Hard Harvest

Picking New Mexico's green chile is no picnic

The first workers start getting up a little past midnight to prepare for another day in "el field."

About 100 men sleep on the floor of the rooms and hallways in the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project shelter in El Paso.

The place is crowded and smells of stale sweat and onions, one of the crops they’ve been harvesting. Two or three women sleep in a small alcove off the reception area, sharing their cramped space with a water fountain. Most people sleep on a thin mat or a blanket spread out on the linoleum, spending the night in the clothes they worked in the day before.

All through the early morning, workers awaken, quietly stow their bedding and possessions, and get ready to go again. They fill their water bottles, stuff some food in their backpacks and head out. Then they walk the six blocks to El Paso Street and wait for a ride to the chile fields of New Mexico.

Last season, just under 78,000 tons of chile were harvested in New Mexico, with about three quarters of that coming from Luna and Doña Ana counties near the southwestern bootheel. While the annual pepper harvest is worth $65 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the real economic impact is much greater.

When chile is sold in stores, used in restaurants or added to salsas, its value multiplies, and the amount of money it generates—called the value added number—far outstrips the $400 million for local businesses, according to the New Mexico Chile Association.

The value of New Mexico’s chile also goes beyond the money it generates. Shelter founder Carlos Marentes calls it the state’s “sacred cow,” and that’s not an overstatement. Residents say you can always tell a native New Mexican because they have one entire freezer dedicated to storing chiles. As soon as the harvest begins, people line up at roasters in parking lots outside of supermarkets and at farmers markets all around the state; families and friends gather for hours-long sessions of peeling and packaging; and it seems like every city and town has at least one chile festival.

And now, green chile’s fame has spread well beyond New Mexico. Jaye Hawkins, executive director of the NMCA, says fresh green chiles are shipped to the nearby states of Texas and Arizona, and at least as far away as Oregon. They’re found in salsas sold in Albertsons, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, among others, across the US. In fact, a recent USA Today “10 Best” survey found that New Mexico’s green chile sauce (that’s what they called it) is America’s No. 1 iconic food. Yet despite the money and accolades it generates, little trickles down to the workers who pick it.

Marentes, along with his wife Alicia, founded Sin Fronteras in the early 1980s.

“The main purpose is to support farm workers,” he tells SFR. “We provide services from filling out forms, referrals to health care…[it’s] used as a shelter; we have a kitchen, and workers can take a shower.”

The shelter happened in response to a conversation Marentes had with a farmworker many years ago. Now 62, Marentes is a thin man with a quiet voice and gentle manner who’s been fighting for farmworker rights for over three decades.

“It was one night in 1984,” he remembers. “It was really cold, and we were trying to convince workers to strike against this one specific farm. One worker sleeping on the sidewalk said, ‘It would be a good idea to have a union…contracts…but would it not be better if we had a place to spend the night? Here we are in the streets; it’s inhumane.’”

It took a little over 10 years, but Sin Fronteras finally opened its center and shelter in February 1995. At the peak of the chile harvest,   it can house up to 125 people, with a few dozen more sleeping on cardboard outside the building.

It would be generous to describe the shelter as bare bones. The men’s room has one functioning urinal; the other’s been broken for a couple of months. It’s hot and stuffy at night, and there’s no privacy. But people staying there feel they have little choice.

“It’s hard to sleep on the floor, but [we don’t earn] enough money for an apartment,” says Isidro Mancha, a big man who’s been staying at the shelter on and off for about 10 years. “If you have an apartment, you’re not gonna be able to eat.”

Sleeping at the shelter is free, and its daily lunch and dinner meals cost only $4 each.

“If there was no shelter, I would probably sleep in the streets on cardboard,” says José Luís Terrazas, a 62-year-old chile picker who’s been working in the fields for about 40 years.

In the pre-dawn darkness, El Paso Street is lined with dozens of men and women looking for work.

They come from the shelter, from other parts of El Paso and even from Ciudad Juárez, crossing the bridge into the US every day. Alicia Marentes says about 10 percent of the workers are US citizens, and 90 percent are from Mexico, chiefly from the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. Virtually all of them, she says, have legal residency.

Workers often buy a burrito or two from an early-morning stand or a pastry from the Blue Seal Bakery, which sells Mexican treats a half block away. Then they sit on a curb or lean against a building, backpacks slung over their shoulder, and wait—sometimes for two or three hours.

“I need to arrive early so I have a chance to work,” Terrazas says. “It is possible if you arrive late, you will not be able to work.”

It’s a life of uncertainty. “You never know who you’re gonna work for,” Mancha, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, says. “Every day, it’s a different contratista (labor contractor), a different farm.”

Those lucky enough to be chosen for a day's work in the chile fields pile onto a bus or van.

Buses are free and provided by the farmer, but if a worker has to take a van, a ride will cost between $5 and $8. If they’re going to farms in or around Hatch, workers face a 95-mile ride that takes a little over two hours by bus. They arrive just past 5 am, and sit in the bus until it’s light enough to begin picking. In late July, that’s around 6 am.

As day begins to break, workers file out of the bus and stand at the head of a row of chiles, large gray buckets by their sides. The air is lightly scented with the smell of the chiles. Workers are paid a piece rate of between 65 cents and 80 cents a bucket, depending on the farm. The fastest picker in the crew fills a bucket in three minutes and may repeat this 100 times on a good day. That means workers have no time to lose. They’re anxious to get started. There’s been a lot of waiting, but once they begin working, it’s non-stop movement.

Chile plants are low bushes, so workers kneel in the dirt to harvest the shiny peppers, pushing the bucket ahead of them. “Sometimes, it is so wet [in the fields] that you get very dirty,” Erik Rubio, a 24-year-old worker, says. “You feel like a pig.”

After just a few minutes, most workers’ clothing is soaked from moisture that sits on the plants from either dew or the previous night’s rain. Because they’re paid for how much they pick, workers move quickly.

“You wanna make money, you gotta move your fingers quick,” says José Valentes, who at age 65 still smiles in spite of the work.

The majority of chile workers, as in almost all agriculture, are men.

The most recent statistics reveal that about 20 percent of agricultural workers in the US are women, however, and that seems to bear out in New Mexico’s chile fields. On a recent visit, the youngest workers were two girls, Analisa and Sara, who said they were  15 and 16 respectively, but who look much younger.  Maria Dolores, one of the older workers in the field, picked in tandem with her daughter, Sara. The two stayed at the shelter during the week and went home to Juárez on the weekend. When Maria Dolores’ bucket was full, Sara would stop picking and carry it to the crate. They each hoped to pick 50 buckets that day.

According to the farm owner (who asked not to be identified), a full bucket of chile weighs 20 pounds. Workers lift it to their shoulder and hurry to a large crate, sometimes carrying two buckets at a time. In the early morning, some workers jog to the crate where they’ll hand over their chiles. Each time they deliver a bucket, they receive a small plastic token and return to their place in the field. Even in the cool of the early morning, sweat quickly begins to stain their clothing.

The pace slows as the day progresses and the temperature heats up. “At end of day, you’re tired and you just wanna go home and rest,” Santiago, a worker from Rincón, says. “Your back, your knees hurt. It’s just another day in the fields, and you work another day tomorrow.”

Work usually ends about 1 pm. “Your back gives out by then,” the farm owner says. “Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t work. It’s not even worth trying.”

Workers slowly walk back to the bus toting their empty buckets. Their clothes are covered in dirt and sweat, their fingers caked in soil and tinted a light green from the chiles they’ve picked. They count their tokens and climb back on the bus for the short ride to where the contratista waits in his van under the shade of a large tree. Nearby, a woman sells sodas, water and burritos from the back of her pickup truck. Workers wait under the tree for their name to be called; they’re paid in cash and usually every day. In spite of the rigors of the work, there’s a lot of laughter and good-natured teasing.

Guillermo, the fastest of the workers, managed to fill 90 buckets that day, for a gross pay of $72. It’s not a bad day’s wage for him, but most workers picked far less. Most were like Raúl, who picked 52 buckets, netting $38.42 for a little over six hours of work, or just over $6.40 an hour.

Certainly, no one’s earning a living wage, especially when other expenses are accounted for. “If you can pick 70, 80 buckets, that’s good,” Mancha says. “I can pick about 70 in a seven-hour shift. Let’s say you pay $6, $7 for a ride. You take a burrito from [the shelter] or you buy some burritos, that’s another $3; Coke is $1. After all that, you might come home with $20, $30.”

Most of the workers at Sin Fronteras work on other farms and travel to other states to harvest crops: potatoes in Colorado or Nebraska, tomatoes in Arizona—some travel as far as Florida to harvest oranges. Before the chile harvest begins, many harvest onions or prepare the chile fields in New Mexico. Weeding and thinning chile plants pays an hourly wage, and New Mexico’s agriculture industry is exempt from paying the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. Instead, they’re supposed to pay the federal minimum of $7.25 and workers are doing no better than if they were getting paid the piece-rate. “For an eight-hour day, [your net is] $53,” Adrián Ramirez says. After calculating how much he spends on the van ride, food and sodas, he figures he ends up with $27 or $28. “And almost all of that I send to Mexico,” he says.

Farm work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US, and people involved in crop production are the most at risk for accidents and fatalities.

According to statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, farm work ranks as the fifth most dangerous job in the country, virtually tied with roofing. Farm work is also one of the lowest paying jobs in the country. A recent National Agricultural Workers Survey reported that the average income for an individual farmworker is between $10,000 and $12,499, and for families it’s between $15,000 and $17,499.

New Mexico’s 20,000 farmworkers, especially those working in the fields of southern New Mexico fare even worse. According to the Border Agricultural Workers Project, chile pickers typically earn less than $6,000 a year.

Although the chiles they pick are highly esteemed by New Mexicans and chile aficionados nationwide, workers know that they themselves often are not.

“They think we’re like Pancho Villa and will attack them,” says Armado Martínez, a dapper 65-year-old worker with silver hair and a well-trimmed moustache. “They think we are bad people, but we make all the harvests. If there were no Mexicans, they would lose all their vegetables. We do all the harvests in the US, but still, they do not want Mexicans here.”

They also know how necessary their work is. “You want peppers for your dinner, you go to the store, it’s easy,” Eduardo Martínez says. “But in the fields, it’s hard. To pick chiles is work of a hard man, a strong man. What would happen if one day, we say, ‘We no pick chiles.’ What would happen? What would happen in the stores, to the rich people?”

Although it’s highly unlikely that New Mexico-grown chiles will ever disappear from stores due to workers’ action, growers are facing stiff competition from Mexico and China, where chiles are cheaper to produce. Although costs vary from farm to farm, one farmer here estimates that labor alone accounts for 40 percent of his expenses. In Mexico, most farm workers earn just a few dollars a day.

The total number of acres devoted to chile in New Mexico has decreased from a high of 30,600 planted in 1997 to 9,900 planted in 2012, although the number of acres has increased slightly the last couple of years. The yield per acre has also increased, offsetting some of the loss from fewer acres being planted. Farmers point to a labor shortage as one of the main factors putting their industry at risk, but Marentes points out that it’s more a case of “labor instability.” There are plenty of people who are willing to do this work—millions of them, in fact—but the US seems unable to figure out a fair immigration or guest-worker program. Many farmers are hoping mechanization will solve the labor problem, and drive down their costs, but mechanization means even fewer jobs for workers who don’t have many options.

Life is unlikely to change for the majority of farmworkers. They say they have few dreams remaining. “My dream? No,” Eduardo Martínez says. “My children? Yes. To have a dream that my children have something more—that they don’t have to work in the fields, that they have something better. That’s why we work.”

Farm work is difficult and demanding, but there aren’t a lot of other choices for these workers. “I’ve applied in stores, to other jobs,” Susanna Lopez says. “No one has called. They require more education, and I’ve only been through elementary school.” When asked how it’s possible to get up at 1 am, day after day, to work in the fields, she says, “One thinks of one’s family.”

“My parents can’t work, my daughter is 6 years old and they all need me. I have to feed them and provide for them. That gives me the courage to endure the heat and all the rest.” When there’s no work in the fields—and there was a stretch of 15 days in July when she didn’t work either because it rained and the fields were too wet or other workers were selected—she goes door-to-door, asking to clean houses or yards. She says she’s lucky to earn $15 or $20 after cleaning a house for five hours. Sometimes, she’ll buy things at a dollar store or go to a local mission to collect free clothing, and then sell what she has in Juárez. “I do whatever I can so I can eat today,” she says.

One morning in late July, Susanna Lopez and her nephew Omar Angeles awoke just an hour after midnight and headed to El Paso Street where they waited patiently for the contratista to show up.

Lopez is a big, gregarious woman who’s worked in the fields for six years. It was to be Angeles’ first day working, and he was anxious to make some money. The 14-year-old lives in Juárez, but is a US citizen who was born in El Paso. Like many farmworkers, he has little education, attending school in Mexico only through the sixth grade.

“School costs 800 pesos (somewhere around $60) a year,” he says, “and that is too much for my family.” His father’s factory job doesn’t pay enough to support his family of six, so Angeles helps him earn money. He worked for a time making doors and windows in Juárez. It didn’t pay much, but he believed the heavy labor prepared him for field work. So he came to the US to join his aunt in the fields. His only dream, he says, “is to help my father economically.” When asked how much he thought he’d earn in a day picking chiles, Angeles says, “One hundred dollars.” Lopez smiles slightly and shakes her head. Not likely.

The pair took their places on a curb and began the wait. At 3:30 am, after waiting for two hours, Lopez says, “There is no work today.” She’s learned to take it in stride. “Before it made me mad,” she says. “I would yell, curse. But it does not help to get mad, to say bad words. It does not earn anything to curse. Now, I just say, ‘Thank God for this day.’”

They walk back to the shelter, and when they reach it, Omar stops and kneels down. He’s spotted some coins on the sidewalk—undoubtedly they’d fallen out of the pocket of someone who had been sleeping there—and he quickly scoops them up, checking under the nearby cardboard for more. He opens his hand, revealing about a dollar’s worth of change. At least the day isn’t a complete waste for him.

When there’s no work, there’s nowhere to go and nothing for workers to do. Some will wait on El Paso or Oregon Street, hoping someone needing workers will swing by. Many staying at the shelter head back there and wait for it to re-open for the night. On any given day, a number of workers can be found outside the shelter, sitting on ledges or resting on cardboard spread over the sidewalk or on the little patch of grass in front of the entrance. There, they’ll wait until the next day, when they hope they’ll get another chance to work in the fields.

There’s surprisingly little anger and resentment among the workers, even though they’re aware just how little they’re valued by the people who consume the food they harvest. One worker sums it up best. I sit in front of the shelter when he approaches me. He stands silently next to me for several minutes, a tall, good-looking man who appears to be in his mid-40s. Finally, I ask his name. He turns slightly from me, and in accented English he says, “My name is Nobody.”

Some names have been changed at the worker's request.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.