Two Infinities

Mon, 15 Aug 2005

Watching cotton grow

A book was reviewed recently in London's Financial Times (paid subscription!) about globalization with a single commodity as fulcrum--cotton. The book is The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. Here's a link to the NPR story. The story starts with cotton farms around Lubbock, Texas, and that brings back memories.

I grew up in Artesia, New Mexico. That's not west Texas, but the climate is similar and the culture closer still. Artesia sits in the Pecos Valley in southeastern New Mexico, maybe 80 miles from the Texas border and twice that to Lubbock. If that seems far, look at a map and see that no major city is closer. The trick is water. It may be 80 miles to the Texas border, but there isn't any farming between the Pecos and west Texas either. There's cattle ranching, but that doesn't take as much water.

Take a look at 908 Hermosa Drive, Artesia, New Mexico on Google maps or, better, Google Earth. It doesn't get you exactly to my house (no one related lives there now), and numerous things have changed but you can still see how close my house was to the fields. I can't tell for sure, but it looks like some kind of trees are being grown in those fields now. Well, it used to be cotton and alfalfa in rotation. As kids we'd play in those fields. Sometimes we'd bring the odd cotton boll home to glue on a poster for a school project, or maybe just out of curiosity.

If you look slightly to the east of my house you see a school-yard, Hermosa Elementary School. One of my classmates in first grade came home with me one day. His name was Raul. My mother, a farmers daughter herself, God rest her soul, told us we couldn't play, Raul was Mexican, and we didn't mix. Raul was older anyway, he hadn't finished first grade yet because he had to work in the cotton fields in the summer when cotton needed hoeing and, more importantly, in the fall when it needed picking.

My first job, outside of yardwork and washing glassware in my father's laboratory, was at H & J's Grocery. Well, one day Doug Ricketts called me up and said we should go over to the cotton compress and work. It sure made Richard, my manager, angry, but that's what I did. It paid well, but didn't last very long. In her book, Pietra Rivoli, says that cotton compresses no long compress cotton, but ours did then (about 1969). It was a big old (as in late 19th century vintage if I recall) steam machine. They'd take fork lifts into the warehouses to find the bales, bring them to compress, and load them up on boxcars. It was dusty, hot, tiring work, but at least we were out of the direct sun. I don't know what the men did when there weren't orders.

It must have been the next summer that Doug's brother, Mark (since deceased of MS), and I tried our hand at hoeing cotton. We got the work because the farm foreman, Wiley Roundtree, belonged to the church where Doug and Mark's father, Glen, was pastor. Whoa! We were expected to work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week under that scorching sun. The Mexicans worked multiples faster--cotton would never have been king had it depended on the likes of us.

In fact, one time one of the Braceros came over and asked for water. They didn't carry it for some reason, while we would never have survived without it--not that we tested our limits in that regard since a water break was always on our minds as respite from the drudgery.

Needless to say, when the work at Wiley's farm was done, the Mexicans went on to other farms, farms that didn't exactly seek out white kids' labor. When my last day there began, I didn't know it was my last day. Wiley put me to work weeding the sorghum field. I don't think he really needed me there, but I had ridden my bike out there and he must have felt sorry for me (which just shows his kindness since he had his job by virtue of being married to one of the farmer's daughters, and they didn't treat him well, I understand. In fact, I ran into him a couple years later working in the oil fields, so I knew he left the farm). Working in the same field was a lone Mexican. A young man. He wore plastic slippers. Unbent by age as yet, we managed to talk a little despite my meager Spanish and his total lack of English. I remember he asked me if we liked to dance in town. I remember being all the more surprised at his good spirits given that one of his compatriots had been found dead in the workers quarters the previous week.

And all they will call you will be "deportees"

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