Pablo is a Chilean who studied agriculture and who then went to work for six months in a fruit packing plant in central California. Read as he describes the people, places, and new activities he encountered as well as the perceptions he gained while living on the West Coast of the United States.
By Pablo Cancino
hen I found out I would be traveling to California, I immediately began to imagine beaches, sun, surfing, Hollywood – all of those things you see in the movies or on TV. I was quite surprised, however, when I found out I was going to work in Visalia, a small city south of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. I quickly learned that this town had a population of only 120,000 inhabitants and that it was three hours by car to Los Angeles to the south and three hours to San Francisco in the north. I would be stationed in this small city for the majority of my stay, working at a fruit-packing company and squeezing in short surfing trips along the California coastline.
To get to Visalia, I had to take three planes and drive 45 minutes to the city. I discovered that this “city” was nothing but a small modern town. Ironically, Visalia had both everything and nothing as far as entertainment. During the day, stores, supermarkets, and malls were open (although I’ve never liked malls); but in terms of nightlife, the downtown offered only one karaoke bar, two pubs, and two discos. Coming from a big city like Santiago, this seemed like an extremely small number of options.
Because I studied agriculture, I was traveling to California to work for a Chilean fruit exporting company, which had an office at a cold-storage plant called New Leaf. My life revolved around this plant: I worked there from Monday to Friday and had so many interesting experiences there. For example, I have wonderful memories of the many undocumented migrant workers I met. Also, it was fascinating for me to see how all the fruit that is sold in supermarkets is harvested, transported, driven in trucks, and packed largely by migrants from around the world.
Working in the plant, I realized that this mega-country, the United States, could not survive without the illegal immigrants who do the “dirty work”. At New Leaf, I shared experiences with workers from many different countries – India, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines, among others. Ironically, I was living a cosmopolitan life in this small city. It wasn’t necessary to go to New York to feel like I was in the capital of the world. In this tiny town I was able to work with and come to know people from all over the globe.
I still remember Aaron, who worked as a forklift driver. He was the son of a Mexican born in the United States, what is referred to as a “Chicano”, and he spoke both English and Spanish perfectly. He was eighteen years old when I met him and only two months away from being a father for the first time. He always talked about wanting to enlist in the marines after his first son’s birth to make more money than he was making at New Leaf.
Another person who touched me was Lupe, who was the head of re-packing. Lupe had 140 people working under her, all of them illegal immigrants just like her. She loved her work and would often put in extra hours. I remember the week she worked 70 hours in six days! As crazy as this may sound, it was not uncommon to see women between the ages of 60 and 65 working at New Leaf for 17 hours in one day.
Most of the women at New Leaf worked on their feet the entire day, with only 10 minutes of rest every three hours of work. In general, the workers were happy with the money they were making for working extra hours – they could pay off their debts and live more comfortably. To me, this was crazy. At the end of the day, all I could think about was going home to rest, but these women would stay late and continue working as many hours as they could muster. I would often ask them if they were tired, and their response was always the same: “Of course we’re tired, son, but we’re going for twenty hours!” These seemingly fragile and weak women turned out to be as strong as oaks. They hadn’t crossed rivers and mountains, walking from their home countries, to rest and not do anything. They had crossed into the U.S. to work and to create a prosperous future for themselves and their families.
My stay in California did not just consist of work, though. While in California, I always tried to take advantage of the beautiful weather and the outdoor activities. After work on Saturday afternoons, my three Chilean co-workers and I jumped in our car and headed down to the beach. Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Cayucos were the first beaches I visited and the places where I first learned to surf.
Surfing was one of the most significant things I learned to do in California. Most weekends, my friends and I would camp out near Pismo Beach in order to wake up early and go surfing. The communion that was formed between us, our surfboards and the ocean was something incredible. The feeling of being in the water was indescribable. Most nights I would stay in instead of going out to party in order to feel rested enough to start surfing very early the next day.
Over time, my friends and I visited many beaches. We took trips to Long Beach, Huntington, Newport Beach, Hermosa, Manhattan Beach, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Half Moon Bay, and San Francisco, among others – and all of these trips revolved around surfing. The truth is I’m not a great surfer. In fact, I’m lucky if I even get up on the board and ride a couple of seconds. But the times I shared with my friends while surfing were unforgettable – they always made me feel great, and I was able to forget the stress of work.
For me, there exist two Californias. On the one hand, there is the California we all see in the movies and on television, the reality one can find in all the coastal cities (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, etc.). However, there also exists the California that Hollywood doesn’t want to show, and without a doubt this is a very different California. This is the California of immigrants, the California that feeds the rest of the country with its work, and a part of California that deserves to be shown to the world – not for its beauty, but for the incredible life stories of its people.
This article was translated from the original written in Spanish.