I had a mental image of them standing there, wearing ragged clothes, hot and depressed, looking upon us as intruders in their world. They would sneer at our audacity. We would invade their territory only to take pictures and observe them like tourists.
We climbed out of the van and faced eleven men assembled in the shade. My mental image was confirmed. My class, consisting of twelve primarily white, middle-class students, felt out of place. Our Politics of Food curriculum at Governor’s School, a summer environmental program, included an interview with migrant workers. We were at a farm worker labor camp in southern New Jersey , but judging from the rural landscape, it may as well have been Iowa . I felt like a trespasser.
So we were surprised when one man—the oldest of the group—approached and offered each of us a piece of candy. The man appeared remarkably coarse; his beige skin was leathery like a crocodile’s, and yellow teeth jutted from his gum line. His shoddy turquoise tee-shirt and blue jeans conveyed a sense of basic humanity. His broken English was barely discernible. Fortunately, a man wearing a nearly clean denim shirt and jeans stepped forward to interpret.
Contrary to my preconceptions, the men seemed glad to see us. They bantered and joked like office staff on a coffee break. They told of their isolation and the rarity of meeting other people, let alone students. They seemed genuinely interested in helping our study. Just as we asked about their backgrounds, they questioned us about ours. “Do any of you have jobs?” asked one worker.
The old man told us his story as we all walked around the fields. He was sixty-eight, had immigrated from Colombia at a young age, and had been working at this labor camp for almost twenty years. Long since divorced, he had been performing unskilled labor all his life. The younger workers conveyed similar stories. They generally had a high-school education and moved to the United States for financial reasons. I was surprised that one man in his twenties had a girlfriend in New York , drove a taxi half the year, and hoped to attend college soon. Their lives put our teen anxiety in perspective. Sure, we may become upset when the car is taken away for the weekend. We may be preoccupied with wearing the right clothes. Yet these men had nowhere to go on Saturday nights. They wore dirty, shabby attire. And it did not matter.
Before we left, the old man picked twelve small cucumbers and proudly gave them to the class. I had never enjoyed eating cucumbers before. But since then I have become quite fond of them.