The Washington Post

The Sweet Fruit Of Harsh Conditions

- By Manuel Roig-Franzia

HERMOSILLO, Mexico o much sun. Blistering, brutal sun.

Eyes squint. Hats get tugged down tight. But there’s no escaping the rays. They bounce off the desert floor, transformi­ng the horizon into a wavy, woozy blur.

Aide Espinosa sees it all through the narrowest of slits in the red bandannas she pulls over her mouth, her nose, her forehead. Wrapped like this, she sheds her identity, falling into line with dozens of other faceless men and women in the vineyards of the Sonoran Desert.

It’s 7:45 a.m., but the temperatur­e has already topped 80 degrees. It will get hotter, as Espinosa knows, up to 102 degrees by midday. Sweat darkens her bandannas, although her workday has barely begun.

As April gives way to May and June and the Chilean grape crop runs out, it is Mexico’s turn to send table grapes to U.S. grocery stores. The fruit comes from the harshest of environmen­ts, vineyards watered by wells that plunge as deep as 450 feet below the Sonoran Desert’s parched, dusty surface.

Last year, 213 million tons of table grapes— most of them from these fields in the state of Sonora — flowed from Mexico to the United States. The grapes are harvested by itinerant workers, women like Espinosa, 31, who ride buses that crisscross Mexico’s seasonal agricultur­al landscape. Grapes today. Maybe tomatoes next. It doesn’t matter to Espinosa — she’ll pick anything.

The fields are her life’s canvas. Between rows of grapes, she met a husband, raised a son, left behind her 20s. She daydreams most of the time, slipping into a trancelike state, lost in the rhythm of the work. Clip, stuff, label. Clip, stuff, label.

Most of her family is with her. One row over, her son, Alvaro Orona, 16, squats beneath the canopy of a vine heavy with red Flame grapes. A few steps away, her husband, Luis Arnaya Espinosa, stoops to lift a bright orange tub.

It’s quiet, the workers still shaking off sleep. But by 8:20, Alvaro can’t take the silence anymore — he’s not as Zen about this work as his mom. He reaches into his pocket and pushes a button.

A heavy guitar chord blares out of his cellphone, which he has loaded with music.

“These hands are stained red for all the times that I’ve killed you so passionate­ly in my dreams,” the lead singer screeches. “Bad thoughts.”

Alvaro dropped out of school this year and didn’t have much else to do. A few pesos in his pocket would be nice, he figured, so he hopped a bus with his mother and stepfather.

The harvesters work in two-person teams. Alvaro pairs up with another teenager, a giggly 16-year-old with sleepy eyes. But Aide Espinosa always works with her husband.

They start a new row at 8:45. Luis Espinosa, 30, walks to the end, leaving the soft soil pocked beneath his boots. Aide Espinosa unfolds a metal stand and places on top of it a box decorated with pictures of grapes and the words “Sonora Queen” in cheerful script. Next to that, she puts up a tall metal post with prongs to hold zipper-locking produce bags. The bags are stamped with PLU codes — the “price-look up” numbers used by grocery stores — and are ready to go straight to the shelves once they arrive in the United States.

Luis Espinosa fills a tub and drops it at his wife’s feet. She stoops and inspects a bunch of grapes. Deftly, she twirls the bunch in her left hand and painstakin­gly clips off half a dozen green grapes from an otherwise perfectly ripened bunch. The bunches go into the bag, followed by another and another. Once the bag is full, she plops it into the cardboard Sonora Queen box. Ten bags fill a box, and pickers earn the equivalent of $1 per box. In their first hour of work, husband and wife have made $7. A friend, weary and needing a break, strolls up. “You going to Caborca?” Aide Espinosa asks, referring to the next stop in the harvest cycle. “Don’t know,” the woman says. “Oh, come on, please come,” Espinosa pleads. She likes the company of the other women. They help fill the hours in the bunkhouses after work. Sometimes they pray together in the mornings — Espinosa always strings a rosary around her neck.

At 9:45, the Espinosas are ready to move on to the next row. They gather their things and start a long trudge, passing more than a dozen rows occupied by other crews. Alvaro and his buddy walk alongside. “Ay,” Alvaro says. “My sunglasses. I left them.” Luis Espinosa stops. “You know what?” he says. “I forgot the plastic bags.” Aide Espinosa shakes her head. “Burritos,” she calls after them, a word here that means “little donkeys,” not a menu item.

A truck rolls by as she waits. Up in the trailer, a man with a creased face, a veteran of many harvests, smiles and breaks out in song — a familiar Mexican peasant anthem.

“With money or without money,” he warbles, his voice fading as the truck moves on, “I am always the king.”

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 ?? BY MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA — THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Luis Arnaya Espinosa picks table grapes at a ranch outside Hermosillo, Mexico, where temperatur­es routinely top 100 degrees during harvest season.
BY MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA — THE WASHINGTON POST Luis Arnaya Espinosa picks table grapes at a ranch outside Hermosillo, Mexico, where temperatur­es routinely top 100 degrees during harvest season.

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