October 1, 2011


Hecho en América: Between talk-radio blather and election-season bravado, it's easy to have an opinion about immigration, and easier to forget that people--actual people--pick our food. Now and then we might glimpse them out the car window, but few of us realize that what we eat depends on them, and fewer still have any idea what their world is like. Jeanne Marie Laskas spends a season with a group of these nomads--the constant wanderers who put fruit on our table (Jeanne Marie Laskas, September 2011, GQ.com)

Wash the apple before you bite into it, because that's the way you were raised. Germs, pesticides, dirt, gunk, it doesn't matter--just wash it. The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It's easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food. Sometimes, maybe, we are reminded of the seasons and the sun and the way of the apple tree, and if we multiply that by millions of apple trees, times millions of tomato plants, times all the other fruits and vegetables, we realize, holy potato chips, that's a lot of picking. Without 1 million people on the ground, on ladders, in bushes--armies of pickers swooping in like bees--all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America's $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots.

Most of the people who pick our food come from Mexico. They blanket the entire country, and yet to most of us they're strangers, so removed from our lives we hardly know they're here, people hunched over baskets in the flat distance as we drive down vacation highways. If we imagine them having anything to do with our lives at all, the picture isn't good: 50 percent of the migrant-farmworker population is in the United States illegally, the one piece of the story Americans hear quite a lot about and are increasingly bothered by, or urged to be. On TV and talk radio and especially during election years, we're told we must work together to stop this national crisis. These people are robbing our homes and trafficking drugs and raping our children right there in our J.C. Penney dressing rooms. The bad guys make headlines, as bad guys will, and the rest, we're told, are a more insidious blight: taking American jobs, giving birth to bastard "anchor babies" in what Pat Buchanan once called "the greatest invasion in human history." Whether we buy into the rhetoric or not, one thing has been made clear: Illegal immigration is a problem reaching a breaking point, and something must be done.

Except there really is no invasion, no growing national crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that immigration from Mexico has actually gone down--and steeply so--over the past decade. (An estimated 80,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the Mexican border into the United States last year, down from 500,000 ten years ago.) More to the point: There is nothing new about this story. Importing foreign labor has always been the American way, beginning with 4 million slaves from Africa. Later came the Jews and Poles, the Hungarians, Italians, and Irish, the Chinese and Japanese--everything you learned in sixth-grade social studies about the great American melting pot. And with each group came a new wave of anti-immigrant, pro-Anglo rage.

Ourcurrent debate over how to control our borders is really just a rehashed version of a very old one cycling over the reach of history. It's a lively conversation about fairness and purity, about who belongs and who does not, and as a result, the people who pick our food are shamed into the shadows, nameless, mostly afraid, and certainly inconvenient to the experience of the satisfying first crunch and explosion of sugar that happens when we discover that this, oh yes, this apple is awesome.

Up here in Maine, the blueberry scent lies like a fog over carpets of balsam, and the mosquitoes are fat and in charge. Blueberries are one of the state's largest crops, covering 60,000 acres, and they're a symbol every bit as important as the lobster to the image of Maine as a happy, vital place: VACATIONLAND, the license plate says. Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. The woody plants occur naturally in the sandy gravel understory of Maine's coastal forests, where little else bothers even trying to grow. The plants thrive here because of my corrhiza, a fungus clinging to their roots that allows the plant to extract nutrients from the otherwise lousy soil. Wild blueberries have been surviving here for centuries, a vigorous conspiracy of nature.

As blueberries go, the wild variety ("lowbush") are the rock stars. The cultivated kind ("highbush") can be planted anywhere, and grow in huge fields in places like New Jersey and Michigan. You're as likely to find either topping your cereal. Sometimes you've got these big, fat berries bobbing in your milk, and other times you'll have tiny bold nuggets on your spoon. Do a taste test someday. The cultivated ones are watery and mealy compared to the tiny wild ones--intense bursts of candy-like fruit. Once you notice the difference, you will never buy the fat ones again.

The workers at the camp where Urbano and his sons slept raked for Cherryfield Foods, the largest blueberry producer in the state and widely regarded as fair and accommodating. Sixty-some people lived in the camp, at the end of a dirt road called Blueberry Circle, a deceptively quaint name for a place like this: a ramshackle settlement under a canopy of firs, laundry hanging from the trees, overturned buckets for chairs. Everyone said it wasn't half bad. First of all, it was free--if growers want the good rakers, they have to provide housing. There were two outdoor showers, two flush toilets, and electricity for lights, radios, TVs, anything you want. The cabins were plywood, weather-beaten and bowed, painted in cheerful, fading hues of red, green, gray, and brown, and fitted with bunk beds. If you got here too late to claim a bunk, you pitched a tent. The season starts whenever the blueberries decide, usually at the end of July, and lasts about four weeks.

This was a world apart from the citrus groves of Florida or the vegetable fields of Georgia and the Carolinas, where working conditions have made shocking headlines since the late '90s. Farmers in southern states have been prosecuted for modern-day slavery--holding migrant workers in debt and chaining them inside box trucks.

Maine, at least in recent years, has earned the opposite reputation. Farmers are known as honorable, and any migrant worth his callused hands found a way to get here for blueberry season.

Posted by at October 1, 2011 4:59 PM

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