On our arrival in the Mesilla Valley, various crops were being tended and harvested. One morning, farmworkers descended upon the onion field immediately across the road from our house. The vehicles that brought them there bore the license plates of New Mexico, Chihuahua, Colorado, and Texas. Throughout the day, men and women slowly combed through the field. By day’s end, through a dusty haze, the field was jammed with hundreds of stuffed burlap bags, and the hot air had the faint odor of soupe à l’oignon. The bagged onions then found their way to Valley plants where they were packed into mesh bags and stored in the shelter of huge sheds, awaiting shipment by truck to markets throughout the region, if not the entire United States.
Two porta-potties stood at the edge of the field being harvested. In fact, during the onion harvest, porta-potties seemed to be everywhere, beside fields and riding individually on little trailers pulled by pickup trucks scurrying throughout the county. The days of squatting in a ditch or behind a tree were evidently over; for this, I thanked César Chavez.
Meanwhile, the cotton continued to grow behind our house, reaching a height of eight inches by the third week of June. It was then that some 35 farmworkers, each carrying a hoe, entered the field early one morning and, forming a phalanx 50 yards wide, began weeding and breaking up the soil, all the while carefully avoiding the plants. I couldn’t imagine doing such gingerly work with my size-15 footwear; of course, I couldn’t imagine doing this kind of work at all.
Elsewhere, swathers―giant reel mowers―were cutting the valley’s alfalfa, and alfalfa fields were being irrigated. Flooded alfalfa fields attracted snowy egrets stepping delicately through the impounded waters as they quenched their thirst and dined on flushed-out insects. Closer to the river, pecan orchards, their trees planted with geometric perfection and pruned with equal attention to symmetry, were being copiously flooded, often standing in what could only be described as vast ponds. It was in one of them that I spotted, after all these years, my first fox in New Mexico.
Not every farmworker arrived at a field in a motor vehicle. Once, in the pre-dawn hours, when I couldn’t sleep and was bound in the truck on a country road for a donut shop in west El Paso, a figure on a one-speed bicycle, his hoe recumbent upon the handlebar, emerged from the gloom, obviously headed for a field of one sort or another. There were likely many more of such commuters in the valley.
The mother ditches, those that fed the smaller ditches that in turn fed the field furrows, were now full nearly to the brim, perhaps four or five feet deep in places, and running swiftly. Civilization’s detritus that had chanced to collect in their beds and on their slanted banks throughout the dry months of winter and spring was now defenseless before such liquid clutches, was now being swept away to who knew where. One afternoon, so high was the water in a mother ditch that the tunnel beneath O’Hara Road had trapped a massive raft of Styrofoam, grass, weeds, sticks, plastic bags, flyers, a nude Barbie Doll, a can of oven cleaner, and empty beer, pop, and motor oil bottles. How far would the essence of this boulabosh burrow its way into the production of an onion, pecan, or pair of cotton underwear? I wondered.