– West Jefferson
I enter Lucio and Laura’s narrow galley kitchen from the back porch of their tiny gray cottage and inhale the tang of Mexican barbecue, more like the tomatoey Texas barbecue it inspired than the vinegar-laced pulled pork they serve in these parts. On the kitchen counter sits a gigantic vat of macaroni salad flecked with bits of ham, cheese, and pineapple. The beef barbecue and a soup-like consome, with more chunks of beef, simmer on the stovetop. Laura, friendly but always quiet around the gringo, is chopping onions and cilantro. In her late thirties and a mother of two, she’s a matronly woman, usually cooking, and just starting to show the roundness of Mexican middle age.
West Jefferson is the Christmas tree capital of the East Coast. Two blocks to the west, past the former Thomasville furniture factory they’re turning into retirement condos and boutiques, the downtown Arts District prepares for the start of the summer tourist season, still a month away. The northwest corner of the state is a region of hard-luck Appalachian lore with two things going for it: tourism and Christmas trees.
Sharing the same village block are Parson’s Farms & Supply, where scores of Christmas-tree growers buy their fertilizer, and Fraser’s, an upscale $18-a-plate bar and grill named for the North Carolina Fraser fir. This mountain conifer keeps its green for months, holds ornaments without bending, and gives off more pine scent than, well, pine. “The Cadillac of Christmas trees,” as it’s called here. Consumers from California to Florida to New Hampshire love the North Carolina Fraser fir to the tune of five million trees a year, or about $100 million in wholesale revenue. Mexican workers like Lucio make it happen.
I’ve just arrived from a Hispanic Baptist church service with Laura’s brother Israel, his wife Amanda, and their daughters, Darby, 10, and Daisy, 4. We’re the first guests at a birthday party for Lucio and Laura’s daughter Melissa, who is turning 6. With an authentic Mexican meal in the making, Amanda, ever the realist, orders two Domino’s pizzas for the kids. Lucio is still out picking up a cake made by a Mexican woman who lives 45 minutes away in the town of Independence, Virginia (the local paper is called The Declaration). I missed most of the church service playing Sunday morning soccer with Lucio on our Latino league team, Nayarit, named for the Mexican state on the Pacific Coast. Teenage brothers Paul and Diego grew up there. Now they’re the young studs on the team, but also the greenhorns at the large commercial Christmas-tree farm where Lucio and Israel work as crew leaders, supervising 15 workers year-round and more than 30 during the busy fall harvest. Most of the guys are from Tamaulipas, a Gulf Coast state bordering Texas. They’ve nicknamed Israel “Buca” because he’s a hick from Las Choapas in the southern state of Veracruz and drops the “S” when he pronounces the Spanish word “busca,” a versatile word that means something like “s/he goes looking for,” as in “he goes looking for trouble” or “she goes looking for shoes.” Lucio, they call Chucky Chooky, in Spanglish after the demented doll from the Child’s Play movies. I’ve never seen this side of him, but they describe a hot-headed manager who sometimes carries an 18-inch machete (for trimming trees, of course). I’ll soon take to calling him El Diablito.
With his pirate hoop earring and tough-guy buzz cut, Lucio likes to play little devil to Israel’s straight-laced angel, constantly bragging about his life in Las Choapas, where he conquered soccer leagues, road races, brazen street fighters and, his favorites, the sapos, “the pussies,” as he translates. He wants to drink me under the table, which won’t be difficult, or share some weed, or, when I go to Las Choapas with him and Israel in December, to take me to see his amiga, the lap dancer. It’s mostly bullshit, part of the macho mystique. Lucio is a family man with an overactive imagination.
We lost a close game to the waiters and cooks of Los Arcoiris, the Rainbows, who represented a local chain of Mexican restaurants of the same name. Lucio, our captain, had to break up a fight when an African-American college player from the Rainbows put the game out of reach at 5-3, then started taunting our gringo goalkeeper. After the game, Lucio phoned the panadera from the cab of his red Ford Ranger to find out when Melissa’s cake would be ready. His face fell.
The baker hadn’t started it because she’d lost power the night before and didn’t have the chilled butter she needed. She didn’t know if she could find a ride to the store to get more butter. Lucio imagined his firstborn daughter in tears on her birthday, thinking he just didn’t bother to order the cake. I suggested going to Wal-Mart, where they probably had one-size-fits-all birthday cakes just waiting for Melissa’s name in translucent frosting. Lucio said it had to be a Mexican-style pastel. This woman was the only person he knew who could make one, unless he drove 90 minutes to Winston-Salem, where he’d just gone for party supplies the day before.
After giving Laura the bad news, Lucio redialed the baker. She’d found a ride and could have the cake ready by early afternoon.
Waiting for the cake and the other guests to arrive, Melissa, Darby, and I talk about the movies they like to watch. Sailor Moon anime cartoons are Melissa’s favorites. At this particular moment, Darby likes a Barbie DVD called Fairy-topia about a band of fairies who have their friendship tested by an evil queen. Laura is fixing lunch for Israel and me –steaming bowls of beef consome topped with chopped cilantro, salsa verde, and freshly diced white onion, and a plate piled with macaroni salad and beef barbecue. We sit down to eat, and Israel asks if I think Mexicans eat a lot of meat, because his boss always teases him about it. I tell him yes, more than most people I know. We share a stack of soft, griddle-warmed tortillas, good for dipping in the broth and for sopping up the barbecue sauce. I have learned that Las Choapans rarely wrap anything inside a tortilla, except for grilled meat, still on the bone. They’ll take a pork chop or a chicken drumstick, and eat the flesh and the tortilla right off the bone. Mostly, they use tortillas like Italians use crusty bread, to push food onto a fork or soak up sauces.
About halfway through our lunch, Amanda returns with the pizza, and the kids start digging in. Melissa’s 18-month-old brother Gustavo holds a full-sized slice in his little hands and eats its face off, instead of biting the pointy end, so he gets mostly cheese. That seems alright with him and his uncle. After he finishes the cheese from the first piece, Israel gives him a second.
After lunch, we move across the room from the dining table to the living area in the front of the house. Israel goes outside with Gustavo, but Amanda shows me a video featuring concert footage, music videos, and interviews with Shakira, a popular Colombian singer whose father emigrated from the Middle East. Shakira is a belly-dancer, a showgirl with a sexy wardrobe she designs herself, and a talented musician. She writes pop/rock songs filled with sensuality and angst, much like the Canadian songstress Alanis Morrisette. Shakira sings in both Spanish and English, making her wildly popular with assimilated Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Melissa and her cousins are in and out of the house. Shakira seems a bit sensual for this crowd–maybe I’m just uncomfortable watching her with a bunch of girls–but to Amanda, her dancing is simply beautiful.
Shakira is finished. We put on a Steve Martin movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, with Spanish subtitles, and Lucio comes home with the cake. With him is Alejandro, the 18-year-old son of a longtime co-worker, Juan. The father and son live together in a two-bedroom cottage on a ridge outside West Jefferson, overlooking a steep field of the boss’s Christmas trees. I rented this house from the farmer one night while Juan and “Alex” were resting with their family in Mexico for the winter. Raw meat rotted in the refrigerator. I couldn’t open it for the smell. Dirty dishes remained in the sink. Hair and whiskers covered the bathroom sink and shower. Work clothes hung in the closets. Obviously, these erstwhile bachelors left in a hurry after loading the last tractor trailer bound for suburbia. With no social networks outside the farm, the single young men who fill most of the Christmas tree jobs, far from parents or wives, are fixtures at their co-workers’ family gatherings, even little girls’ birthday parties.
The cake is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. It’s a two-tiered layer cake, like a small wedding cake, with a bright pink ganache, lacy white accents on the edges and “Felicidades, Melissa” written across the top. There’s also a picture of a dark-haired, bronze-skinned Barbie, who looks like those washable tattoos that used to come in boxes of Cracker Jack. She must be some kind of edible decal, because she’s too detailed for someone to paint in just a couple of hours.
Before we get to the cake, all the adults gather around the swing-set in the backyard, which slopes down toward the porch like a miniature amphitheater. Darby, Daisy, and Melissa perform for the adults. They sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the alphabet song, and the theme from Sailor Moon–the stuff of little girls’ birthday parties from Maine to California. They chant schoolyard cheers, like the one about boys and their muscles, teachers and their brains, and girls with their sexy legs.
After the show, the kids beat on a Barbie-themed pinata. Their birthday hats fall off with every swing of the broomstick, except for little Gustavo’s. He gives it his best shot but can’t seem to get a good whack. Israel makes it hard on Darby, moving the rope fast and furiously. The kids are done, and a blindfolded Amanda, Israel’s wife, takes the stick. Israel puts a trash can where the pinata should have been, holds the pinata high out of her reach and yells “de bajo, de bajo” which means the pinata is down near the ground. Much to our delight, Amanda starts beating on the garbage pail.
I’m still full from lunch, but it’s time for the cake. The group sings all six verses of “Las Mananitas,” the traditional Mexican birthday song, full of blooming flowers, shining stars, flowing waters, and Christian saints. Then Darby and Daisy sing “Happy Birthday” in English. Melissa wants to eat Barbie’s face. Daisy wants her dress. As we start into the cake, more guests arrive.
The cake itself is heavy, smooth and semi-sweet, with a strong vanilla flavor and a layer of strawberry jam and coconut in the middle–a work of culinary art, not the yellow, spongy stuff we would have gotten at Wal-Mart. Actually, once I taste what Lucio was talking about, I feel kind of silly. I might as well have told him to buy his wife’s anniversary present from one of those vending machines that spits out plastic eggs.
If they were back in Las Choapas, Lucio tells me a few weeks later, he’d need several of these cakes and half a dozen pinatas for the huge crowd that would come to his daughter’s birthday party–randparents, siblings, cousins, and friends from all over the city. There is sadness in his voice. He and Laura never intended on immigrating to the United States.
In 1997, after more than three years in North Carolina, Israel returned to Las Choapas for the first time. Hearing her brother’s stories of plentiful work and a growing Mexican community in Ashe County, Laura was tempted to go with him. Even though they were struggling to live on $30 a week from his carpentry job, her husband Lucio wouldn’t budge until it seemed absolutely necessary. As the family explained, that happened the night before Israel was scheduled to leave.
On that evening, Israel and Laura’s aunt was walking across a vacant lot to a neighbor’s house when she saw a group of men crouched in a stand of trees. She ran back to the house, screaming. Lucio grabbed his .22-caliber handgun and raced outside. He fired several warning shots into the air before he realized the men were police officers. They were staking out the neighbor, a criminal businesswoman who smuggled foreigners from all over the world through Mexico and into the United States.
Lucio ran back into the house, trembling in fear. The police knocked on the door and asked about the shots. Israel’s grandmother told them it was just some neighbors shooting holiday fireworks. The officers left, but Lucio was petrified. Mexico is known for its crooked cops. Would he be arrested, blackmailed, or beaten? He didn’t know. But he wasn’t sticking around to find out. Lucio was afraid for his life, and Laura was afraid to let her little brother travel to the border alone. The couple rode with Israel to Matamoros, opposite Brownsville, Texas, half expecting to be back in Las Choapas within a week.
They languished at the border for two weeks, stood up by one coyote then ignored by another for days while Lucio and Laura slept on another coyote’s couch and Israel made a bed in the cab of a junk pickup in the driveway, just yards away from the street, where gunshots split the night. They finally contacted Chico, a drug-running kingpin who dealt with Israel’s other brother-in-law, Marcos. Chico put some pressure on the coyote, and for good measure Lucio claimed to be a brujo, a witch, and threatened to curse his house. The coyote prepared to leave, but Laura could never be sure Israel would be safe on the road, and Lucio could never be sure he’d be safe back home. The smuggler wanted $1,000 per person for the trip to Sinton, Texas, where Israel had left his Nissan sedan with a friend. They had only $1,000 Marcos had loaned them. Israel flashed his fake green card and talked the smuggler down to $600 just for traveling with his sister and brother-in-law. Israel called Amanda and said he needed $2,000 for Lucio and Laura and she had to find it. Amanda told Israel’s boss that Lucio was coming to work for him, but the boss had already given Israel $500 for the trip to Mexico and didn’t want to risk more. Amanda went to their good friends Carmen and Geronimo and asked to borrow the money. They loaned her $2,000, and she wired it to Israel.
When Geronimo’s money arrived, Israel paid the coyote $1,200 and promised the rest once they got to Sinton. Late one January night, they waded across the Rio Grande, walked for almost an hour, and, with their clothes still sopping wet, they piled into some junk cars to wait for the coyote’s driver. They were just outside McAllen, Texas. A beeping horn rustled them out of hiding, and they were on their way north. Forty-five minutes later, the driver dropped them off. A guide would lead them around the checkpoint to a meeting place about 20 miles north. “God help you,” the driver told them.
They walked through a starless night, following the trail of some high-tension wires and aiming for the red-blinking light of a communications tower that lay near their destination. Each of the men carried two gallons of water, and a backpack filled with canned tuna fish, sardines, and Vienna sausage. In the morning, they lay low in the shade of a tree, but when they awoke that afternoon, they realized they were within 40 feet of a roadway. They tried to eat quickly and move on, but a van soon stopped on the road, and an immigration agent stepped out. He examined the path beneath the power lines for footprints and appeared to look directly at them. But he didn’t approach. He just got back in his van and drove away.
Walking that night, the group encountered herds of deer and porcupines, heard wild dogs howling, guns firing, and alligators splashing in the swampy terrain. They were supposed to have reached the rendezvous by now, but they were lost. Israel’s knees were sore, and he was too tired to carry the food and water any longer. He wanted to abandon some of it, but, despite vowing never to eat Vienna sausage again, Lucio insisted on carrying three gallons of water and two bags of food by himself. They trudged on. At one point, spooked by an ambulance siren, Laura took off running and flung herself over a barbed-wire fence. Lucio threw the food and water over the fence; then he, Israel, and the guide followed. They all landed in a cactus and had to pick needles out of each others’ backs. They finally succumbed to exhaustion and slept in a field.
The next day, they came upon a group of about 80 men sneaking through southwest Texas like them. Israel had lost faith in his guide, and the leader of the large group tried to pry them away, but Laura felt safer in their small band. She and Lucio were afraid that someone among so many men might try to assault or kidnap her, as sometimes happens in the desperate borderlands.
They gave the men their food and water and kept walking. Fortunately, they were within a few hours of the meeting place, a convenience store on the highway north of the immigration checkpoint. Early the next morning, they reached a wooded area across from the gas station. They waited all day, but the driver never showed up. The guide telephoned him, and it turned out he’d led them to the wrong store.
Night came, and it was the coldest yet. The coyote wouldn’t come until the next day. They couldn’t take the winter chill anymore, so the four of them ran across the highway and asked the service station clerk if they could sleep somewhere in the building. They kicked away shards of broken glass, lay down shoulder to shoulder on a wet, dirty bathroom floor and dozed off. Suddenly, a sound like a helicopter ripped through the bathroom door and rattled off the tile walls. They sprang to their feet, ready to run. But it was just a motorist filling his tires at a coin-op air compressor.
At first light, the coyote’s driver came with a partner and an extra car. He told Israel to drive one of the cars and follow them to Sinton. There, Israel’s friend met them at a hotel, took them back to his house for four hours of sleep, gave them food and clothing, and sent them on their way in Israel’s Nissan. To throw off suspicion, Laura rode in the front seat with her feet on the dashboard, like an American.
And so they find themselves in the Blue Ridge Mountains, acting like Americans, feeding their kids pizza, watching movies in English, and downloading music off the Internet. But Laura has never adjusted to life here like Israel, Amanda, and even Lucio have. The men speak English on the job, translating between the boss and the crew. Amanda is a volunteer interpreter for local health-care providers and works full-time at a local Southern-style restaurant, building a life in North Carolina for the long term. Laura speaks strictly Spanish, does house-work like a traditional Mexican wife, and dreams of going back to Las Choapas. In fact, Israel caused a temporary rift with his brother-and-law when he taught Laura how to drive a car. Lucio says Laura doesn’t work because they don’t want to pass a fake Social Security number, as most recent Mexican immigrants are forced to do, but I think he takes some pride in being the sole breadwinner, an act of subversive Mexican machismo in Middle America. Besides, if Laura went to work with her sister-in-law, she’d have to learn to make barbecue with vinegar. And the kids would still want pizza.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He spent a year examining the lives of immigrant Christmas-tree workers thanks to a generous grant from the Phillips Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath