Scenes From a Pandemic: 7

18 05 2020

by José Orduña

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

Baby Joaquín, at night, with his father, and his grandfather’s photograph. (photo: José Orduña)

Something’s Happening Here

Las Vegas/Chicago

My dad works at a grocery store in Chicago. He’s 57 years old. He was born in Acapulco, Guerrero. He likes to play the guitar for his 10-month-old grandson, Joaquín, and me, his 35-year-old son, over FaceTime. When my son smiles at the screen, it soothes the hurt caused by the 2,000 miles between us. My dad is quite fit, but he takes a pill every day to lower his blood pressure—a gift inscribed in his genes by his biological father, who abandoned him as a child. When the pandemic hit full stride, he and my mom began gaming out a series of bad “choices,” likely catastrophic “choices,” amid a moment of world-historic crisis that’s been 40-plus years in the making. 

They’ve been trying to “figure things out,” he says. My mom works at a rehabilitation hospital as an interpreter, but her hours have been drastically reduced. My dad can’t work from home, and they’re “on his insurance.” Whenever we video chat, I can see that he’s scared but trying to look, for me, as if he’s not. When he showers, puts on his uniform, and goes to work, he’s forced to make a wager with fate: Today I won’t contract the virus. I won’t die alone, intubated, in an overburdened hospital. I’ll watch Joaquín grow into the toddler clothes I sent him on his 6-month birthday. 

He does this for $14 an hour and the health insurance. The wager he makes every day is a version of one he’s been making his whole working life, which began before he was 10. When he left Mexico, during what historians now call the lost decade—an economic crisis fueled by unscrupulous lending by US commercial banks, World Bank- and IMF-imposed austerity, and the liberalization of the Mexican economy—he lost. He paid in the form of estrangement from everything and everyone he knew, but especially his mother, and the man who helped raise him, whom he called his father. He was able to see my grandmother only a handful of times before her death, and he never saw his dad again, not even when he was laid to rest. When I was a toddler, and he worked 12-hour shifts as a dishwasher at a stadium, he lost again. This time, the price was the permanent disfigurement of his right hand, which was left with thickened, dead skin that comes off in scales. When I was in my 20s, he worked at an industrial food packaging facility about an hour’s commute from where we lived. He worked the night shift. My mother talked to him on the phone for the duration of his drive to make sure he didn’t fall asleep. His blood pressure was the worst it’s ever been then. When he came home at dawn, he looked dazed, like he was sedated or sick, and although it was never diagnosed, he sunk into a slow-burning depression that made him prone to bouts of anger and despair.

With the pandemic raging, my father was “allowed” to take his two weeks of personal time. The other day he decided he’ll stay home without pay, and without the ability to collect unemployment benefits. For the time being, he’s “allowed” to keep his medical insurance, but he and my mother can’t absorb the cost of lost wages for long.

At night, when my wife and I are trying to get our baby to sleep, I take him on little walks through our darkened house. We call these whisper safaris, because I point to things with a dim headlamp and whisper stories to Joaquín as he swivels his head from the objects to my moving lips and back to the objects. One of our stops is a photo of my father and me laughing and embracing at my wedding. Joaquín stares at the photo and then at me. I can see him working out that what he’s seeing is some version of me. He looks at his grandfather’s face, then at mine, and I imagine that he somehow knows the three of us contain one another, that we’re bound by more than blood. When I look at the photo I try to hide what I feel, but sometimes I can’t, and I see Joaquín sensing that something is terribly wrong. This pandemic has laid bare a system that is casual in its cruelty—one that would rather pay workers to die than pay them to live; that absorbs certain kinds of people’s deaths in its cost-benefit analysis; that would think nothing of making my son’s grandfather a memory he never had.

José Orduña is the author of The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement (Beacon Press). Information about his writing can be found at joseorduna.com. He was a Kopkind camper in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 13, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Song for Kids. Plus… Another Story Behind Your Dinner

Our dear friends and supporters Patty Carpenter and Verandah Porche in Guilford, Vermont, have sent a song they wrote to make hand-washing more fun. It’s called “Every Which Way,” and was produced as an animated music video by Kim Murton and our neighbors Charles Light and Michael Hanish.

Click here to play the music video (drawing: Kim Murton)

A second version of the song–with more animals!–can be found here.

Patty Carpenter, a singer/songwriter, is lead vocalist and pianist of The Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band. Verandah Porche is a poet, a pioneer in the commune movement, an inventor of “told poetry,” a collaborative form of literature she has been practicing with people far and wide. Patty and Verandah have been writing songs together for the past few years.


This week’s top dispatch, about José’s father, a grocery store worker, is also a story about what lies invisible behind our dinner. There are many such stories. An unforgettable one is told by Frank Bardacke, a Kopkind mentor in 2008, in his magnificent book Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2012). Here are three excerpts from Chapter 2, “The Work Itself.”

Behind every fruit and vegetable for sale in the supermarket lies an unknown world of toil and skill. Broccoli is one of the easiest vegetables to harvest because it grows on plants that are about waist-high, so workers don’t have to bend over completely to cut the unopened, densely compacted flower buds that people eat. The plants grow two rows to a bed in lush fields that extend for hundreds of acres. From a distance, workers, organized into crews of a few dozen, clad in bright yellow rain slickers to ward off the morning dew, seem to be plodding through the plants, hunched over, tiny specks of gold too few to make an impact on so much green. Up close, any illusion of sluggishness dissolves before the athletic spectacle of the cut.

The heads of green compacted buds, three to six inches in diameter, shoot off the main stalk of the plant, sheltered by the broad leaves at the top and hidden among the long leaves that surround the buds before they flower. Not all the heads mature at the same time, and only through keenness of sight can the harvesters—most of them are men—quickly find the ones that are ready to cut. The harvester grabs the head with one hand while with the other he thrusts the short, broad knife downward, cutting the leaves away from the stalk. Then with a sideways stroke of the knife he cuts the head off the plant, leaving just the right length of stalk below the wide unopened flower. He stretches his fingers to grab another head with the first still in his grip and cuts a second stalk. Depending on his quick judgement of the size of the heads and the proximity of the next one ready to cut, he may even grab and cut a third head while holding the other two in his extended hand. Finally he throws the heads onto a conveyer belt moving through the fields, or onto a small platform pulled by a tractor, or into a metal-framed basket on his back, as he looks ahead for the next bud mature enough to be harvested. Each cut takes about three seconds; in an average eight-hour day he might cut 11,000 head of broccoli.

Early days in the life of food, El Centro, California (photo: Gretchen Laue)

Physical labor has received bad reviews since people began to write. It is Adam’s curse in the Old Testament. Aristotle contended that “occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.” The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). The philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called “modern industry”—machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production where laborers are “mere appendages” to the machinery—replaced the earlier system of production that “owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.”

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California’s farmwork as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners.

Apieros, aka celery workers, harvesting (photo: Nick Oza, The Arizona Republic)

Apieros talk a lot about their knives. They discuss the differing qualities of the steel, the feel of the handle, and the correct angle of the lift at the end of the knife. When a new man is learning how to cut, people come over to help him out, to teach him how to do it right…. New men might buy more than a few different celery knives (some from the very pros who are giving them instructions), trying to get the perfect one that will make them good cutters. “Es el cuchillo,” those trying to learn jokingly tell each other. “It’s all in the knife.”

Celery is planted only inches apart, and unlike lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and many other vegetables, the worker cuts every piece. Usually the celery is cut with three strokes. For the first cut the apiero grabs the celery with his non-knife hand at about midstalk. He bends the plant back slightly and, with a short thrust of the knife, cuts the piece of celery at the root, using the angled, fan end of the knife. Just where to cut it, and the exact angle of the first thrust, is part of the skill. Every piece of celery is a little different, so where the first cut lands varies. Cut it too high, and all the individual stalks will separate; it will no longer be a whole piece of celery. Cut it too low, and the next stroke will be more difficult. Cut it at the wrong angle, and some of the outside stalks will be lost.

If the first cut is made correctly, the worker lifts the celery to a horizontal position parallel to the ground and makes the second cut, a sharp downward thrust with the straight edge of the knife, squaring off the first cut at the root. As he finishes this cut he loosens his hold of the knife to make a circular motion with his hand at the just squared-off root, trimming away the remaining loose strands and tendrils. While trimming these “suckers” he turns the piece of celery over with his other hand and then makes the third cut, which trims the top edge of the piece of celery and leaves it about fourteen inches long. Then he drops the celery on top of all the trimmed stalks that protect it from the dirt. When a worker is learning, he masters the strokes, develops his own style, and takes his time. An experienced apiero does the whole operation in one fluid motion, at a rate of about one piece of celery every three to five seconds.

People who can do it well are a sight to behold.


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