In the Time of COVID. Day 57
May 14, 2020.
A View of Ahtanum and Crewport Labor Camps: Part 3
Crewport Camp was build especially for Latino laborers. Unlike Ahtanum where a mix of white, Indian and black workers were allowed to rent, only hispanics were allowed to quarter at Crewport. It was a decision made by the camp manager and the Yakima Housing Authority. As a teenager, I just thought it was a Mexican camp. The farms in southern Yakima county hired Latino crews. Ahtanum had those evening classes to encourage migrants to improve themselves. The only adult classes at Crewport were English as a Second language and maternal health classes. Chronologically I was at Crewport two years after the termination of the Bracero Program and year before The National Farm Workers Association and Cesar Chavez arrived to organize.
Young people don’t have a lot of wisdom. That only comes through experience and reflection. When I stepped out of Morse’s truck at Crewport, I stepped into a different world, a different country. It was only over time that I came to realize that segregation occurred in Washington State as surely as it did in Mississippi.
I was too young to put two and two together. My task was to continue the work I had been doing at Ahtanum. I was given quarters in a row of cabins directly across from the ‘Kids Room’. These cabins were different. They were hooked together with common walls to neighboring units. Every run of 8 or 10 units had a cold water facet and garbage cans at the end. The exterior walls were splintered clapboard. There was a narrow cement walk along each row. The interiors were bleak. One window. One wood stove. Two iron beds with funky mattresses. One pull chain light. One wall plug. Two chairs and one table. No paint. No curtains. No screens on the window or door.
like Ahtanum there was a little commissary store at Crewport that sold canned goods and grains and beans and soap and other necessities. I could get what I absolutely needed, and there was a pay phone and a mail box. Other than that, it was 4 miles on foot or catching a ride down a narrow country road to the farm village of Granger. It was late July coming on August. At night, thousands of flying insects swarmed the lights. The camp manager locked the bathrooms at 9PM. Except on Saturday night, the camp fell silent from exhaustion and need for sleep. The smell of mint and hops and concord grapes was intoxicating.
My contact person at the camp was Lupe Suarez. She was a middle aged woman who managed the LOMA pilot project at the camp. Her daughters worked in the daycare facility and her husband, Carlos, drove the Granger school bus, was a school custodian and was the LOMA gopher. These people were wonderful. They treated me like one of their own.
The Camp Manager was a hard ass local from a long time farming family. He wore his contempt for the migrants on his sleeve. I don’t think he like LOMA being there but couldn’t do anything about it. When Sargent Shriver showed up to inspect the camp and encourage the LOMA staff, that manager was a false-faced toady, stepping in for a photo with Shriver.
The Kids Room was nicer than the one in Ahtanum. I think that was because of Lupe. There was an old couch, a desk, books, a blackboard, a couple of soccer balls, lots of puzzles, art supplies, skip ropes, and several Loteria games. There was an oscillating fan and a nice radio. There were several tables and kid sized chairs. Those were probably discards from the schools that Carlos cleaned. The daily food box was also more interesting. It was the first time I saw tamales and burritos. The south county LOMA kitchen was staffed by latinas and they knew how to feed kids.
My biggest problem was I didn’t speak Spanish. How in the heck was I going to communicate with these kids. I spent the earlier part of the summer learning Ebonics and southern white sharecropper slang and now here came Spanish. When the Crewport kids came in the door, it was a smaller group maybe 10 or 12 kids. Thank goodness a 7 year old named Veronica was fully bi-lingual. Within a day or two she and I worked out a system. She was the teacher and I was the principal, the jefe. We team taught. She translated, she managed the kids. They respected her, she was like a little Mexican mother, herding her kids and keeping their attention.
We scripted little plays and she directed the kids. They went along with it because she was convincing and loving. Veronica made my job at Crewport possible.
I saw things at Crewport I had never seen before. A 10 year old was left in camp one day because he was too sick to work in the fields. He came by the Kids Room and I saw that his ear was swollen and bleeding. He was crying and holding that side of his head. He was in tremendous pain. I had Veronica run and get Lupe. Lupe took and look and said “Oh Dios mio, eso realmente debe dolar, nino.” “Oh my god, that must really hurt kid”.
He was crying and she cried and Veronica cried and that made me cry. Lupe ran to the office and called the emergency LOMA nurse. An ambulance drove up sometime later and the nurse hopped out and examined the sore ear. ‘That is a mastoid hemorrhage. We need to get this kid to the doctor.” She turned to Lupe and me and said “That could have killed him. He will probably never hear out of that ear again.” Off they went.
It wasn’t long after that and an impetigo infection ran through all the kids in the camp and I caught it. It’s a contagious bacterial skin infection that forms oozing pustules and yellow crusty sores. It forms in the moist folds of skin. Near the nose and mouth, the tear ducts and the neither regions. the nurse stopped by again and brought out tubes of anti-bacterial cream. Impetigo is stubborn as hell. It took weeks to knock it down.
A reason the number of kids was so small at my little school was because many of the migrants were illegal and they took their kids into the fields with them in case La Migra raided. If they got deported they would all be together. That was how I learned that ‘my kids’ were citizens. Still they weren’t treated any different than mojados by the larger community outside the camp.
When school started, My Mom came down and helped me enroll at Granger HS. It was unheard of that a kid at that school was on his own. I’d just turned 18.
I convinced several kids at the camp to board the school bus and they were dropped off at the grade school. I found out later that they were placed in a separate room and given gram crackers and milk and coloring books and no attempt was made to teach them anything because they were just going to be leaving anyway. I complained. Things started to get dicey. I complained again and again.
Lupe and Carlos and their kids lived about a block from the high school. At lunch time I walked with the girls to Lupe’s kitchen and she fed me with a smile. I explained the problems at the grade school and she said I was just beating my head against the wall. They wouldn’t change.
By early October the harvests were all in and work was winding down at LOMA for the season. The Principal of the high school offered me the bunk house behind his milk barn for the school year if I’d stay and do a little work on his farm for the rent. His name was Howdy Davidson. He had massive sailor tattoos on both arms. He was a salt of the earth kind of guy. I liked him.
I was getting really lonely for my pals at home. But then Lupe and the girls invited me to a harvest party on a large mint farm. The last cutting would be by spotlight.
We pulled up to a big open sided barn. A ranchero band was playing some Mexican country music with a polka beat. There’s were a bunch of long tables and an array of the most delicious foods in the world. Everyone was happy. Little kids were running in and out of the barn from light to night and back again playing tag. Mothers and grandmothers grabbed me and taught me how to dance a bit. I knew better than to make any moves on Lupe and Carlos’s daughters because I had decided to catch a Greyhound for Spokane and call it quits. But that night I danced my head off, and stuffed my belly with tamales and gorditas and pozole and washed it down with fruit aguas.
Later, I joined the men up on a mint mower. We were standing on a narrow metal platform above the swirling blades as the driver mowed the last cut of peppermint that season. We went down the rows by spotlight, and the full moon dusted the treetops along the edge of the field dropping shadows beneath their limbs. It was beautiful.
A Couple of days later, I was on the bus headed home. But I favor a bowl of pozole to this day.