After the three kids in Newark who were shot and killed by alleged illegal immigrants and immigration being the new hot topic in political campaigns—it has got me to reminiscing about my taste of plantation life.
I was raised in Washington State in my early childhood and grew up incredibly poor. Lawd, we was po' and at our very poorest, which was usually the end of the month, we would catch this savage, dirty, baby blue bus at four o'clock in the morning to a berry plantation. Yes, berry picking on plantations, similar to picking cotton. It was horrendous...my mother could never find a babysitter at four in the morning so I had to go with her, always in the summer and normally on the weekends.
The berry plantations were filled with some poor whites, a few Native Americans, but overwhelmingly Mexican—the lowest class of people in Washington State. Many of the Mexicans were illegal immigrants and many of the poor whites were those on welfare. Berry plantations were one of the only places they could find a job under the table, which was paramount for the illegal Mexicans and poor whites (for those who didn't grew up below the poverty line—every dime you make on welfare you have to report, therefore, it's even more challenging to get off the system because they take the gross amount out of your check each month).
Berry picking was basically slave labor…exhausting work for pennies.
We would begin bright and Jim Crow early on a hellish, dusty bus ride to some deserted plantation that could've been the location for Roots. There was a never-ending field with rows and rows of berry patches surrounded by what looked like a fortress of thorns and leaves on each berry patch. Oh yes, you had to work to get those berries. God forbid you smashed one—that is a half a penny in the dirt!
We had to pick as many berries as possible, filling up each massive crate; one crate would literally take about an hour and a half to fill. For each crate we would earn something to the effect of $5.00, which was pretty good for the early '80's—you could get some milk, butter and bread for your government cheese and still have change left over! However, if you ate their scraps for lunch (my mother always managed to bring some type of lunch) they would dock that out of your pay. Some of the people would get their first meal of the day during lunch on the berry plantations.
Who are the people who owned the berry plantations? Take a wild guess...rich white men, stomping around the plantation making sure the poor folk were working for their pay.
Digging our hands into the berry patches we would encounter thorns, freakish bugs, rough leaves and the stench of fertilizer. The sun was always blazing and you couldn't wear shorts or short sleeves shirts because the bugs would eat your raw skin.
To ease the pain, sometimes we would break out into song as we were picking! No, it wasn't a Negro spiritual, but it would be something strange like a Christmas jingle, I guess to take us out of the heat and hellish environment.
I would pick and pick with my mom telling me I could take a rest at anytime. Nonetheless, the deal was any parent who brought kids (there were tons of kids!) had to WORK...yes, this wasn't a daycare so even the children had to earn their "wage". My little hands would get pricked by the thorns, bugs flying under my shirt, the hot sun beaming on my brown face...by noon, and nearly delirious, I would basically pass out in the dirt.
Whenever I think of immigration I think of the Mexicans I met on those berry plantations. Doing the work that people in Washington State would only do in their worst nightmare and enduring the terrible treatment from the plantation "owners". No matter how poor some whites were, and even some blacks, they would never do "that" type of labor. So the argument against immigration is always odd to me, similar to how many whites in the antebellum South thought that if slaves had freedom it would take away their jobs…black men are still below the poverty line.
Whenever I hear the word “immigration” my small taste of plantation life pops to mind. Also, WHENEVER I see a raspberry (for some reason not strawberries or blueberries) I instantly think of standing in the heat, struggling to help my mom fill her crate up with berries so we could earn our five dollars.
Labels: Politics, STORYTELLING