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In Mexico's onion fields, the work goes on

Uproar in U.S. is much discussed, but $12 a day is more important

Thursday, November 27, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MEXICALI VALLEY, Mexico -- Jorge Vidales and his wife, Estela, work side by side in the fields here from September through May. The couple, both 30, have been harvesting green onions for a living since they were 15.

Most days they get up around 6, get breakfast for their seven children, then get on a truck that takes them to the fields. Their 14-year-old daughter, Alma Rosa, takes care of Gustavo, 3, and Alex, 18 months. The other children -- Hector, 8, Antonio, 10, Jorge Luis, 12, and Arturo, 13 -- attend a nearby school. Estela Valladores de Vidales is seven months pregnant with their eighth.

Once in the field, the couple settles into a spot and, like the 150 other people working the land this day, they go about the business of picking the produce that helps feed the world.

It's the green onions from a farm like this that officials in the United States are blaming for separate outbreaks this fall of hepatitis A in Beaver County and three southern states.

The company that owns the land -- Vegetales del Desierto -- has nearly 200 acres in production, all green onions.

Couples and families separate themselves, each occupying a small area marked by personal belongings and piles of castoff onions. The company's name, which translates to "vegetables of the desert," is apt enough. Dust fills the mouth and onion fumes smart the eyes, and a mix of both penetrates the hands snapping rubber bands around bunches of green onions.

From the road, the operation looks like a massive, human-cogged machine, moving at the crawl of a clock-hand across the field. Close up, at hand level, it's a blaze of action.

Jorge Vidales works the green onions, jerking off the outer layers, tossing off rejects, clipping off tops and roots, separating them into piles, his eyes not leaving his work as he talks to a reporter.

"These are 'sixes,' " he explains, showing a pile of larger onions. "Six to a bunch. These are 'nines,' smaller so they're nine or 10 to a bunch."

Workers are paid by the dozen bunches, which are counted daily by the foreman who walks the fields with a notebook in hand. Foreman Jose Alberto Quila also checks to make sure the onions are correctly bundled and keeps track of how many each worker has harvested.

"If the onion is too crooked, or too small, or if the leaves are wilted, you can't use it," said Vidales. If a worker turns in such bunches, "they don't pay you for them."

Despite the flurry of worry over the hepatitis A outbreak elsewhere, it is mostly business as usual at the farm. Some things, however, are not quite as usual.

The cleaning crew, decked out in rubber boots and rubber gloves, scrubs the portable toilets assiduously in the presence of a photographer and reporter, surely producing the cleanest port-a-potty in the valley.

Alfredo Licon, the supervisor, explains that all the children in the field are at least 14, the legal age at which children can work, with their parents' permission -- and that some are just very small for their ages. The young workers themselves -- about a dozen this day -- all diligently report that they are 14 or 15. There are no younger children, toddlers or babies anywhere in the fields or in sight.

Licon says the company follows all health regulations, is inspected every other week or so, and is scrupulous about sanitation.

The company's packing plant, a few kilometers down the road, is immaculate. The crew of 64 there wear rubber boots, masks and hair nets. The entrances have shoe washer pads. The packing room is refrigerator cold, empty except for a conveyer machine that cuts and washes the onions, a large bin of ice, and boxes and paper for packing.

Licon says the water for washing and ice is never reused, though there was no way to verify that. Contaminated water is one possible way the green onions could have ended up with hepatitis A virus. An onion being handled by a person who did not wash his or her hands after coming in contact with the fecal matter of an infected person is another.

Whatever is changed in the industry in the wake of the hepatitis outbreak, the work itself remains.

Trinidad Hernandez, 42, his wife, Maria Mendive, 32, and their son, Guadalupe (15, of course), said they each can gather up to 60 dozen bunches a day, yielding them each about $12. It takes seven or eight hours of concentration to get that many, though there are workers who can do more because they are faster and work more hours. The hardest workers gather up to 110 dozen bunches.

The fact that their green onions end up on plates in U.S. restaurants was news to many of the workers, learned only when the hepatitis outbreak focused attention here.

"Everybody is talking about it, yes," said Vidales. "Here many depend only on green onions for their livelihood." He works in construction during off months, but there is not enough work to keep him employed all year, he said.

The company could plant the fields in something else, but most crops are less labor intensive than the onions. "They would need fewer people."

People would most likely look for work further away, or try to get jobs in the factories along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said. There is nothing they can do about the catastrophe in the green onion industry.

"Here the people aren't in a position to make any demands, or do anything about that," he said. So they continue the routine, flying through the onions, waiting for the end of the day when the trucks will take them to their "ejidos," tiny groups of houses. Vidales owns his house; many other workers rent theirs, sometimes from the same company that employs them.

At home, Estela makes the "comida," the main meal of the day.

No green onions.

"How could you want to eat them after gathering them all day?" said Vidales.

(Lillian Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-3566.)

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