Excerpts From State by State

From the Milpas of Mexico to the Cornfields of Iowa
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 9 2008 6:53 AM

Excerpts From State by State

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This is about the tortilla. This is about corn grown in Iowa. This is about the people who are in the campos of Iowa picking the vegetables and walking the cornfields. Those people are Mexican people. They are of the culture where hand-ground masa was first patted into tortillas and, because of that, it is said that the physical body of any Mexicano is at least half-corn. They are from the civilization that worshipped the corn plant as a god—in some regions, such as what became known as Guatemala, the God, the image of God—and they are from the soil and nation where this corn we all have learned to eat and to feed as grain for healthy livestock was first developed and harvested five thousand years ago. They are the people who now are driven here, because even corn, and the tortilla, is going up in price even more since the '90s NAFTA treaty, and subsidized corn in the United States is cheaper to import, while its demand increases its value to the corporate farmers in Mexico. Because corn has become an ethanol fuel industry, its hybrid grain is even more highly sought.

But in Mexico, the ordinary milpas—cornfields—are shrinking in size, and those people who traditionally worked them can't make enough to survive in their villages. So they are leaving, like animals in a drought, going to the big cities to find jobs, and they are crossing the border into the U.S. because that is where most jobs are. They come to Iowa because they will be hired and work in meat-packing plants cheaply, hard, and they work in the fields cheaply, and hard. And as they walk las milpas in Iowa to do as their culture has done for thousands of years, anti-immigration ideologues bash them for spoiling what they see as a field of dreams as clean and pure as Iowa butter, as nostalgic as baseball, as all-American as Kevin Costner.

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The men—H2A workers, meaning they have papers and are hired temporarily—arrived on buses from Monterrey, Mexico, last night, and this is their first full day here. Tom Bell is all movement, and even as he's on the phone he hands me the same cream gorra, hat, that he gives these men—it reads SYNGENTA across it, the international seed corporation—and a red bandanna with his own business name and its logo, a basket with three ears of shucked ripe corn standing tall. On the way to the fields in his red Chevy 4x4, he tells me he pays $500 for their round-trip, and he's hired around 450 workers from early July to early August. He pays $9.95 an hour, charges $11.20 a day for food. They work the cornfields, and also pick beans, cucumbers, watermelon—to name a few. Why not illegals? It's not worth the risk. Why not Americans? He can't find them.

We drive on a paved road behind and parallel to the highway, a neighborhood of what once were one- or two-bedrooom workers' homes, now squeezed in by two or three trailer homes mounted on cement foundations. We stop at what is like a compound, outside the kitchen-slash-mess hall add-on to a brick schoolhouse—a banner over the stoves and grills reads SUPER COCINA LOS AMIGOS. People are packing ice chests of lunches and counting how many meals go in each, getting the numbers right. As Tom sorts out a problem with the ice machine's outdoor run-off hose, I head over to a picnic bench where a group of men, young and older, are sitting. Beyond them, on an open field, a few men kick around a soccer ball. They all go eyes up and quiet once I'm close, like I bear bad news. Instead, I find out that they are all from Durango. Have they done this work before? Half of them say no. The one who seems the eldest, a straw hat, dark skin weathered, says he's done it most of his life. How did he find out about this, in Iowa? Just heard. But how, exactly? They look around at one another, nobody sure what to say. Do you hear about it ... like, maybe you would gossip? They laugh at that. One heard it from this one next to him, he's the one who told that one, thus. Isn't Durango a long trip from Monterrey? They all shrug, the questions making them self-conscious. You just took a bus there? They say yes and nod, are now smiling at me. They took a bus to Monterrey, they signed some papers, and a bus brought them here.

The school building is where Tom Bell went to elementary school. Now it's been converted into a bunkhouse for his workers—all men, only men. At the top of the first stairs in, there are old couches and a TV setup in the corner—a novela is playing—and then we pass through a small room, maybe fifteen or twenty bunk beds, all just built of fresh cut 2x4 and 2x6. Like a dad pleased by his son's expensive college graduation, Tom shows me how much he's transformed the school: Where we stand used to be above the gym floor, where you could watch a game, and down below was where the courts were. Down below now are maybe 100 more bunk beds, all occupied. Clothes are already hanging off them, a few have already washed underwear and socks and laid them out to dry on the head and footboards. In a far corner, another lounge area of old couches, a TV up high, that same novela. The showers are gym-like, the sink for hands and face and teeth and probably rinsing underwear is a room-length trough with a dozen or so faucets. The walls and ceilings show the new remodel, all the new studs exposed, sheathed by pressed-wood, low-grade ply. Windows are open. A fan is mounted up high to blow in more air. Iowa? Right now it looks and sounds and—the kitchen is right next to this big space—smells like it's Mexico.

Tom doesn't speak a word of Spanish. What does he think about all these people here? He loves these people and he's proud to do them right, he says. He owns a condo in Manzanillo. When all this gets done, in the winter, he and his wife relax there for a month. He loves it.

Becky is my ride to a cornfield being walked—it's known by a field number, the digits as natural and recognizable to them as a pet's name. Her blue pickup is loaded with iced sodas and a chest of lonches, and she wants to know why it has to be her who takes me and she isn't entirely joking. She's a big Iowa woman, a '60s grown-up, born and raised not far away, rooted to the driver's seat. Her tattoos barely visible under the browned sunburn of her fleshy upper arms, she also works biker gatherings and just retired from the clerical staff at the university. It's a few ranch roads to where we go, a route that crosses the rich Iowa River and leads to Muscatine. Talking about the men bunking in the school, she says she cannot imagine the raunch of it—sweat and dirty socks, snores, farts from those beans. Who'd be able to stand all of these men? she asks. Then again she might, she tells me after a pause, smiling dirty-minded.

We pull onto a dirt farm road where dust rises from behind like bad smoke rings and stop alongside the cornfield, near the rented yellow school bus that transports the workers. Tom's son is there to wave at us from his pickup—he's on the phone, as busy as his dad. It is lunch time, and men too short to be seen inside the tall corn jungle begin to emerge. No factory whistle, and it's not like a construction site either, where it's a certain hour and everyone stops everything. Mostly in pairs, the campesinos exit slowly, unrushed, from the world of zurcos, rows, bandannas under their hats to wrap their necks, bandannas and dark glasses masking their faces—a few have mosquito netting too—and long sleeved shirts and gloves covering their arms an hands. Each has a mochilla—a daybag or a plastic store bag to carry an extra shirt or rain poncho or some rubber boots and their own personal valuables—slung over their back or in hand. On their belts is a rubber clip for a soda bottle full of water. The gloves and bottle clip are gifts from Bell's Detasseling. They get their lonches from the ice chests—a caldo of pork, pineapple, and bell pepper, a fresh jalapeño, tortillas still warm in foil. A few men go inside to sit on the soft seats there. A few sit against a side of the bus, in a slant of shade. I go over to three who rest at the back, to the water igloo, taking their time before they eat.

I tell them how they all look like Sub-Comandante Marcos coming out from the jungle. After a moment to absorb my joke, they look at each other until they finally grin. They are from Monterrey, young, though one must be closer to thirty than the other two. None of them have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before now. Only one of them has worked in agriculture previously, but this isn't hard work except for the hours—though it isn't so hot yet, even with the long-sleeved shirts that they have to wear, the fields aren't too muddy, the mosquitos aren't too bad. Jobs are hard to find in Mexico. The youngest one talks about working in garages and restaurants. There is a lot of danger to do other things. The older one says how running movidas might seem good for a little bit, but it's not worth the trouble. This work is good for them, even if it's only a month. We are looking at the sky, more Hollywood than Iowa, the clouds too white, too flawlessly shaded gray to be believed, too beautiful. The older one asks about me and I tell them how I was born in Los Angeles and worked construction and now live in Texas. Even through their mirror glasses, I see their eyes go starry. I mention El Paso and the capital, Austin, and how in Dallas ... and how in Houston ... and it's as though I am speaking of mythical lands. I gesture to the east and tell them over there is where Chicago is, very close. The youngest one jokes how fast they could get there. The other two aren't even considering it, though the third, a quiet one, takes a couple of steps in that direction to see that much closer. This is good for now, the older says. It's what they have. After a pause, the younger one returns, sincerely, asi es la vida.

We drive to another field, more masked campesinos breaking through the corn jungle rows unexcitedly, unhurried, to take lunch. The conversations are muted. Music they like and don't, other places they've been. Muted, like they are far away. On this field the crew chief has them leave their mochilla at the beginning of each row until they come in for lunch, and all but three have been picked up. When most have finished eating, two of the stragglers appear and nod, pleased, about where to find the lunches. Twenty minutes later, the last one, Oscar, unmasked, finally comes out just as these other two go back to work. He's eighteen, maybe twenty-one, and unlike all the others I've seen so far he is overweight in that soft manner of a good boy from El Paso or San Antonio, playing too many video games, sitting in front of a TV with sodas, candies, Doritos. He is tired but also much more—lost, miserable, mom-sick—and he can barely speak, though he does: a thank you when he is told where he will find his lonche. When he is done eating—maybe he does take an entire half hour, but certainly no more than that—he ends his lunchbreak in the same self-absorbed, unself-conscious way he began, stepping back, like his feet hurt, to a line of zurcos where the others have been out of sight for some time already.

The rows of these milpas have been mowed earlier so that they are all of an even height. They are arranged so that one male plant from one seed will pollinate at least the two females, grown from a different seed, on either side of it, so that the layout is four rows of females, a male row, four female, a male, and so on. The leaves of the first male stalk are sprayed a Day-Glo orange—the men must know which it is because its aspigas, its tassles, are the only ones that must be left untouched: It is their pollen that will reach the female silks below that will grow the kernels on the cob, a new, third seed that will be harvested. Though corn carries with it both male and female parts, what the campesinos are doing is castrating the ones in the rows of four, yanking off their male parts. On a first pass, men pull this shaft out of its stalk, the one blooming an unpollinating tassle, from its node, effectively castrating the plant, leaving the cañajote beneath. The tassle pops out easily, a juiced, fleshy pop that sounds like cracking a knuckle, and is dropped onto the dirt of the zurco. After a second pass through, there is yet another pass, this one crosswise, made by a more seasoned chequeador, a checker, who looks for misses. Wrapped in the same leaf husk as the ripen female corn on the cob we know, peeled away it looks much like young rye or wheat, only deep green, and huskier. When left to bloom, the sun on it, the green becomes more golden, the yellowish pollen sticky, though not as sticky as the white female silks waiting beneath. The field has to be a 99.7 to 99.8 percent detasseled for the crop to germinate the exact corn seed that is hoped for.

Five thousand years of walking las milpas in Mexico, the descendents of those people are now in Iowa, walking the cornfields, attending to this cross-fertilization work considered spiritual way back then. Iowa's Mexicans are only a little more aware of corn's history than those in Iowa are. It's as though the migration of the Mexican deity itself has finally summoned its native worshippers to tend to it, populating the soil it grows in. I ask Becky: Ten, fifteen years ago it would have been high-school and college boys and girls from towns here. It was not only a summer ritual, but a good income for the summer. Now you have to hire as many as you can because only half stay with it. They are too hot. They are too sunburned. One doesn't want to work past 2 p.m., another says she can't. One wants to rest a day because he got too tired the day before. Or it's the weekend. Or it was just the weekend and now he wants to sleep in. One has to babysit on certain days, and then maybe the next just doesn't feel like showing up at all. And then there's the other, smaller issues. If someone's litter from lunch gets left behind, for instance, you ask one to pick it up. It's not mine, is the answer. Pick it up anyway. It's not mine. OK, but pick it up anyway. I didn't leave that. Just pick it up! There is no litter in these campos, and these mexicanos are always polite and they work until they are told it is time to stop. There are a lot more cornfields than there used to be, and there wouldn't be enough Iowa people around who could work the fields even if.

Dagoberto Gilb is the author of the novel The Flowers, as well as The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Woodcuts of Women, and Gritos.

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