state’s fine Cabernet Sauvignon. He sipped quietly, and then poured himself another, proceeding to get quietly soused, as he gazed at the cheerful orange California poppies that spilled down the length of his garden.
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