The day I first met “Esmeralda,” she was in a tree, a worn cotton picking sack around her shoulder, picking pears on a 14-foot ladder. In my orchard.
I had never seen another woman in an orchard, besides the Lake and Mendocino County Farm Advisor, Rachel Elkins. When Esmeralda entered my life I realized that I had been living a dream, my struggles petty.
Esmeralda’s husband, Mauricio, worked for Mauricio’s relative, known as “El Guapo.”
It was a tight labor market that year and El Guapo held a contractor’s license. Still, we were not getting the pears picked fast enough.
It must have been a Saturday, because every weekday Esmeralda cleaned houses.
Esmeralda is excessively polite, to the point I am uncomfortable with it. If I visited her at her patched-together rental trailer in the northern shade of Mt. Konocti in the hard-scrabble seasonal rustic resort of Soda Bay, she insisted on feeding me and whichever child I had in tow. She seemed truly happy when we consented. She taught my children just how rich and exotically beautiful, how exquisitely delicious Mexican food can be.
But we had different lives. Her children went to school in one district, mine, living on the border, went to another.
Then one day, Ginny at the literacy coalition called me. I had often volunteered as a tutor. This time, Ginny called me to say she had a student who would be just perfect for me.
The Lake County Literacy Coalition’s mission is to teach people to read. In the absence of other programs, it often filled in those days, the 1990s, the roll of teaching immigrants to speak—and read—English.
Her name is “Esmeralda,” Ginny told me, and you are going to love her.
She was right.
Here was Esmeralda, back at my house, struggling to pronounce English words from my children’s early books. Soon Esmeralda moved on to INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) documents. I don’t think I really helped Esmeralda very much. She took it on herself. I told her to stop watching telenovelas, to watch American television. Stop using her children as translators, try to listen and speak for herself.
I don’t know how much Esmeralda followed my instructions. But I know Esmeralda’s efforts to thrive, not just survive, to actually live her life to its fullest, in the often racist community of Kelseyville California.
I was proud to be her friend. I don’t remember the date but it was the first mention of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. that prompted me to remark to her—and to anyone else who would listen, ‘if this wall is built, it will soon serve only to keep gringos out of Mexico.’ The idea of reversing the rolls of our nationalities was funny then. It must have been decades ago.
Every year the Lake County Fair reserves a Sunday for Latino Day. Sunday is often the only day the masses of agricultural workers have off.
For most Americans, the work week is limited to five eight-hour days. In northern California the growing season—roughly March through October is precious work-time. Ag employers can pay up to 10 hours a day or 55 hours per week, without incurring overtime pay requirements.
So Sunday is the day you see the Mexican families stocking up for the week at the grocery store. And it is the day they can go to the fair.
This year lodged in my memory, I decided to go to the fair Sunday just for that reason. I loved seeing the Mexican familes enjoying themselves. But I was shocked and disappointed to encounter not one single Mexican family. Indeed, the fair seemed dead, gone, empty, vacia.
I stopped at the Sheriff’s booth—what is going on? I was told that INS had planned a raid and that word had gotten out. I questioned the officer. Is the sheriff, an elected official, required to cooperate with this federal activity? The man became nervous.
I don’t know exactly what I said, but it was something about how agriculture in this county, the largest business in the region, depended on the immigrant workers—that by cooperating with the federal action, the sheriff’s department would be violating the trust of its constituency. I met no argument.
Soon thereafter I told Esmeralda to have her kids memorize my phone number. If anything happened to her or to Mauricio, I would take care of them. If they cam home one day to find their parents gone, if they were one day lifted from their lives—for they had lived here 20 years—all would ultimately be fine. Just tell your kids that if that happens to call me and I will pick them up, wherever they are.
Esmeralda wiped her eyes and thanked me.
Fast forward 15 years.
The youngest among our collective children is a senior in high school, the eldest a recent B.A. cum laude recipient.
Today, the prospect of deportation is greater than ever.
So last week, eager to be of help, I asked Esmeralda over a glass of wine, if she remembered my comment about the wall. She did. That it would only prevent the gringos from going south. It begged my next question:
‘What will you do if you are deported?’
I had been wary about asking this question. I could only imagine the fear she lived with.
But I was wrong.
“So they deport me to Mexico,” she said. “Fine … I would perhaps rather live in Mexico.”