YUMA, Ariz. — It’s 2:30 a.m. and Francisco Perez Marez wakes to his alarm. He’s had six hours of sleep.
When he leaves for work from his home in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, an hour later, it will be 15 hours before he returns home.
An hour and a half after waking, Marez is in another country. He leans against a brick wall under the still-lingering moon. Around him, hundreds of Mexicans scurry about in San Luis, Ariz., where white buses are everywhere and makeshift taco shops feed the fieldworkers.
Campesinos, which means fieldworkers in Spanish, start crossing the border before 4 a.m. six days a week. It’s five hours before Marez will start getting paid, but he waits patiently. He is one of the first from his crew at the bus stop. “It’s a lot of time we have to wait, but what can you do?” Marez said, as he waited in the cold and the dark.
Marez catches a taxi to the border and crosses. Just before 5 a.m. the bus is boarded and heads north.
The first stop is to pick up the portable toilets for the workers to use throughout the day. Next, they stop for water and then, at a bakery for Mexican sweet bread, coffee or tamales. After everyone on the bus has had a chance to eat, the bus stops to fill up on gasoline. Finally, they reach the lettuce fields on the Quechan Indian Reservation, but it’s still too cold out to work. “The plants will break if there’s frost,” Marez said.
Some of the campesinos wait inside the casino for the frost to melt. A few of them eat while others spend time gambling. But Marez said he doesn’t like to play here. Rather, he waits outside, talking with co-workers. He keeps his face buried deep in his jacket for warmth.
After six stops, four hours after Marez got on the bus, they are in the fields. He is the first one up on the trailer, distributing the hoes to his fellow workers, pausing every once in a while to rub his hands for warmth.
But the ground is still too cold and the workers wait another half-hour before they begin work.
It’s been six hours since he woke up, five hours since he got on the bus to work and Marez still hasn’t made a penny. Every week, he spends more than 30 hours just getting to work.
On a call from a foreman, the campesinos form a type of human comb. All 40 of them stretch out around 15 rows of lettuce and then head north walking at about the same pace.
Their job this morning was to thin the lettuce. The work is tedious.
The campesinos walk slowly because a major part of their job is visual. They eye the sprouts carefully, determining which ones should be removed to ensure a healthy, well-spaced crop. Most of the sprouts can be taken away with the hoe.
For eight hours a day, six days a week the workers pull plants out of the ground.
Marez is 46 years old. He has been working in the fields for eight years.
He said he’s worked installing cable in Phoenix and smiles when he tells the story about the time he installed the cable for former Phoenix Suns’ star Charles Barkley. Marez quit that job because, even though it paid more, the cost of living greatly exceeded that of his home in San Luis Rio Colorado.
Besides, he said, he was too far from his family. Marez is single but lives with his mother, sister and nephew in a three-room house.
The company Marez works for pays him $5.50 per hour. In the Mexican fields it would take him a whole day to make $5.50.
But this company doesn’t offer benefits. One of Marez’s co-workers, Luis Torres, said he works at a nightclub in Mexico to get insurance for his children. The nightclub stays open until 4 a.m. and one day a week Torres has to stay awake for more than 24 hours.
Torres gets off work from the fields around 7 p.m., heads to the club around 10 p.m., works until 4 a.m. and gets back on the bus to the fields.
Esteban Sanchez, the supervisor for the company Marez works for, said it’s easy for Mexicans to find work in San Luis during the agricultural season, but unemployment rates soar when the season slows down during the summer.
Marez said he usually rests in the summer and cleans his home or does yardwork.
The workers joke around in the fields and Marez is always making his co-workers laugh. A couple of the campesinos even wear radios hanging from their belts to work to a rhythm.
As the morning cold turns warm under the afternoon sun, the campesinos shed layers of clothing. Their hands are tough and worn from the wooden handles of the hoes.
Marez dabs sweat from his brow with a handkerchief at the end of the day when everyone is called back to the bus with a “ya” from the foreman.
Marez seems to enjoy his work in the fields. He smiles through most of the day. But when he has finally made the long trip back to the border, he doesn’t waste any time getting home. Crossing into Mexico doesn’t take much effort. The checkpoint guards ask no questions and no identification is required.
After a taxi ride that cost him another half-hour’s pay, a brief walk down an alley leads to a little store in front of Marez’s home. His family sells candy to some of the neighborhood children to make a little extra money.
It’s 6:30 p.m. and Marez is finally sitting down to dinner.
He jokes with his nephew and relaxes for a couple of hours. At 8:30 p.m. he’ll go to sleep for six hours, to get up and do it all over again.