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It’s good business, too. In the last 10 years, D’Arrigo Bros. has doubled its volume and currently pulls in some $200 million in annual revenues. About half of that comes from leaf lettuce, which is a sign of the changing times. Iceberg lettuce — that nutritionless, tasteless staple of salad bars and school lunches — is still the most-eaten lettuce type in America. But as consumers grow more health conscious, and the collective palate grows more refined in this era of focaccia sandwiches and pesto pizzas, leaf lettuces — butter, red and green leaf, and especially romaine — are gaining ground fast.
Alejandro Garcia is one of the hundreds of people who make a living harvesting such lettuces for D’Arrigo Bros. Garcia, 39, is a small, slightly stooped man with a broad, mustached face and calm eyes. He was born in Michoacán, Mexico, but moved to Santa Maria, California, with his family when he was 5. When he was 17, about the time Margaret D’Arrigo was getting ready to go off to college at the University of California at Davis, Garcia got married and soon had his first daughter. Fatherhood impelled him out of high school and into work in the fields. He moved to Salinas in 1994, got a job with D’Arrigo Bros., and has been cutting their lettuce ever since.
Garcia lives with his wife, who also works cutting lettuce, and his two daughters in a cramped little apartment in a barracks-like housing development that is literally on the edge of town. Across the parking lot from the sullen ranks of two-story apartment blocks, lettuce fields stretch to the distant hills.
One recent morning, as he does every weekday and sometimes on Saturdays, Garcia got up a little after 5 a.m. to make his lunch and get ready for work. His wife took their car to her job site, leaving him to catch a lift with a friend down to a ‰ capacious dirt parking lot in Spreckels, the sugar town where John Steinbeck worked the fields and set some of his novels. Dressed in a track jacket, watch cap and jeans against the chilly air, with a long-handled knife in his back pocket, Garcia boarded one of the company’s white school buses, each hauling two or three portable toilets, that take the workers out to the fields. Dawn was just breaking over the hills to the east as the first bus sputtered to life and lumbered out to the road, taking the workers to the lettuce fields.
D’Arrigo Bros.’ acres and acres of fields are cut through with perfectly straight rows of virtually identical heads growing so densely together they almost look like a single, solid band of rippling green. Lines of men bent double scuttle along the rows in trios. The lead two briskly chop the lettuce heads from the ground at the root with a triangular knife and stack them upside-down for the packer, who crams them into pink and white cartons bearing the Andy Boy logo. It is, literally, stoop labor, relentlessly physical. There is built-in pressure to keep moving as quickly as possible, since the entire crew’s pay depends in part on how many cartons it produces. The field left in the harvest’s wake looks as though it was the scene of some epic battle between lettuce armies, carpeted with broken leaves and strewn with imperfect, rejected heads.
“You get home, and all you want to do is rest,” says Garcia that night, sitting in his kitchen, which is lit by a single bare bulb. “Then the alarm clock goes off in the morning, and you’re just as tired.” His back often hurts from all the hours bent over. “This year, I don’t know why, but I’ve been coming out real tired,” he says. “Maybe it’s my body telling me I’ve gotta find another job.”
In many ways, farm work today is like an outdoor version of the sweatshop factories of a century ago: Most of the laborers are immigrants, few have union representation, and the work is poorly paid, physically strenuous and startlingly dangerous. Since César Chávez launched a national lettuce boycott 33 years ago, there have been some gains — some workers are now represented by the United Farm Workers, and more have health insurance and other benefits — but agricultural field work remains one of the lowest-paid yet highest-risk occupations in America.
Since the days of Spanish colonial rule, California agriculture has been dominated not by small family farms but by giant ranches where most of the work has been done by hired hands. Those hands were mostly Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the late 1800s, and there were the dust-bowl refugee Okies in the 1930s. But for most of the last century, Latin Americans, especially Mexicans, have been the mainstay of the field work force.
Counting both migrant workers, who move around following the harvests, and seasonal workers, who work where they live, there are about three-quarters of a million farm workers in California. Half are estimated to be undocumented. A growing number are indigenous peoples from southern Mexico — many of whom don’t even speak Spanish, let alone English.