by Fernando Almaraz
photo: Allagash Brewing
“Let’s go home,” yelled one of the foreman. I could not have been happier to hear those words.
It was the second hottest day since I had begun working the fields at a nursery in Hickman, about 30 miles outside of Merced. The temperature had topped 98 degrees and foremen were debating whether to let workers go early.
“Temperatures are going to be like this the entire week,” said one foreman as a slight breeze kicked in. “If you can’t handle [it] don’t come.” My hopes fell.
On that particular summer day nearly one year ago we had been working with shovels to remove weeds that surrounded the rows of peach tree saplings. The loose dirt and sparse shade made the work tough.
I had never worked the fields, though generations of my family have. My grandfather began working in the fields at the age of 11, and my grandmother worked alongside him until they retired. My father has worked everything from grapes to sweet potatoes.
However, unlike my family, I was working the fields by choice.
I am currently a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington D.C. While I have more opportunities than either my father or grandparents did, I made it a point to return to Merced and to work in the fields during my first summer home.
My first lesson working the fields is that it requires physical strength. Laying grow-straight stakes, for example, meant carrying about twenty-five pounds of stakes to cover only about two sprinklers, forcing you to make multiple rounds. Then we had to cut the “suckers,” or unnecessary branches, off the small almond trees. This requires bending over all day to reach the branches with a knife, while being careful not to hurt the sapling.
To ease the strain on my back I knelt in the hard, burning hot dirt. By the end of the day my knees were so bruised they sometimes kept me from walking properly, so I decided to purchase a set of gel-filled kneepads and a back brace. I also bought my own knife and cutting scissors.
Initially, the other workers saw me as a spoiled college kid only working for fun. Though I worked for my kneepads and scissors — I used my first paycheck to purchase them — I knew they were a privilege some of the others couldn’t afford.
Luckily, over the weeks the more I spoke with my co-workers the more they accepted me into the workplace family. In the fields, conversations and jokes made the day go quicker, and because the foremen did not allow us to listen to music, many people sang to pass the time. Slowly but surely, I began to get the hang of the job and gain the respect of my peers.
Only a month before I was worlds away on Capitol Hill, a university freshman having my picture taken alongside Congressman Luis Gutierrez, or listening in on oral arguments inside the Supreme Court of the United States as a guest of the court on behalf of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Attending GWU is a privilege, but adapting to a campus life has been a challenge. Working in the nursery, while I was the only college student there, everyone I saw at least looked like me, or like they could be an uncle or even a grandparent.
GWU couldn’t be more different. Students here come from all over the world. Nearly 10 percent are international, more than the total number of Latino students enrolled in the entire school. And as far as I know, I am the only student from the Central Valley.
My background also means I stick out in other ways. From my first day of classes I felt as if I had to prove myself to my classmates. In Merced, I excelled academically, but in D.C. I’m now having to catch-up.
Everyday dinners out in D.C. are an impossibility for me – instead I’m limited to Chipotle or the university’s cafeteria. Trying to fit in by keeping up with constant trips to watch a Nationals baseball game, a movie in Georgetown or an expensive dinner out worry me as I watch my bank account shrink. Vineyard Vines, a preppy clothing brand I had never heard of, is very popular, making my blue Wrangler jeans feel cheap.
But I’ve since learned to see my differences as an advantage. In philosophy class I began to understand just how different my political, social and cultural views are from my classmates, a difference that brings with it a unique perspective that adds to the conversation and to projects we’ve worked on.
I believe it is that difference that landed me a spot as a University Justice on a student panel that determines consequences for peers who have broken the university code of conduct.
My immigrant background has given me a sense of direction, and that is to achieve my vision of the American Dream. My parents have sacrificed and given me their support, and now the responsibility to achieve that dream falls on my shoulders. Even though I have come to see D.C. as my home away from home, and a place of amazing opportunity, the Central Valley will always be my heart.
I know where I’m going and I know where I come from.