Pedro awoke suddenly in the middle of the night, his eyes on fire. Out of nowhere—sharp, blazing pain. He sat up, rubbed his face, kept trying to unglue his eyes. He reached for his dad or his brother, fumbling frantically in the darkness of the damp tent. "Daddy! Juan! Daddy!"
Juan is Pedro's twin. They are exact replicas: slim, brown, shy, equally oblivious to the powers of their teen-idol good looks—the kind of twins who can survive by bamboozling people, taking tests and talking to girls for each other. Juan felt Pedro's panic as if it was his own. He grabbed a flashlight. "Daddy!" he hollered, waking his father, who reached into the light and pried open one of Pedro's eyes. It was yellow, the eyeball hidden beneath a thick curtain of pus."I can't see!" Pedro screamed. "Daddy, I can't see."
There are systems in place, of course—family doctors, pharmacies, and twenty-four-hour urgent-care centers. But a lot of those amenities are not immediately within reach if you're a migrant worker living out of your car, sleeping beside a field of blueberries. Perhaps you should have made preparations for your kid waking up blind, but you didn't. You just didn't. Urbano, a compact, worn-out version of his sons, sat in the tent wondering what to do. It was nearly 4 A.M., and Consuelo, on the other side of camp, would be up soon to start the biscuits and the soup. Urbano told theboys to stay in the tent, to be quiet and wait. They shouldn't disturb anyone. That was how he taught them. Keep a low profile. Don't ever make a scene. Not even if someone robs your tent; just hide your money better next time. If the family in the cabin next door is drunk and fighting and you can't sleep, put earplugs in. If the rain soaks your bedroll, get up and sleep in the car.
Surely someone in Consuelo's huge clan—thirteen people crammed into two cabins—would know what to do for Pedro. So Urbano hushed his son, wrapped his arms around him, and rocked him, even though at 14, Pedro was way too old for something like that. "Shshshsh," Urbano said, swaying back and forth, his mind soon rolling with the thoughts that can rattle like loose cargo in the back of his head. He was a man who had awakened to a thousand mornings of bad news, but these, he knew, had only made him stronger. He had acquired wisdom. He understood how the world was divided: kings over here, peasants over there. Kings live in palaces and want berries on their cornflakes; peasants need the money so they work the fields. And you? You were born king or you were born peasant, and that got decided long before you fell out of your mama's womb, so don't bother worrying about it. Say your prayers, be thankful for what you've got, and hang a crucifix from your rearview mirror so Jesus will protect your family from the chupacabras and other spirits lurking in the woods.
Wash the apple before you bite into it, because that's the way you were raised. Germs, pesticides, dirt, gunk, it doesn't matter—just wash it. The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It's easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food. Sometimes, maybe, we are reminded of the seasons and the sun and the way of the apple tree, and if we multiply that by millions of apple trees, times millions of tomato plants, times all the other fruits and vegetables, we realize, holy potato chips, that's a lot of picking. Without 1 million people on the ground, on ladders, in bushes—armies of pickers swooping in like bees—all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America's $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots.
Most of the people who pick our food come from Mexico. They blanket the entire country, and yet to most of us they're strangers, so removed from our lives we hardly know they're here, people hunched over baskets in the flat distance as we drive down vacation highways. If we imagine them having anything to do with our lives at all, the picture isn't good: 50 percent of the migrant-farmworker population is in the United States illegally, the one piece of the story Americans hear quite a lot about and are increasingly bothered by, or urged to be. On TV and talk radio and especially during election years, we're told we must work together to stop this national crisis. These people are robbing our homes and trafficking drugs and raping our children right there in our J.C. Penney dressing rooms. The bad guys make headlines, as bad guys will, and the rest, we're told, are a more insidious blight: taking American jobs, giving birth to bastard "anchor babies" in what Pat Buchanan once called "the greatest invasion in human history." Whether we buy into the rhetoric or not, one thing has been made clear: Illegal immigration is a problem reaching a breaking point, and something must be done.
Except there really is no invasion, no growing national crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that immigration from Mexico has actually gone down—and steeply so—over the past decade. (An estimated 80,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the Mexican border into the United States last year, down from 500,000 ten years ago.) More to the point: There is nothing new about this story. Importing foreign labor has always been the American way, beginning with 4 million slaves from Africa. Later came the Jews and Poles, the Hungarians, Italians, and Irish, the Chinese and Japanese—everything you learned in sixth-grade social studies about the great American melting pot. And with each group came a new wave of anti-immigrant, pro-Anglo rage.
Ourcurrent debate over how to control our borders is really just a rehashed version of a very old one cycling over the reach of history. It's a lively conversation about fairness and purity, about who belongs and who does not, and as a result, the people who pick our food are shamed into the shadows, nameless, mostly afraid, and certainly inconvenient to the experience of the satisfying first crunch and explosion of sugar that happens when we discover that this, oh yes, this apple is awesome.
Up here in Maine, the blueberry scent lies like a fog over carpets of balsam, and the mosquitoes are fat and in charge. Blueberries are one of the state's largest crops, covering 60,000 acres, and they're a symbol every bit as important as the lobster to the image of Maine as a happy, vital place: VACATIONLAND, the license plate says. Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. The woody plants occur naturally in the sandy gravel understory of Maine's coastal forests, where little else bothers even trying to grow. The plants thrive here because of my corrhiza, a fungus clinging to their roots that allows the plant to extract nutrients from the otherwise lousy soil. Wild blueberries have been surviving here for centuries, a vigorous conspiracy of nature.
As blueberries go, the wild variety ("lowbush") are the rock stars. The cultivated kind ("highbush") can be planted anywhere, and grow in huge fields in places like New Jersey and Michigan. You're as likely to find either topping your cereal. Sometimes you've got these big, fat berries bobbing in your milk, and other times you'll have tiny bold nuggets on your spoon. Do a taste test someday. The cultivated ones are watery and mealy compared to the tiny wild ones—intense bursts of candy-like fruit. Once you notice the difference, you will never buy the fat ones again.
The workers at the camp where Urbano and his sons slept raked for Cherryfield Foods, the largest blueberry producer in the state and widely regarded as fair and accommodating. Sixty-some people lived in the camp, at the end of a dirt road called Blueberry Circle, a deceptively quaint name for a place like this: a ramshackle settlement under a canopy of firs, laundry hanging from the trees, overturned buckets for chairs. Everyone said it wasn't half bad. First of all, it was free—if growers want the good rakers, they have to provide housing. There were two outdoor showers, two flush toilets, and electricity for lights, radios, TVs, anything you want. The cabins were plywood, weather-beaten and bowed, painted in cheerful, fading hues of red, green, gray, and brown, and fitted with bunk beds. If you got here too late to claim a bunk, you pitched a tent. The season starts whenever the blueberries decide, usually at the end of July, and lasts about four weeks.
This was a world apart from the citrus groves of Florida or the vegetable fields of Georgia and the Carolinas, where working conditions have made shocking headlines since the late '90s. Farmers in southern states have been prosecuted for modern-day slavery—holding migrant workers in debt and chaining them inside box trucks.
Maine, at least in recent years, has earned the opposite reputation. Farmers are known as honorable, and any migrant worth his callused hands found a way to get here for blueberry season. The money was excellent and the locals didn't treat you like shit. Something about Maine—poor, tucked up north out of the way with that ragged, rocky coast of dramatic mood swings—something about this place is easier on misfits.
The question of legal status lingered in the sticky August air during my time in the camp, always present, like mosquitoes that kept biting no matter how many times you slapped your legs. All of the migrants who worked for Cherryfield Foods were legal in that they had passed E-Verify, the federally mandated screening test that runs your Social Security number and is supposed to tell whether or not it's legit. Companies face enormous fines if they hire workers who don't pass, and so it was nothing to take lightly.
And yet at other camps around the state, migrants who spoke on the condition of (absurdly redundant) anonymity proudly let me see the Social Security cards they bought on the streets of Boston for $100 a pop. Fake green cards and driver's licenses, and a few showed me their "insurance"—paperwork for multiple identifications, just in case the first ones didn't work.
"And these pass E-Verify?" I asked.
"E-Verify is a joke," they said, "Everyone pretends."
False papers might be easy to come by, but the workers I spoke to said that getting into the United States was more difficult than ever. Last year President Obama signed a $600 million border-security bill into law, which included a thousand new Border Patrol agents, more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, updated communications equipment, and unmanned surveillance drones.
I heard dramatic tales of hiking for weeks across the Sonoran Desert with skinny donkeys hauling bags of rehydration solution and people paying thousands of dollars to "coyotes" to sneak them over the border. Crossing had become so difficult, in fact, that you couldn't go back and forth to see your family like you used to. Once in, you stayed, for years, not months, because you knew returning to the United States would be treacherous or impossible. Five years, six, maybe seven. You wired the money home until there was enough for a house, or whatever you needed, and only then could you return to your family. To the people I talked to, a tighter border control was mostly a matter of prolonged homesickness.
It was about 4:30 A.M. when Urbano, Juan, and a stumbling Pedro came into the kitchen, a cabin thick with unmoving heat on the outer edge of camp.
"Help," Urbano said, his face and neck wet with sweat.
Humberto, a sickly old raker who cleaned the kitchen in exchange for food, looked up from his sweeping. "He needs a hospital!" he shouted, when he saw the boy's swollen eyes. He himself had no idea where the hospital was; he was, after all, a hitchhiking man.
"Where is the hospital?" Urbano pleaded to Consuelo, who was engrossed as if in a complicated text on the folds of dough beneath her fists. She was a round woman who wore the constant smile of someone intent on avoiding all conflict, opinion, and consequence. "Call that man," she offered, pointing to a business card taped to the wall. Soon her husband, Naud, wandered in, and his brother, Noel, still drunk from the night before. Coffee. Was the coffee ready? In a half hour the rakers would start lining their cars up to convoy out to the fields, and nobody had time for these two punk teenagers and their dad standing in the kitchen.
Urbano gave up. He took the card off the wall and left. In truth, he was afraid of that whole clan; he thought of them like the Mafia of the camp. You had to play by their rules, put up with their blaring music and with Mimi, their creepy Chihuahua, and with that nameless freak of a pit bull. That kitchen was supposed to be for everyone to use, but few felt like cooking after a day of raking, and Consuelo had learned to capitalize on that years ago, back when she and Naud first started coming here with their babies. A lot of the people in the camp appreciated Consuelo's sweet breads, her tamales, and especially her chicken mole, but Urbano and his boys knew how to cook for themselves, and they would have appreciated some use of the kitchen. They didn't come all the way up to Maine to spend money.
"Maybe this man knows where a hospital is," Urbano said to his sons, studying the business card.
The contact information was for Juan Perez-Febles, a beefy guy with a jet black goatee who often came around handing out his card and telling people to call him if they had any trouble. Most people tossed the card as soon as he turned away. Could be some slimy lawyer drumming up business or a spy from Immigration. One thing you learned quick in this line of work is to trust no one.
Juan took the phone from his dad, as a 14-year-old will do, and dialed the number. The phone rang into voice mail. "Can you help us?" Juan asked."My brother is blind."
At the top of Blueberry Circle there's another camp, a better one, where the cabins have indoor plumbing and the workers stay on past the harvest. It's for the higher class of laborers, "the company Hispanics," those who have better skills—tractor experience, pesticide know-how—or better luck and work an hourly wage instead of by the piece. One of the guys saw the car lights coming up the hill. He stepped out of his cabin to see who was leaving so unusually early. Urbano pulled over, and the man, who introduced himself as Luis, leaned into the car to see what was up. "Holy shit!" he said when he saw Pedro's oozing eyes, which really was the only humane response. "Wait here." He ran back to his cabin, where he grabbed his wallet and shoes and jumped in the car, and he took the terrified family to the hospital in Machias, twenty-five miles away.
Meantime, Perez-Febles was holding his phone wondering who the caller was. The ring had awakened him, but he hadn't reached it in time, and the child who left the voice mail offered no name, the caller ID "Unknown." So a boy in one of the camps needed help? Was blind? Forty-five blueberry companies. Thousands of workers to oversee and protect. Perez-Febles dressed quickly, set out on his rounds, and felt a flash of the hopelessness that had a way of following him like a ghost.
Perez-Febles was raised to salute the American flag and never look back. He grew up in Cuba, was sent by his parents to the home of friends in Pittsburgh when he was 16, and went on to embody an American mythology that, in 2011, is beginning to sound quaint, if not downright Disney: a proud national narrative of a country of immigrants who come here and lift themselves up with hard work.
Having put himself through both college and graduate school, Perez-Febles was teaching high school Spanish when he learned of a job in Maine to work with the immigrant community he understood so well. This was back in the mid-'90s, when Maine was known as one of the worst places in America for migrant-labor conditions, and as the state monitor advocate, Perez-Febles was charged with reforming it. He documented violations all over the state, spent three years investigating a broccoli farm where he videotaped himself standing in an open pit of human waste. His work helped enact legislation to curb labor violations, and he became a regular in the blueberry barrens and camps. He set up the Raker's Center next to the Columbia town hall during raking season, a gathering place with free services—donated canned goods and clothes, an education office, legal advice, and a migrant-health program that dispatches mobile units to the barrens. His efforts were hailed among labor advocates, who now hold up Maine as an example of a state that does the right thing.
As for the migrants themselves, the workers I spoke to rarely mentioned the services, or if they did it was not their reason for coming to Maine. The reason was money.
Blueberries have always fetched the highest pay of any crop on the East Coast. They're like the bonus round at the end of a pinball game—all of a sudden the points really started adding up. A good raker with a strong rhythm averages one hundred boxes a day. At $2.25 a box, it's not uncommon to see a weekly check for $1,350. Compare that with just $375 a week picking Georgia peaches, or $400 down in the orange groves of Florida.
Washington County, occupying the far eastern tip of the state, is where the majority of the blueberry barrens are located, and it has 12.2 percent unemployment, the highest in the state. And yet the money does not draw the locally unemployed into the fields—an inexplicable dimension to the new American dream repeated nationwide. Raking is hard, backbreaking work, and the sun is hot.
Just a generation ago, the harvest was a community effort. A ritual that brought all the locals out to the barrens. The blueberries were ripe! They had to be picked! You could make decent cash, help your farmer friends, have a good time gossiping with your neighbors, and shame the teenagers caught kissing behind the birch trees. Afterward you'd celebrate a successful harvest in town at the blueberry festival, compete for best jam or pie or candle or soap. The locals no longer do the raking, but the blueberry festivals still happen all over Maine, and the townspeople still celebrate, and the tourists still come.
The migrant workers I spoke to were well aware of the disconnect: They labored to support a culture they had virtually no part in, for people who had no part in theirs.
"Now, you see everyone here is brown," said Noel, Consuelo's brother-in-law, one morning in the barrens. He was a pretty man with a wide brow and long locks of wavy black hair, and he was cracking open a beer under a blazing sunrise. "When I first came here in 1998, there were white people raking. None now. White people got lazy and let the Spanish take over." There was still a chill in the air, but his shirt was off and he was sweating, having already combed ten boxes of blueberries from the endless green and purple brush. "Spanish didn't fight to take over," he said. "White people dropped their rakes, and Spanish picked them up."
Out in the fields north of Pea Ridge Road, a tall truckload of fresh empties crept out of the horizon, and the workers sprinted like urgent bargain shoppers toward it. Yellow, green, blue, white plastic boxes identical in size, and so they stacked, Lego-style, ten, fifteen at a time. Lift the stack on your shoulder and run. You wanted as many empties as you could carry so you could be sure to have enough to fill as you raked. Your kids, those who were at least 12, raked alongside you, pouring what they got into your boxes. Your kids, those under 12, hid in the car scratching their mosquito bites, waiting until nobody from the company was around before they started raking. The company has zero tolerance about letting underage kids work, because there are laws in America. But your kids wanted to rake, and your family needed the money, so what was the problem? An 8-year-old could easily do fifteen boxes a day, dramatically boosting his family's yield. It was just a matter of not getting caught.
Consuelo's husband, Naud, had claimed the far western edge of the barren, all of the family spread out in consecutive rows that had been marked off with twine by Pat, the crew chief. You wanted the rows that lay flat and were free of rocks, not the valleys or hillsides or the gnarly, weedy spots. One of the ways to claim a spot in the barren was to park your truck and open all the windows and crank the stereo. Most of the music was Mexican pop or traditional Mexican folk, the bass held tight and full by the moist air that smelled aggressively sweet.
A blueberry rake is a rectangular bucket of tines, a giant upturned fork, with a handle that can be short, long, or longer. A swipe with a rake is roughly the same motion as shoveling snow, but you do it faster, your arms swinging, the rake swooshing as it captures dozens of berries at a time. It takes about ten minutes of raking to fill a box; then you carry it to the road, put a piece of masking tape with your name on it, and start on the next empty. No one messes with another man's boxes, his rake, or even his masking tape—that was the code. Treated fairly, you didn't have to push and shove or cheat.
The pungent blueberry smell came out with a rhythmic punch as the brush was continually jostled, and the shush, shush, shush of the rakes was roughly in time with the thumping beat coming from the trucks. You could see necklaces swinging as the workers raked, glints of silver and gold catching the sun. The rocky fields fell into dips and deeper hollows, stretching into the horizon that moved past blood red and onto yellows and blues.
No one this morning talked about where Urbano and his boys were; it's likely no one even knew their names or noticed that they were gone. Except Humberto, the skinny man who cleaned the kitchen, who told the crew chief about the boy who'd shown up with the messed-up eyes. Otherwise it was business as usual, empties, rakes, masking tape, shush, shush, shush. There was no talk, for that matter, of life outside the barrens, of school starting next week, of getting home to sign up for soccer or band. There was no talk of making it home in time for anything, no talk of the next crop, the next job, the next day, or even the tropical storm barreling up the East Coast, headed right here. Time in the barrens had no measure beyond the movement of the sun that warmed your back, then scorched it, then mercifully began letting go.
"Lunchay! Lunchay!" some of the men began shouting. Consuelo was rounding the bend in a white pickup packed with the day's offering—$4 for a tamale, $1 for a Monster Energy drink, $2 for a beer, $3 for scrambled eggs and sweet peppers in a cup—and the workers dropped their rakes and ran toward it. When Naud appeared, the line parted, and Consuelo served her husband first.
It was much later in the day, the sun beginning its surrender, when Perez-Febles finally tracked down the boy who had called about his brother being blind. He was making his rounds in the barrens when he lucked out and ran into Pat, who confirmed that a man in his crew had reported seeing such a boy. Pedro and Juan and Urbano were already back at their tent by the time Perez-Febles pulled up in his enormous black pickup. "Is this the boy?" he asked, hopping out. "Is he okay?"
Pinkeye, stupid pinkeye, a bad case of bacterial conjunctivitis. A complete nonissue for a kid with access to simple antibiotics; terrifying blindness for a kid without. Pedro got the medicine after the doctor pried his eyes open, assuring the family he would see again.
Perez-Febles apologized for not making it to the phone in time. He told them about the mobile medical units, about the Raker's Center, about all the free stuff available to them, and they thanked him, kept quiet, and did not complain. To them he appeared every bit as intimidating as Consuelo's clan—just one more person whose power they did not trust.
"Can I get something for you?" Perez-Febles said. "Can I bring you some food?" He was a hefty man, impeccably groomed, wearing jeans and the kind of dressy short-sleeved shirt that brings to mind cigars and nightclubs in Havana.
"We have plenty of food," Juan lied. "We are all set." He was leaning against their car, a dark green Passat. Urbano stood next to him, a shield protecting Pedro sitting inside.
"The rains are coming," Perez-Febles said. "You need a dry place, no?"
"We're all set."
"They are saying one more day of raking before the rains," Perez-Febles told them. "You should have a good day tomorrow."
"Thank you," Urbano said. "Okay, thank you."
In fact, Urbano wouldn't return to the fields until Pedro could see again. Urbano would not leave his boys alone at the camp—just, no.
The family spent the next day waiting for Pedro's eyes to clear. The day after that, Pedro could see again, but the rains came down—a total washout. They went up to the other camp at the top of Blueberry Circle to see Luis, the man who'd helped them find the hospital and who was by now a friend. There was a TV in the kitchen, and so they watched movies. The next day, the same. The violent tip of the storm was wreaking havoc along the whole coast of New England. Four days straight of none of them raking meant no money coming in, a loss of at least $2, 000. It was a problem. Urbano needed the money urgently.
He was 45 years old, and it seemed as if everything he had worked so hard for was slipping away. He'd fled a life of poverty in Mexico as a teenager, eventually settling in North Carolina. This was back in the 1980s, when it was not unheard of to get a green card legitimately. Urbano had figured out America, even if he'd never quite mastered the language. In the burgeoning South he got steady work in construction, a bank account, a mortgage, and while his marriage didn't work out, he had good kids, smart-enough kids who never bothered anybody. He had never fallen behind in his house payments, not once, but then last year he got word that his dad had died back in Mexico, and so he went home to bury him.
"They shot my daddy," he said, sitting in the driver's seat of his car to stay dry while the rain beat violently down. He told the story without expression, his arm resting on the steering wheel, his gaze set uselessly on the windshield where a fly buzzed and bounced. "Somebody. Crazy people. The killer said he got confused—he wanted to kill somebody else. I said, 'Why confused? Because my daddy is an old guy. Is the other guy old?' He said, 'Yeah, I made a mistake.' "
The boys were up at the other camp with Luis. Urbano was down here by the tent, wondering if there was anything in there he should save from the rising water. The camp, so loud with dancing and drinking and gambling just a few days ago, had been transformed by the rain into a soggy, still sadness. Even the nameless pit bull was nowhere to be seen.
"When I went to Mexico to bury my daddy, I was on a bus," Urbano said. "This is a big problem; they know migrants from America are on the bus. Trucks came in the way. People with guns stopped the bus, a gang. 'All people get off the bus!' Seven thousand dollars cash they got off me. It was all the money I had."
And so he ended up stuck in Mexico, penniless, with a father to grieve and to bury. He washed cars. He cleared cornfields. "It took three months to earn money for the funeral and the trip back home."
He smiled an exhausted smile, took a breath."So when I finally got home to North Carolina, the mortgage man said I was behind—I needed to make money fast. I knew about Maine, I worked here sometime before my sons were born. It's hard, fast money. I got in the car to come, and my son said, 'Hey, Daddy, I go with you to help work for the money, ' and my other son, too. 'Hey, Daddy, what happen if you lost the house?' A lot of years working for the house. A lot of years. This is the point—maybe I can keep it. Maybe. I don't have the money yet. The mortgage man said he needed it, all of it, or else he's putting the house for sale."
Pedro and Juan had never raked before; they knew nothing of a migrant's life. To them it felt like a duty but also an adventure. They would help their dad save the house, and then they would make more money for themselves. They would buy a motorcycle and give rides to girls.
Now, with four straight days of no raking and with blueberry season coming to an end, Urbano was losing hope of ever paying the mortgage man, and nobody talked about motorcycles or girls anymore.
In the car, Urbano swatted at the fly but missed. Suddenly he remembered Slim Jims—he had some Slim Jims in a Ziploc bag in the tent. He dashed into the rain to retrieve them, then drove back up to the boys at the other camp. They were in the kitchen watching The Price Is Right with some ladies from town in skinny jeans and high heels fanning themselves from the sticky wet heat.
When they saw their father, they marched up to him, excited. "We can stay here after blueberries and work other jobs," Juan told him. In the kitchen, the boys had learned about people staying in Maine into winter to work in the sea-cucumber factories; it was a famously disgusting, slimy job that had a way of appealing to a 14-year-old. It was the end of summer, and the idea of going back to school was sinking in.
Urbano listened and mostly heard foolishness. He knew his boys would soon start to miss home, their friends, the American-teenager life he had built for them. He knew they longed to try out for football and go to the movies and kick back at the mall. They weren't rough-and-tumble migrant kids. They were gentle young men who were oblivious to the solicitations of the heavily perfumed women in the room.
"You have to go to school," Urbano said to his sons. "You can live with your mother."
Some of the men in the kitchen laughed and made back-to-school jokes, but the boys did not want an audience for this conversation, so they fell silent.
"I make the decisions," Urbano said. "You have to go to school."
Perez-Febles was carrying cans of kidney beans and applesauce to his truck in the parking lot of the Raker's Center, and he was getting worked up. He grabbed hold of two sacks of rice and heaved them into the back of the truck and then began driving toward Allen's farm. He knew this work was important—passing out food and medical supplies and information on legal services—but nothing was nearly as vital as the work he did translating. "I have to promise them, no chupacabras," he said."Chupacabra is a devil in the woods, a mythical animal that sucks blood. It's evil-looking, like a coyote. A lot of the people who come here are afraid of the woods. Scared to death, some of them.
"We need a program for us to understand them as well as the reverse," he said. His brow sweat easily and his eyes scanned constantly, like a man of secrets. "All the cultural things. I don't even know where to begin. We refrigerate everything here. They're like, 'What?' They don't have refrigerators back home, or if they do, the electricity is spotty. Then the employer gets fined because the employees leave food out. They don't know. They don't know to flush. They don't have plumbing. Flies. I have to put signs: Please flush.
"When I first came, women was one problem," he said. "Drinking another. Fights. Drinking and driving. They had no idea about that. I tell them they'll be put in jail. I try to educate them on the way we live. I say, 'People have rights here, and there is recourse with the law.' And I tell them about DWM—Driving While Mexican. I tell them that they will get stopped. They don't understand this law, and I tell them it's not a law, it's hard to explain." He sighed often, as if overwhelmed by the amount of information to convey, and when we passed Wyman's camp, a spic-and-span settlement of blue bunkhouses, he craned his neck to see if anyone was using the migrant soccer field.
"There are not enough documented workers to fill the needs—not nearly enough," he said. "America is dependent on its undocumented workers, absolutely." He rattled off immigration facts and figures the way another man would talk about box scores. He said migrants pay into Social Security—money they'll never collect because their IDs are fake. "That's billions of dollars for the Treasury Department to keep. It's really a good deal for the U.S. in many ways.
"I helped investigate a murder at a camp years ago," he said. "A knife opened the guy up. Blood all over the place. I wanted his widow in Mexico to get his money. He had $700, and I wanted to find her. We found seven IDs on him. We could not even identify the victim."
Shortly after the storm passed, the sun returned, steam rose from the earth, and moods shifted dramatically. "You dump these buckets and I will get the sheets," Urbano was saying to Juan and Pedro. He was holding an empty laundry basket, standing in the cabin at the top of Blueberry Circle that had become the family's new home. Perez-Febles had continued to visit Urbano and his boys, and in time they began to trust him. The trust changed everything. Perez-Febles helped Urbano get a job with Cherryfield Foods. He could stay on and clean the fields, work the pesticides, become one of the "company Hispanics," like Luis. The job paid $9.50 an hour, and it would mean a chance to save the house in North Carolina.
The boys had just finished scrubbing the walls, mopping the floors, scouring the place with Pine-Sol so it smelled hospital-clean. This cabin was bigger than anything down at the other camp, and it was just a few years old, solid, whitewashed, built to last. Right next door was the cabin that held the kitchen and the TV and bathrooms—with indoor plumbing—and the laundry room, where Urbano went to retrieve the sheets that were spun clean and dry. He pulled the sheets from the dryer, savored the powdery smell and the warmth. He took time to fold them corner-to-corner, and then he carried them back into the cabin, where the boys had each claimed a top bunk. Urbano thought about how many nights his boys had spent in the soggy tent and then the car, and something about the smell of the Pine-Sol and the sweetness of the clean fabric, just all of it combined, hit him and filled him with the kind of happiness that flows in bursts when a man feels any significant hope.
Another person might not have looked at a camp in the woods with indoor plumbing and felt overwhelmed with good fortune. But for Urbano, it was like his luck was a weather vane that had been stuck for the longest time and then God sent a tropical storm to give it a mighty shove.
Juan and Pedro did not entirely share in their father's elation. Urbano had agreed to allow the boys to stay with him, but then he came up with the stupid idea of signing them up for school. The bus to Narraguagus High would pick them up at the top of Blueberry Circle. Both boys hated everything about the new school. They hated the name. Who could even pronounce it? They hated that it didn't have a football team. They hated that their dream of making money working with slimy fish and buying a motorcycle wasn't happening—the whole adventure of staying in Maine to save their father from financial ruin was interrupted by the dull clamp of reality.
"We will play hooky every day," Juan said.
"We're not kidding, Dad," Pedro said. "We are not going."
Urbano paid them no mind and told them to get in the car, and then they all drove to the Walmart in Ellsworth to buy three-ring binders and paper and pencils so that everything would be ready for their first day. Pedro sat in the front, sucking a green lollipop, and Juan was in the back with his ball cap jammed low. He was wearing a T-shirt splattered with the signatures from last year's eighth-grade graduation—I love ya, Juan! Shawna hearts ya! Ron was here!—a history that now seemed like somebody else's. They were migrant kids now. "Loser kids," Pedro said to Juan. Under his ball cap, Juan was wondering if any kids up here even skateboarded. He wondered if Pedro was right, that the white kids were assholes to the migrants. He would fight for his family's honor if he had to. If he had to. His thoughts grew sour as fear solidified, and the towns along Route 182 rolled by the window. Most of them were tiny and quaint. They had pots of petunias hanging and American flags flapping and banners strung lamppost-to-lamppost advertising the blueberry festival in nearby Machias—a blueberry musical, a blueberry parade, a blueberry quilt exhibit, a tour of an actual working blueberry farm with a free shuttle.