Views change across the farm-labor fence |

Views change across the farm-labor fence

Daily Staff Report

TIETON, Wash. – His name is Evaristo Silva, but the immigrant farm hands address him with reverence as Don Varo.He once was one of them – a poor and desperate young man from Mexico who left behind a pregnant wife and three children and risked his life crossing the border on an illegal search for the American Dream. Now he is everything they aspire to be.The farmworker became a farm owner, saving enough to buy a small apple orchard on the outskirts of Yakima. The illegal immigrant became a U.S. citizen, benefiting from the amnesty President Reagan offered to his generation of undocumented migrants.”For me, this really was the land of opportunity,” Silva, 62, said as he walked along the tidy rows of his red delicious apple trees. “In Mexico, I would wake up on many days without knowing how I was going to eat. I may not have much here, but I am so much better off than I would have been if I had stayed.”But now that the campesino is a ranchero, and needs illegal immigrants to pick and prune his apple orchard, he has found that they don’t need him any more to succeed in America.Silva now wants to end illegal immigration. He wants an expanded guest worker program so that farm owners like him could still benefit from the cheap labor of Mexican workers. The foreigners could come into the U.S. to work harvests, but would then have to go home.He feels this way despite understanding that such a radical shift – most fruit pickers are illegal immigrants – would separate fathers from their families every growing season, and guarantee that younger field hands never have the opportunities he had.”Everything has a limit,” Silva said in Spanish, the language he’s most comfortable speaking. “People who are working and have been here a long time should be allowed to stay. But if half of Latin America keeps coming – Hondurans, Salvadorans, Mexicans – you will reach a point where we don’t all fit.”Silva’s new stance on immigration is largely based on his own bottom line. Yakima Valley apple growers are struggling to survive because they face global competition from farmers in China and Chile who undercut their prices.Silva is having a hard time finding field hands willing to work for $8 to $10 an hour – the most he and other farmers say they can afford – because illegal immigrants can now earn more as year-round construction workers and janitors.Silva scrounged up a crew last year to harvest his 40 acres, but other farmers were less fortunate: Some of their apples rotted on the trees. Still, low apple prices have so eroded Silva’s profits that for the last two years, he has not been able to make payments on his orchard.Without a guest worker program, the farm hand turned farm owner believes he will lose his land.As Silva toured his orchard, tugging wayward branches at just about every step, he marveled at how much he had accomplished since sneaking into the U.S. three decades ago.A small man with evocative brown eyes, graying hair and a bushy mustache, Silva wore a red-check flannel shirt, faded blue jeans and brown work boots. Somewhat jarringly, he also wore a yellow construction helmet, a habit he picked up as a field hand worried that a falling apple might thump him in the head.His had not been an easy life, he conceded; he was sometimes “treated like another piece of farm equipment” in his years as a farmworker. But as he surveyed his family’s homestead amid the gently rolling hills of his apple orchard, he stopped and said, “I have lived a beautiful life.”Silva is a native of Pajacuaran, a poor old farming town in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Generations of men from his town – including Silva’s father, Jesus – have illegally entered the U.S. to work the fields. Their wages, often just a few thousand dollars a year, were princely compared with what the same work would pay in Pajacuaran.Silva started out working the U.S. harvests and returning home each year. But after he nearly died crossing the desert east of San Diego in 1972, he decided to stay in the U.S.A devout Roman Catholic and devoted family man, Silva lived away from his children for so long that when two of them unexpectedly showed up on his doorstep one day, he did not recognize them. The memory of it made him cry. “At the time my children needed me most, I was away,” Silva said, wiping away tears. Apologizing, he continued: “But it was out of necessity.”The entire family eventually reunited in Washington, where Silva followed in his father’s path and found plentiful work as an apple picker. His children also became citizens; his wife, Maria, became a legal resident.”When my husband first told me he was in Washington – to me, a Mexican, it sounded very cold, like he was at the end of the world,” Maria said with a smile. “But we have really done well here as a family. This is our home now.”Don Varo belongs to a generation of migrant field hands that has transformed the Yakima Valley into a postmodern melting pot east of the Cascade Range. Yakima County’s population in 1990 was 188,823, and was less than one-fourth Hispanic. A decade later, its population grew by 34,000, and about 27,000 of the newcomers are Hispanics, according to U.S. census figures.Although Hispanic immigrants have been praised for creating a bustling small-business community that has invigorated the Yakima Valley, they have also been blamed for higher crime, as well as overcrowding in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where it is common for several immigrant families to share a single worn-out bungalow. Numerous street gangs roam Yakima, and their graffiti brands venerable buildings with crude monikers such as “Original Loko Boyz” and “Can’t Stop Mexicans.””It wouldn’t be so bad if migrant laborers did what they used to do: work, pick up and go home. But the current system, where they bring their families and stay, has the potential to bankrupt us,” said John Tierney, a former state trooper who is chairman of the Yakima County Republican Party. “If you talk to people who’ve been here a while, including the legal Latino immigrants, many will tell you we have seen an erosion of quality of life.”Silva’s hometown of Tieton, about 15 miles northwest of Yakima, is just a few streets of modest bungalows and a handful of agricultural packinghouses surrounded by family owned orchards. It has not escaped the changes, or the resulting friction. But it is still a sleepy backwater of 1,150 people.For Silva, it is everything he wanted: He and his wife, the children and their families all live within a few hundred feet of one another amid his apple trees.Silva’s children range from 19 to 38 years old. He has 11 grandchildren, with another on the way, and he has high hopes for them all – that they become engineers, doctors or lawyers. His own education, he reminds them, ended after fifth grade so he could help support his family.Silva’s six brothers also sneaked across the border in search of a better life, and all live legally in the United States now, part of an extended family of more than 250 parents, children and grandchildren. When they all go together, the Silvas fill a Yakima Valley Catholic church. When they gather for Christmas, they rent a conference hall.By American standards, the Silvas’ standard of living remains modest at best. But as Silva’s wife, Maria, likes to say, even average Americans “live like the rich of Pajacuaran.”As he cut through another neighbor’s rows of cherry trees on the walk home, Silva ran into a crew of Mexican field hands clipping branches. The younger men were clumsily performing a task Silva had mastered, and he began to give them unsolicited advice, telling them to trim some stems that had grown too close together.Silva started talking about illegal immigration. He told them he supported tightening the borders and limiting opportunities to guest programs that required workers like them to return home.”You all no longer want to do this kind of work, and I understand, because you can hardly pay your bills,” Silva said. “But you can go to work for a factory,” while farmers have no choice but to find ways around labor shortages.”Let the Americans come and do this,” a laborer chimed in with a grin before going back to work.Most of the men kept trimming, but one.”If you want us here to work, you should give us a chance to become citizens,” said Jesus Estrada, 50, a father of eight children who lives with his family in Yakima year-round. “Coming here to work and then being forced to go home again – that’s not opportunity.””If it keeps up like this, people won’t fit here anymore,” Silva said of illegal immigration. “Have you seen the graffiti in Yakima? They are having urban problems there, gang problems. It was never like that before.””You used to see migrant workers from California, even Texas, up here during the harvest,” said Estrada, who has been pruning local apple orchards for 20 years. “But now you owners are paying $7 an hour, $8 an hour, and that is just not enough to live.””When you are a worker, I know, it does not sound like a lot,” Silva said, “but if you are a ranchero like me, believe me, it is a lot.”If farmers like him go broke, Silva said, there will be less work for men such as Estrada.If workers like him cannot earn enough to pay their bills as field hands, Estrada countered, they will not travel to Yakima as illegal immigrants or legal guest workers, and the labor shortages will only get worse.As a chilly breeze blew, the two men continued arguing for a few minutes, but it was clear that neither was going to change his mind. The farmer went back to his apple orchard, and the field hand resumed trimming the cherry trees.Vail, Colorado

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