Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Church & Winetasting

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I felt pretty overwhelmed about the conversation of immigration – its complexity, the difficulty of building consensus, the prospects of reform… Those most affected – the workers – are in positions that are so demanding that they are worked until they can’t engage, and that is in addition to the experiences that have “taught” them no one will listen to their experiences. As I continue to explain to people what it is that I am doing – and try to do so in a compelling way – I continue to struggle to come up with my “elevator speech.” As I said before, it is different depending on who I am speaking to – workers in the field, growers, newspaper or radio people (and then it also depends on the audience they write for and who they themselves are, especially immigrant or not).

Language has also been interesting in this community that so clearly distinguishes between “migrants” and “immigrants.” They are two very different stages, but there doesn’t seem to be language that reflects their shared fate. The true “migrants” – at least in the minds of many – are not as present. Are they just hidden? How can the growers or the regular public even tell? The “migrants” no longer come in large covered trucks and follow the crops along the coast, and they likely try to blend in.

This morning I went to early service (8:15 a.m.) at one of the local Lutheran churches and to Spanish mass at the Catholic church in Zilah at 10:30 a.m. – two different worlds. The two churches shared a similar order of liturgy and the same set of readings, but embodied two worlds apart. Dawit, Meheret and only one more kid were at the early service’s children’s sermon. The majority of the congregation was clearly of retirement age and only a few were younger. It was the early service, so I don’t know what attendance looks like at other services, but it was pretty thin. (Later I heard from someone that the early service was the main service.) Then at the Catholic church, the place was packed, and the average age was somewhere around 30. Tons of kids! In fact, the main focus of the sermon was about keeping them quiet so we can listen to God’s Word… The second reading from Ephesians 2 started by saying that, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Yet the sermon didn’t at all connect with the daily lives of the people who were listening…

Yesterday (Saturday), we went on a wine tasting tour, and even there I kept up the conversation about immigration – with a newspaper person in the Tri-City area, a farmer turned winemaker and a migrant worker also turned winemaker. The guy at McKenley Springs, the first winery we visited, was very open and conversational. He farms some 60,000 acres with his extended family. Only about 5% of that (3,000 acres) is in grapes. Like others I spoke with, he started planting vines in the early 1980’s. “Like most everybody,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing, and we just grew too many grapes on the vine. I’m a farmer; it’s all about producing more.” Over time, he indicated, they have been learning. Their first vintage was not until 2000. What an amazing crop! It demands long-term commitment and planning. In a way, the contrast between these long-standing family farms and the needed transient labor is puzzling. The contrast between that ever-present image of migration and the huge labor needs… The woman from the paper in Tri-State seem to indicate about 50,000 people are needed in the valley for the harvest. Then the statement in the Herald’s paper that was just appalling. In the opinion page, the writer ended by quoting – mis-quoting I think – Senator Shumer as saying that “We need engineers, not low skill labor.” Showing agreement with a comment like that in this valley seems either ignorant or willfully insulting. Will anyone respond or just let it stand?

Contemplating fruit crops & labor markets in Washington State's Yakima Valley

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So much happens each day, it is hard to keep up with writing. I need to come up with a daily pattern for my days, so that the sabbatical “works.” I really need a sabbatical routine that includes time for study, reflection and rest. A rather contrary need is also to let go. To let go of my own anxieties and needs to perform, and to know that this will be a time where I do what I can – and may not be able to do all that I want.

Moving in
First there are the on-going, needed basics. Finding a barber. Figuring out the grocery stores, including the discount “club” card, and restocking on groceries, as we don’t have everything that is on our shelves at home. Schedule at the pool. Adjusting to the higher prices and working out a budget. Finding the right pots, pans, dishes and utensils, and adjusting to other aspects of a new place to live. Our arrival has been significantly cushioned by those who have welcomed us here – folks at La Casa Hogar who have helped to make so many arrangements, Bill and Betty who have graciously let us walk into their house – with no more instructions than the code for the alarm system!

What is this transition like for those who come without the language? Who live in fear because of their immigration status? Who come without resources? Doña Maria, 9 months pregnant and left in California with $2 in her pocket… It reminded me of my mom’s own feelings early on when she came to visit and felt trapped in our apartment… I haven’t even been able to find work picking yet. I have followed up on contacts that I know and certainly have approached it differently because my subsistence doesn’t depend on it. Still, after three days here, I am not all that clear about how the labor market works. I have become more aware of the complexities and unreliability of available work.

The best fruit growing land in the world

I spoke with Mr. Ingham the other night, a local small cherry grower who I was told may have some work available. He is about to do two additional days of picking starting today (Wednesday). He depends primarily on a single family that has worked for him for quite some time (the oldest of the siblings in the family began working for him just over 10 years ago in 1998). He was kind enough to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with me talking about the process. He talked about the fact that this section of the country (the “inside” part of the West Coast of the U.S.) is the best place in the world to raise certain fruit crops – particularly, of course, apples, cherries and grapes. The dry air prevents disease, the stable temperatures and plenty of sun aid the growth, water is readily available, etc. The northern part of the region—Oregon and Washington—is particularly appropriate for “deciduous” trees that must “rest” for part of the year in order to be able to produce each season. When I suggested that some apple crops are moving south to places like Mexico, he balked at the idea, saying that areas to the south cannot produce the same quantity and quality of fruit because of the lack of a seasonal change. “Even in parts of southern California, they have to chemically “slap” the trees to sleep for part of the year, because it stays too warm. The advantage for them on cherries is that they will have an earlier crop, so it doesn’t matter as much that the fruit is not the same quality.” He went on to say that in the Midwest—places like Michigan—they face a different problem with too much rain, resulting in a number of diseases on the trees.

Until I went to Holden Village for the first time about six years ago, I really didn’t realize how large the Hispanic population was in this area. The fact that this region is so well suited to growing fruit has everything to do with it. As highlighted in a presentation at a congressional hearing a few months back, which was looking at the possibility and need for immigration reform, Congresswoman Feinstein (I believe) pointed out that the U.S. is loosing much of its fruit and vegetable production because they require such high manual labor. Unlike crops that have become common in much of the country – like corn and soy beans – the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables cannot be so fully mechanized. They require lots of manual labor. As farmers struggle to find or afford the necessary labor, they either turn to more mechanized crops—and try to compete in an ever increasingly competitive market, needing to become larger and larger—or they simply turn to other professions.

A complex labor market
I am really interested in understanding more about how people make the decision to migrate, but also about the “demand” side. How does the labor market in an area like this one here in Yakima work? Some elements were revealed in my conversation with one of the growers here in this area. When I asked him about the need for migrant labor, he made a distinction between the “locals” and the “migrants.” He defined migrants as those—an increasingly shrinking pool—who actually migrate with the season and are here in the valley only temporarily. He talked about them as the H2H group, referring to the immigration visa designation for temporary farm workers. That number of visas is minute compared to the need, of course, so in that group I am assuming are many who are here without any documentation, but who still move with the crops. His sense is that as one moves away from the larger towns and cities, the need for that kind of labor is greater. His own farm is right in town here in Yakima, so he feels he has plenty of “local” labor. By local he means people who have settled into the area. Interestingly, he makes no distinctions about their immigration status, and is either unaware or it doesn’t really matter to him. He seems to prefer working with the same people year after year, and through various stages of the process. In fact, he expressed frustration—even anger—at the fact that some of these “locals” can get ideas and play growers one against the other for wages. “They have no loyalty,” he said with disgust in his voice when I interpreted this as a normal process as people became more aware of options and tried to exercise some bargaining power.

Then there is the fickleness of the crops. As I have been trying to find work here this week, a variety of factors limit opportunities. When I called last week, for example, I was told the “packing” warehouses, who purchase the crop in bulk and package it for distribution, were not taking product.  “The pipeline filled up,” said one of the growers. It has been a plentiful crop in some of the cherry varieties (Right now it is cherries that are being harvested.). The trouble is that many of the cherries are smaller. Cherries are traditionally measured by how many of them fill a row in a standard carton that they are sold on—the most desirable seems to be “9 row cherries.” That means the cherries are large enough that nine of them fill a row. The current crop produced a lot of cherries, but they tended to be smaller. In the case of the person I was talking to, he has ended up with a lot of 11 and 11 ½ row cherries, which are not as easy to sell and the market seems to be full right now. “It depends on what the market will bear,” said the grower, who like farmers in all other crops around the country are everything from engineers to mechanics to economists in order to get their product to market in an increasingly complicated economy. Of course, they don’t have much wiggle room in participating in this technologically advanced economy, when the fruit still grows on very “traditional,” nature bound trees! Cherries in particular have a very small window. When they are ready, they are ready and must be harvested. If you wait too long, they over ripen and don’t last well when packed. “People will remember a bad cherry,” he said indicating the high expectations consumers have and the little understanding for the vagaries of producing that perfect cherry.

In season and out of season
In the middle of all this are migrant workers, who must quickly learn about these things and figure out a way to make a living in a very unreliable labor market. During the cherry season, the one family that works for the grower I spoke with can make upwards of $20 to $25 an hour because they are experienced pickers. They will work starting at 5:00 a.m. (the cooler part of the day) and must pick for as long as possible. If the day is cool, that could mean going quite late and having a 12-hour day. If it is hot, however, they must stop before the fruit holds so much heat that it will be damaged when packed. So a more “traditional” day runs from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. What happens in the off-season? I know in places like Florida, some farm workers – like restaurant workers – go on unemployment for part of the year. You don’t have that kind of “benefit” when you are undocumented and have no labor protections. What happens when the crop you were scheduled to pick ends up not being picked because – like it happened just two days ago with another small local grower – the company who was going to buy it decided the crop was “too damaged” and won’t buy it? So the crop must sit on the trees and wait to mature further to see if it can be sold in the wine market, which evidently needs more mature, sweeter fruit and is likely not as picky about what it looks like…

So you have a region that is geographically perfect for growing fruit, but then demands large labor during parts of the year and not during other times. How has the increase in immigration enforcement shaped this market? In my mind, I have the “ideal” of migrant workers that came in generations past, “only when needed’ and then either followed crops further north into Canada or went “home” to Mexico during the off-season. It is my understanding that that long-standing pattern has been disrupted by the border enforcement efforts. I have much yet to read about this, as well as doing some anecdotal research with folks who have lived in this area either as growers or workers for long periods of time.

I think I still hold on to the naïve hope that people who depend heavily on immigrant labor would hold a particularly open view on immigration reform. I am not sure that is the case. While personal contact and stories do make a difference in people’s attitudes, there is a way in which we are quite capable of viewing those we know as “exceptions.” So the people who work “for me” I designate as locals, and see the labor coming to work for others – especially those who continue to migrate – as more suspect… In that view, those to whom I have granted the privilege of acceptance had better behave. I will be quite angry if they get ideas and decide not to be loyal….

Considering migration in a "Western" town

Saturday, July 11, 2009

We’ve seen some incredible sites. Yesterday we drove into Medora, North Dakota, at sunset (at about 9:00 p.m.). We got to see the sun setting over the Badlands at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was stunning.

This morning we had breakfast at the Elkhorn Café – named after one of Roosevelt’s ranches in the area.  They make a big deal out of him there! We walked around the town for a bit. Most things were closed since it was still early, but the kids got to get the feel of the “Western” looking little town. They’ve really done an incredible job reinventing the town. The place made me think so much of migration and movement. In a way, I guess the West is all about that. People’s roots are a bit more recent and more visible here, and the scale and nature of the region resists “settling” too much. 
I saw a poster for an immigration-related exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian that is coming to the area. It was called Journey Stories, I believe. I’ll have to check it out. The tag line was something about exploring the way that changes in mobility have shaped the nation and the world, and it was based on individual people’s stories, inviting anyone who would attend to tell their story as well. As if a confirmation of this, the Maltese Cross Café (named after Roosevelt’s other ranch in the area!) was run by an Asian family – the chef making the omelets, the cashier and one of the guys coming in who seemed to run the place were all of Asian descent. Of course, there’s also the ever-present railroad, which parallels most of the highway we have been traveling – a clear reminder of the contributions of Asian Americans to the formation of the West and the history of their exploitation. I also saw a historical sign in town – which now I wish I had taken a picture of – that started with some reference to how Custer had come through town with his army to deal with a native group’s “aggression.” Oh, the way we write history…

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A sermon that missed the mark

Monday, July 6, 2009

This is what the lake should be about. It is weird… I just read the New York Times on my phone sitting here in the cabin overlooking the lake. It is indeed an odd world. I am waiting on a call from someone in Mexico City. Cell phones and their use has become so commonplace that it’s easy to minimize the significance – the way that technology has made location less significant in some ways and our ability to be “on the move” much more possible. 

We went to church yesterday morning. I left feeling tired and drained. I just tried to explain to Aaron why, and I am not sure that I totally could. The “points” of the sermon maybe were OK; it’s just the delivery and the shallowness of it. The world matters so much, and we’re talking about being motivated by guilt to do what we are told. Maybe part of my disappointment is the difference in the way I hear the text and the way it gets preached. The reference in the intro to the Gospel to Jesus going abroad and at home. The rejection he experienced in Nazareth, that talks about this painful reality of being drained of power. He could do nothing there but heal a few, and he was astonished at their unbelief. How can we read that and not comment on it? The pastor focused on the sending out. With nothing but the clothes on their backs. No extra shoes, money or weapons. To go out trusting in the hospitality of strangers, in the welcome in a foreign community. Is it too much of a stretch to talk about migration when people are just going around various communities? What were the boundaries then? With the limitations of movement, political boundaries, limited transportation – what is the equivalent to the kind of movement we can make today? We have traveled farther over this weekend than what Jesus ever traveled in his life. And yet he acknowledges some difference, some openness, to those who come from outside, to those who migrate. Part of the disappointment with the sermon on Sunday maybe was the fact that the pastor began the service by asking visitors to identify where they were coming from, and as – one by one – most of the people in the sanctuary indicated they were from elsewhere, he jokingly asked if anyone was from Calvary (the name of the church). Then he preached as if everyone lived a block away and ignored the fact that this was a migrant community for that Sunday.

Sabbatical starts...

Friday, July 3, 2009

We headed out yesterday on a seven week adventure: Hackensack, Minnesota to visit friends; Osage, Minnesota to see grandparents and family; then out west through Yellowstone to Yakima, Washington and then to Vancouver, Washington to see Jon, Sarah, and Vasu. Finally two weeks at Holden Village.

It’s hard to pack for seven weeks, especially with such different destinations. A tie and two collars, with dress shoes and pants in case I present or preach; beat up jeans and lots of T-shirts for picking. They represent such different worlds.

Preparing for departure was quite the task – practically and emotionally letting go of upcoming projects and decisions. What is that like for those who come with such unknowns to this country? To people like Irma, who knelt outside her little hut in Guatemala, praying to make the decision to go north, when her ailing mother lamented that she would grow old alone. But with two kids to support on her own, she could see no option. What was her packing like? What preparations? Did she get to say good-bye to her neighbors? What did she need to let go of and let go of the future of? What decisions will she no longer get to influence?

The night before leaving, we met at a home in Decorah to welcome a delegation from a congregation in El Salvador that is a sister parish to the Methodist church in town. It was a group of about 6 people. We spoke about Postville. They had such insight about what motivates people to come. They spoke of the larger social issues – of the government’s own complicity in forcing its people to migrate, because of their heavy dependence on remittances. The absence of protection, education, work and opportunities that force so many to leave. The breaking up of families – fathers who came a generation ago and then started a new family in their new land and now their children, who had been forgotten, see themselves forced to follow in his steps and go north… What about the women?

Paul talking about the economics of it. We’ve built an economy based on the US consumer’s overconsumption. Their confidence came from what seemed an ever-growing housing that allowed them to borrow beyond their actual means. And then it bursts. You can get the fundamentals of the economy back in track, but we need a new way. The spending spree is not sustainable… The seven years of plenty are in a way truly over. What will the role of the immigrants be? Who will be the new consumers, as babyboomers come to the end of their run and start scaling back? As they retire and demand more resources and care, but produce less…

Then the conversation with Lynn’s mom, who has not heard anything about Postville – really has no reason to have heard. She goes to church regularly and sings in the choir. What would engage her? She listened to what I had to say… What’s the frame of reference for her?