Many farmworkers try to save up as much as they can to support their families back in Mexico. There, pay for a day’s work on a farm might yield 110 pesos, or about $6; the average hourly wage for apple pickers in Washington’s Yakima County, the county that produces the most apples in the U.S., is $13.46.
However, the immigrant farmworkers who have lived in Washington for years are no longer sure to get the work that has historically sustained rural communities such as Wapato, Yakima, and Royal City. Growers are increasingly recruiting Mexican workers to come to the U.S. on H-2A visas, which let them work on contract for a few months, but only for the employer that sponsored them. If they are laid off (for protesting working conditions, for instance), they lose their visa and must leave the country. The H-2A is an arrangement that growers say they prefer because it gives them a steadier supply of labor. In 2006, Washington growers brought in 814 workers on H-2A visas, mostly to pick apples. Last year they brought in 13,641—about a quarter of the state’s farm labor force that year.
At recruiters’ instructions, contract workers assemble by the hundreds in centrally-located cities in Mexico, and board company buses heading north. Once they arrive in Washington, many live four to a room, with bunk beds, in the prefab barracks that growers have built. Some are arranged around soccer fields, and most are built in the countryside, in the orchards themselves, among blossoming apple trees. The workers come up on buses and don’t have cars of their own, so if they want to go into town, they depend on the grower to provide transportation.
Men, women, and families are well represented among the population of resident farmworkers in Washington. The H-2A contratados, though, are almost all men. Their growing number is making the workforce more male in an industry in which sexual harassment is all too common. Chavez mentions hearing of cases in which men higher up on a job were charged with rape, and says she was careful not to wear tight pants or blouses. “Women wear loose clothes and cover their faces,” she says. “They don’t want to show anything so they won’t be seen as objects.” When she worked in the fields, Chavez could never say openly that she is gay. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about my sexuality,” she explains, “but sometimes people are just so closed-minded that they cannot understand. Sometimes there are even men who have this devil’s thinking, that, ‘Oh, you’re gay—I’m gonna make you a woman.’”
For the H-2A farmworkers, some of the deepest pain doesn’t come from the physical work, but the loneliness of being away from home. In the evening, groups of men walk around the grassy space between the barracks, or sit with their backs against the buildings’ walls, talking on their cellphones to their families back home. “I miss my wife,” says Sergio Alberto Ponce, an H-2A visa holder who lives in a workers’ camp near Royal City. “I’ve never been apart from her before. We still sleep in each other’s arms. But here I call her every day. She’ll send me a text, and then I’ll call her the next chance I get—in a break at work, or at lunch.”