The White Boy is a poignant, loving story of an illerate, Mexican migrant woman who in spite of having nothing but a large family and a bigger heart takes in a starving white boy who shows up in the labor camp looking for food and shelter. She gives him that and saves him and her own family as well.
The White Boy
The White Boy
Memory is a fluid thing, even when it’s young. Throw in emotions and the passing seasons, and it ebbs and flows like a meandering river through the light and dark places of my mind. At some point in the passing of time you begin to question the memories: what was said, by whom, and even the place in time. But even after many years, I don’t question the eyes.
They seem indelibly etched in the memory of a ten-year-old Mexican boy: the eyes of the hungry, white boy who came to dinner one balmy summer evening and stayed a few months.
I remember the desperation I saw in those eyes. Sometimes late in the evening when I’m reading, I look out the darkened window beside my bed and I can still see their pale blueness reflecting back at me. I can still feel them. Hungry eyes never leave you.
It was a Saturday, early evening, and for the moment all was finally settled: All had been forgiven. Not that the day had started out that way or that forgiveness had been on our
minds. A blistering sun had hung low overhead all week. All that summer. And our frenetic work in the field had worn us down to our basic elements, while the sun had baked us until we were indistinguishable from the dry, brown dirt we kneeled in.
Mercifully, the sun was in retreat that evening, I recall: making its way across the Skagit River and down the western horizon. For a moment the orange, fiery orb lingered over a white farmhouse and red barn that lay in a curious crook beside the river. Then the sun gave up on us, and the evening became pleasantly balmy.
For a long week, the farmer had us working from sunup to sundown in the massive north field about ten minutes from the camp, along the riverbank. The summer had been an exceptionally hot one and the strawberries were all ripening at the same time. The farmer knew if the berries weren’t picked quickly, they would shrivel up and he would lose a lot of money. Other than a few head of cattle he raised and sold, strawberries were his only crop that year, and now his back was up against the barn door. So at the beginning of the week he told Salvador, the camp foreman, if we finished the field by Friday, he would throw us a camp party and give us
a few days off. He said he would provide all the Olympia beer the men could drink, and hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken the women could barbecue. We didn’t hear benevolence in
the farmer’s offer: it was desperation, pure and simple. But desperation or benevolence mattered little to us. For people accustomed to dirt in our beans and the harshness of summer
heat on our backs , it sounded like a festival. It was something to hope for, and to a child that can mean the difference between joy and despair. All the families in the camp decided they would work extra hard, long into the summer evenings to finish by Friday.
We worked like dogs all week and by early evening on Friday we found ourselves at least four hours short of finishing the huge field. When it got too dark to see the strawberries we had to quit. As we climbed back onto the flatbed truck, we could see the farmer talking to Salvador in the unfinished field, kicking the soft dirt with his boot, hands deep in his front pockets.
We knew little about the farmer. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, tall and lean. He always wore a baseball cap with the International Harvester logo on the front, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and Red Wing work boots. No one talked disparagingly about him, not openly anyway. Because his demands were always channeled through Salvador, we never dealt with him directly. Whether in the fields or in camp, he never acknowledged us. He seemed to look through us.
It was like we were ghosts to him. Not that we cared. He was a ghost to us as well. What I know of him now, from the vantage point of over fifty years of passing seasons and dirt beneath my feet, is that he provided better housing for his cattle than he did the Mexicans who worked for him. What that said about him may be open for interpretation, but not by me.
As the farmer talked, Salvador removed his straw hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with the red bandana always found around his neck. Then he nervously wiped
sweat from the inside of his hat, held in his hands. He was a tall man for a Mexican, and could look the farmer eye to eye but didn’t. Instead he looked into his straw hat and watched the farmer kick the dirt as they talked. The farmer’s body language said all we needed to know about how he felt about us not finishing the field. It was a strange dance we were watching, between two tough men both used to getting what they wanted. The farmer, knowing there was still a lot of work to be done, didn’t want to display his anger and risk alienating those he needed most. Salvador, his trusted foreman, knowing how hard we worked all week, didn’t want to be seen siding with the farmer and not appreciating our efforts and sacrifice. Then Salvador put his hat back on his head, said something to the farmer, nodded affirmatively, squared his broad shoulders and returned to the truck. The farmer was left alone, nervously contemplating the next day, watching the light disappear from the field.
Salvador must have realized his delicate position as he neared the truck. He wanted to please the disappointed farmer but be respectful of Mamá, a woman few people dared cross words with. When he got to us, he cautiously removed his hat and wiped his brow again. He quickly reassured Mamá that as long as we finished the field by Saturday noon the party was still on. Mamá confidently assured him that would not be a problem. I wondered how she could be so certain, but on second thought, I knew Mamá had spent her entire life in the fields and if she thought we could finish by noon, who was I to second-guess her? Salvador must have come to the same conclusion because he didn’t argue or question. He smiled, nodded respectfully and drove us back to camp.
As the truck drove out of the field, I looked back at what I could see of the unfinished field and wondered if I could survive another long day, short as it might be, in the kind of
heat we’d experienced that day. In the dusk and dust of the day that remained, we traveled back to camp exhausted from one of the longest days I could remember. Even at my young age, unfortunately, I could remember more than a few.
Saturday started early and with little time for breakfast. Mamá told us there would be plenty to eat when the work was done. That did little to assuage my hunger and grumbling stomach as we loaded on the farmer’s flatbed truck at eight. Mamá pushed us hard all morning and true to her prediction, it was closing in on noon when we were finishing our last rows.
The sun was directly above us and no less formidable than the previous day. I was thankful for the short day.
You can’t imagine the joy I felt when I saw Mamá finish her row then double back on mine to help me. Mamá was a picking machine, her hands, delicately but swiftly, flying over
the strawberry bushes, always finishing ahead of us, and when she did, she could be counted on to double back onto our row and help us. That way she could keep us close to her. From experience, I knew that was important to her. I think she knew how seeing her coming down our row encouraged us. It would have been so easy — at the end of a long day, looking down a
strawberry row that seemed a mile long — to give up. And the scorching sun worked to destroy what little self-discipline we had as children. I vividly recall on numerous occasions feeling like sitting down, putting my head in my lap, giving up and crying in defeat, until I saw Mamá coming down my row. She always rekindled my resolve.
When we completed our rows, we gathered our flats and turned them into the checker who waited in the shade of a twenty by twenty beige tarp where he stacked the berry flats ready for pickup by the farmer. I stood beside Mamá and looked at the Sanchez, Garcia, and Hernandez families, all waiting to check in their flats. At the head of each family stood a father with a deeply creased bronze face, thick callused hands, wearing a farmer’s straw hat. It felt strangely uncomfortable to me that at the head of the Ledesma family was only Mamá. And although I remember feeling she had to be the most courageous woman in the world, it still made
me feel inexplicably anxious. She and Papá had separated a few years earlier and that meant we had to leave the small farm we loved. It had to have taken us years of hard work and savings to finally be able to put a down payment on a small thirty-acre farm that Mamá then walked away from. And so here was Mamá, with nine of us in tow, working in a man’s world, trying her darnedest to keep us fed, together and safe. But after leaving the farm and Papá, I would never feel safe again. I carried that feeling deep into adulthood. Dreams of being somewhere strange and trying in vain to find my way home, always laced with fear and anguish, have followed me all my life. But strangely enough, during times when I feel most unsafe, it has always been Mamá’s image that’s helped soothe me, not Papá’s.
Mamá handed the checker our tickets as Juan and Enrique stacked twenty full flats, the product of our last two hours of picking, under the beige tarp. He slowly counted what we’d gathered and began punching the tickets that would be turned in later for pay. The last hour had been a flurry of nimble hands as we picked with the determination of an evening party waiting. When the checker handed Mamá back the punched tickets she put them in her front pocket and told us to get in the truck. Although it was only about noon, it had already been a long day. We finished about the time Mamá said we would, but had paid a high price. We were completely
spent. Our knees, backs, and necks ached from constant kneeling, crouching, bending, and straightening. Every ounce of energy was gone and we were hot, hungry, dirty, and sweaty.
My throat was beginning to close, my eyes were dirt dry, and my brain felt like it was swelling from the heat. The end of any work day was usually cause for some elation. Not this time.
The ride back to camp was a somber affair. As I looked at my brothers and sisters I could see the same exhaustion in their eyes I felt in my body. None of us had any inclination toward conversation.
When we got back to our cabins, Mamá handed us clean jeans, underwear, socks, and T-shirts, and told us to head for the showers. Since we were not the only ones taking showers, when I got there I had to wait in line for thirty minutes. By the time I got in, the hot water was gone, not that I cared. I stood under the streaming cold water and soaped up three times before I began to feel clean. I blew brown, dirt snot out of my nose, shampooed the dirt out of my hair twice and spit grit out of my mouth. I didn’t care who was waiting in line, I was going to saturate and rehydrate my skin and let the water soak deep into my vital organs until I felt closer to the cool river than the dry dirt I’d been in all morning. When we had all taken our showers and put on clean clothes we sat around the table in Mamá’s cabin and waited patiently as she made bean burritos to hold us until the party. We drank purple Kool-Aid and ate a small but satisfying meal. Our work was done, but Mamá’s continued. She had to be at least as tired as we were, but there she was, taking care of us and still in the kitchen, stoking the fire and preparing for the party. It appeared as if her work was never finished. Later in life I inquired about this perception and her answer surprised me. It shouldn’t have. She said she really didn’t feel free to think about herself or even take a relaxing breath until we had all left home and much to her consternation, still she worries about us. As Mamá boiled pinto beans that had soaked overnight in a large deep, kettle and made tortillas for the party, my brothers disappeared. The girls stayed behind to help. I sat on the wood steps of our cabin and finally felt something akin to joy. No, we didn’t have anything and our lives didn’t appear to be going anywhere, but I was still elated. I was so relieved to be out of the sun-scorched fields, showered, and into clean clothes that for that moment, I permitted myself to feel good. It’s like when you hurt yourself and the pain finally ceases. The way you look at life changes.
Mamá ladled the beans into a large black cast iron pan, added salt and lard, and mashed them, making refried beans. At the same time Raquel and Dolores rolled out the dough for tortillas and together they cooked them on the broad surface of the wood stove. The men were barbecuing the meat on the spits between the first and second rows of cabins, drinking beer, and talking about how good life was. They had work, shelter, money coming in, and soon their bellies would be full. And when cold beer quenched their immense thirst, what else could they ask for? As I sat recording these images and listening to the gaiety around me, the incongruity of what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling was not lost on me, even at ten. Here we were, at the bottom of society’s economic and social ladder, working in subhuman, dangerous conditions in pesticide-saturated fields. And still, we talked of life being good. But I had to smile, at least for the moment. I was thanking God for small favors and trying to enjoy what little I had to feel good about. I understood that that feeling, momentary and fleeting as it was, had to do, because there was nothing more.
The Burlington camp was situated beside the Skagit River on the north side of the bridge separating Mount Vernon and Burlington. A gravel road ran parallel to the river and in front of the camp. Now that the sun was down, a delicate, cool breeze off the river fanned the camp and spirits were high. Mamá was sitting with her comadres, talking and dishing food to the men and children. Cigarette smoke was swirling pungently around the table of old men talking, playing cards, and drinking beer. I was sitting at a picnic table consumed with getting enough to satisfy my longing for a belly full of the only security readily available to me.
I was eating—and ever vigilant. Being vigilant came with the migrant lifestyle. As children, we had seen and experienced more than children should ever be allowed to see or experience. It gave birth to the invasive feeling we were never safe.
I suddenly noticed something unusual. A white boy maybe a few years older than I walking slowly along the gravel road approaching camp. When I noticed him he was about seventy-five yards from us. As he neared, I could see him intently watching the boisterous Mexican camp. When he got directly across from us, he stopped and stood silent and alone. I looked up and down the road for a broken-down car, or maybe his parents following behind, but from what I didn’t see, I knew he was alone. He stood for the longest minute with his hands in his front pockets. He repeatedly looked down at his feet and then back at us. He looked up and down the road and then back to us. He seemed to be saying something. Maybe he was reassuring us he was alone and posed no threat. Maybe he was just alone and lost. One thing for sure was the resolve I saw in his face to not take one step farther up or down that road, away from the camp. His shoulders sagged under the weight of something I innately understood: defeat. He looked like I often felt at the end of a long day in the fields: like I couldn’t go one more step. Like giving up.
Enrique and Juan were eating at the end of the table closest to the road and the boy. They had been watching him too. Both looked to Mamá and I saw her nod. Juan said something to
Enrique and they got up together. In their younger days they seemed to do everything in unison.
No one else in the camp moved, but many had noticed the white boy standing beside the gravel road. There was some murmuring among some families, but no one seemed exactly sure of the protocol, if a white boy should come wandering into a Mexican labor camp. I had never seen any rules to cover such an odd event written anywhere in the camp literature. Not that there was any camp literature.
So I wasn’t sure what Mamá had in mind when she nodded to my older brothers. They seemed to understand perfectly, however, because they immediately left their plates, got up and walked toward the white boy. And as they did, the camp went back to what they were doing. They must have thought whatever needed to be done about the white boy standing on the side of the road would be taken care of by Juan and Enrique.
And he stayed, not moving an inch, as Juan and Enrique approached him. If you didn’t know us, you might have thought the probability of conflict was high. He was no taller than Juan or Enrique and possibly about the same age, but decidedly thinner. Yes, violence was a way of life in the camps. Maybe I half expected a fight to break out. I had no idea what those two were up to, but I should have known. When Juan got to the boy, he stretched his arm out and opened his brown hand. For a moment the boy wasn’t sure what to do. When it came to him what Juan was doing, he timidly reached out and shook Juan’s hand. I watched them talk for a minute or so. Then, with Juan leading the way and Enrique following behind the white boy, they walked back into camp. I took a quick glance at Mamá. There was a kind smile on her face. Nothing really obvious, but it was there. Juan led the boy to Mamá and a short discussion ensued.
When the boy passed me I noticed he was dressed in ragged, dirty clothes. He wore a gray T-shirt that looked like it might have at one time been white. His jeans had holes in both knees and were held up at the waist with a thin, worn, brown, leather belt cinched at the last hole. His jeans were at least two sizes too big for him. If they were his, it was obvious he hadn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. He had a dirty face, and tear streaks interrupted the dirt caked on his cheeks. And I thought we were poor, I said to myself. Later in life, from a different vantage point, I remember coming upon emaciated, stray dogs in camp that looked better kept and fed than that boy. And I think the only thing on his mind that evening was food. Maybe he was hoping for shelter, and a safe night’s sleep as well, but filling his sunken belly had to be in the forefront of his mind. There was no reason he should have expected he would get any of it in the camp among a bunch of Mexicans, but he had been desperate enough to find out.
After talking to Juan a few moments, Mamá waved the boy to her and motioned for him to grab one of the paper plates. She took it from him and filled it with refried beans, a hamburger, barbecued chicken, Spanish rice, and a fistful of warm tortillas. She then told the boys to sit him next to them and make sure he was safe and had enough to eat. Juan and Enrique led him back past me, to the end of the table, where their plates still sat. They sat him between them and commenced eating. Juan quickly noticed the boy looking down at his wonderful plate of food with a bit of confusion.
“I don’t have a spoon or fork,” the boy said shyly.
“We don’t need them.” Juan reassured him. “We eat like this.” He tore a tortilla in half and then in fourths and showed the boy how to use the pieces to scoop the food up. The chicken,
Juan told him, he would need to eat with his fingers. It didn’t take the boy long to figure it out and when next I looked, he had eaten every bit of food Mamá had placed on his plate. The only thing on his plate were chicken bones. Hunger was excellent motivation for quick learning. He didn’t have to ask for another helping. Enrique, who had been watching him closely, grabbed his plate and returned it to Mamá. Mamá smiled broadly, like a mother does when she sees her child
satisfied, said something that made Enrique laugh, and filled it up again. The boy ate a second and then started on a third before he began to slow down. He seemed to have a bottomless pit because he finished more than a dozen tortillas before pausing. When he finally finished, he had time to take stock of where he was. I watched him as he looked around with eyes as big as harvest moons. I could tell he was feeling a lot of things, but hunger was not one of them. His belt might have had to be let out one inch. I could hear Juan and Enrique chatting with him and after about thirty minutes, all three got up and walked back to where Mamá was sitting. With Mamá they talked for a while and again, with a wave of her hand she dismissed them. They walked away in the direction of our cabins. I didn’t see the three of them again until we gathered
in our cabin at the end of a long night of partying.
When I finally couldn’t stand not knowing a minute longer, I found Mamá and asked her about the white boy. She said she had no idea who he was.
“What did he want?” I asked her. She said he had told her he hadn’t eaten in days and was alone. “That was all I needed to hear,” she said.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“He has no place to live so I told him he was welcome to stay with us until he finds a place to stay. I told him if he wanted a job he could work with us.”
“And what then?” I asked.
“Well, when he’s ready to make it on his own he can leave, but until then I told him he was safe with us.”
“Really?” I said, incredulous.
“M’ijo, you don’t turn away a hungry, homeless child, regardless of color. Hunger and homelessness has no color, just a need that has to be met and that’s where we are. That’s our way.”
“Why didn’t any of the other families do anything to help the boy, Mamá?” I inquired, thinking it strange none had stepped forward or even said anything.
“M’ijo, it’s not important what other people do or don’t do in these times. It’s only important that we did something.
“He is now part of our family until it’s his time to leave, like someday it will be your time to leave.”
“I hope it’s never my time to leave, Mamá.”
Mamá just smiled and lit another Marlboro.
“Everybody leaves eventually, M’ijo. It’s all about growing older and stronger and being ready.” She smiled and blew smoke into the warm night air.
“I’m not ever leaving, Mamá!” I said emphatically. She smiled. Her eyes sparkled love as she continued to blow smoke into the cool evening air.
When Mamá sent word around that it was time for us to go to bed, it was already late. Usually, she wanted to know we were safe in bed long before she retired, but she let us stay up
since we had a few days off. As I was readying for bed, Juan, Enrique, and the white boy entered the cabin. The first thing I noticed was this white boy looked altogether different from the one I’d seen standing beside the road a few hours earlier. He had showered and was wearing either Juan or Enrique’s extra clothes. He had pale blue eyes and dark blond hair. And it wasn’t simply that he was clean, had on clean clothes, and had a belly full of food. He stood erect, his shoulders were back, his eyes gleamed and he had the biggest smile I can remember ever seeing on a ruddy, red-scrubbed face. I was looking at the miraculous transformation when Mamá walked in. She gave him an approving smile. In the midst of a dirty environment, cleanliness was an obsession with her. I recall her saying a hundred times, “We may be poor but that doesn’t mean we can’t be clean.” Upon inspection, he passed.
She instructed Juan and Enrique as long as the boy was with us, to accompany him wherever we went. She took mothering seriously. I think she wanted to make sure the boy understood our commitment to him.
Since there were only four bunks in the cabin, the boy would have to share a bunk. Juan was thirteen and Enrique twelve: too big to share a small bunk. That left me, going on eleven, and Mario who was nine. Mario was the smallest, so the boy bunked with him, at least until the foreman could find an extra bunk. Not that the boy cared. I think he just felt fortunate to have a roof over his head and a warm bed to sleep in.
Before the light was turned off Juan finally introduced us to our new brother. The boy told us his name was Joseph but could not remember the last time anyone called him that. He
asked us to call him Joey.
Since none of us had ever spent any close up time with white people, and considering the negative stories we grew up hearing about them, I’m sure we all had our doubts. Not Mamá. She had a family to take care of and had little time or energy for speculating or taking odds. He would either make it or move on.
As the days came and went, I watched Joey closely from afar. Since he was older than me, he spent his time between Juan and Enrique. In the fields, neither of them would permit
Joey to outwork them or, away from the fields, outplay them. That meant both paid more attention to their work ethic and worked harder, to prove to anyone watching that Mexicans were superior to whites when it came to working in the fields or playing games. What I saw of Joey that summer convinced me we had possibly misjudged the whites. Joey kept his head down and hands moving with the diligence and dexterity of a poor Mexican fearful of where his next meal was coming from. And whether Juan or Enrique outworked or outplayed Joey or not depended on who you talked to.
But what ultimately impressed me most about Joey was his adoration of Mamá. He didn’t have to understand Spanish, nor did she need to speak English, for him to know what she needed at any time. If she looked at the dwindling wood pile beside the wood stove, he went searching for the axe and before she could say a word, he was bringing in an armload of chopped wood. If she needed water, he was grabbing the aluminum pail and walking out the door.
Mamá never had to ask him to do anything because he anticipated her every need and was usually a step ahead of her. On occasion—a few times that summer, after a long day in the fields, during dinner — when he looked at Mamá, I saw tears in his eyes. If anyone else noticed, no one mentioned it. I quietly began to view Mamá from the unexpected vantage point of a white stranger and it made me feel I hadn’t really known this Mexican woman I called Mamá. Watching her dedication to him and his adoration of her began to change how I viewed Mamá, our family, and ultimately white people. In the ensuing weeks and months, we ended up getting pretty close to Joey. He stayed with us for the rest of the summer and into the fall. At the end of each week, when Mamá got paid, he got whatever he earned. Mamá would not hear of him paying for anything. She fed and clothed him as if he were one of us. We understood Joey could keep all he earned but it never crossed our minds to ask why we couldn’t. Without asking we knew it took the family’s cumulative efforts to sustain us. We never complained.
During this time I continued to ponder what Mamá had done. At one point I remember asking her about being poor and how we could just take in a stranger. I told her I understood our obligation to feed someone who came to us hungry, but making them part of our already large family seemed an odd thing to do when we had so little. She said,
“Mi’jo, we’re not poor. Yes, we don’t have much money and we don’t own anything. But poor are those who don’t have family. As long as we’re together we’re as rich as anyone.”
“Sí, Mamá.” I said smiling. It felt better knowing we weren’t really poor.
I still had many questions about how he ended up standing alone, beside the road in front of our camp. And years later I recall quizzing Mamá about him and she told me she never asked and never knew. I guess it hadn’t been important to her. But she always talked with no little pride in being able to help him. I understood it was a lesson she wanted us all to learn.
Nothing Mama did that fateful summer should have surprised me. I’ve never met a woman, rich or poor, in possession of such uniquely compassionate qualities. At five foot six, she might have been a little taller than most women of her time, but her willingness to love and care for those less fortunate, for broken and lost children, set her well apart from
As things turned out, it was a good summer. Joey was a great diversion for us all. Watching him work hard, grow, and appreciate his new temporary family was exactly what we
and he needed. When the harvest was done and the cool fall evenings began to put color on the leaves, it was time for us to return to Outlook, east of the mountains where we rented a house. Joey had gained a good ten pounds and sported a healthy tan, a willing smile, and a mischievous sense of humor, which he needed to keep up with us. And although Mamá assured him he was welcome to live with us as long as he wanted, he decided to stay in the Skagit Valley. We never
saw or heard from him again and to this day I have no idea what became of him. That’s not to say I haven’t thought about him. I often wondered if he found a home and was safe. I often
wonder if he remembered us as fondly as I still remember him. I want to believe he became something meaningful. And when I remember him through Mamá’s eyes and actions, he already
was someone wonderful.
This was the first time I experienced Mamá taking in a white boy, but not the last. She did it at least two or three more times. With the wave of her hand, she changed their lives. With
the power of her compassionate heart, she changed ours.