MIGRANT WORKER ERICA SANCHEZ WANTS HER WORLD TO GO BEYOND THE CHERRY FARMS MICHIGAN SUTTONS BAY
Erica Sanchez has been picking cherries since second grade, since the day her father decided she was old and strong enough to strap a pail around her neck and go to work with her family.
She is 22 now, with goals and dreams far loftier than the cherry trees Leelanau County. She cannot begin to estimate the number of cherries that passed through her small hands. Yet even after 14 years, she will stop sometimes and look at a single cherry cradled in her palm.
At that instant – those few seconds in a hot, dirty day – “I feel special Sanchez says. She’ll notice the curves of the cherry, the shades of red an the spots of yellow or green, and she’ll think, “Hey, I picked this cherry. maybe Madonna will eat it, or President Clinton.”
Five months a year, her world is a migrant camp and the fields and orchards around it. At the same time, her world and her pride have no limit. She is proud of her father, who used to ride his bicycle across the border from Mexico to work in the fields. Of her mother, who rises at 5 to make the tortillas the family will eat for lunch. Of her older sister Christina, a nursing student. Of her high school diploma, her plan to become schoolteacher and her vision of summers spent helping the migrant children remind her of herself.
Sanchez, her parents, her two brothers and two younger sisters left the southern tip of Texas a month ago in a 1983 Dodge Van. In Suttons Bay, 17 miles north of Traverse City, they live a familiar routine: the strawberry harvest, then cherries, then apples as the weather turns and they begin to for home.
A long winter and cool spring pushed back the strawberry harvest until and will delay the beginning of cherry season to next week at the earliest. For the first time Sanchez can remember, none of her cherries will grace the National Cherry Festival, which ends its eight-day run Saturday in Traverse City.
Sanchez has never been to the festival, which brings 500,000 people to northwest corner of the Michigan mitten. She has never seen the bands and floats and Budweiser Clydesdales of the Cherry Royale Parade, or eaten at the Sara Lee Cherry Pie Pavillion, or watched a free concert at the bay-front bandstand.
But even as the festival imports 30,000 pounds of fresh cherries from Washington, it acknowlodges a bond with Sanchez. For all the heavy machine rumbling through orchards at harvest times, she and a few thousand other migrant workers remain the literal backbone of the industry.
Migrants hand-pick virtually all the sweet cherries, the ones that go directly from carton to mouth. After mechanical tree-shakers drop tart cherries from other trees onto tarpaulins, migrants hold the heavy tarps le while the machines pull the cherries onto conveyor belts. Migrants sort cherries at processing plants and spray pesticides. And once in a while, a migrant might hold a round, ripe, perfect cherry in the palm of her hand and wonder at it all.
SANCHEZ HOLDS OUT her arms to Carina Barrajas, and the curly-haired 11-month old climbs into her lap and stop squalling.
Carina is the dauther of a family friend who bunks in another camp. It’s a few days before the beginning of strawberry season, and the migrants, idle for two weeks, are running out of ways to fill time Sanchez is tending Carina in the crowded living of an elderly mobile home. She is go with babies. Good with all kids, in fact: Two years ago, she was a teacher aid at a summer migrant school and day care center.
This summer, she will work mostly with fruit, either picking or sorting On fortunate days, she may be assigned to baby-sit. But her father tells himm all the time to work toward something else. It’s the American Dream, outline in Spanish. Get an education. Be somebody. Do better than your parents.
Domingo Sanchez Sr. was born in the United States, but he and his wife, Eleuteria, grew up in Mexico. Neither speaks English.
For the three older kids, points out Erica Sanchez, “there was nobody to help us with our homework.” The three youngest have been luckier, getting educational hand me downs from their siblings, but they still have to switch schools every fall when the family drives the 1,800 miles back to Elsa, Texas
Sanchez’s English is accented but grammatically solid, an odd advantage learning it exclusively at school. Confident and outgoing, she has evolved into the family spokeswoman. When the Sanchezes wanted to bring friends no to work this year, Erica dialed up the president of Cherry Bay Orchards.
Dan Gregory said sure, bring’em up. The Sanchezes have worked for him eight years, and he trusts them. Besides, he wouldn’t want to disapoint he “Everyone likes Erica,” Gregory says. She is the life of what passes for party: “Regardless of who she’s working with, she’ll joke around with them. A little playfulness, explains Sanchez, helps people forget how much their muscles ache. “You have to be there, so you might as well try to make it fun.”
She does not look to be cut out for field work. With her high cheek bone and rounded face, she seems too young to drive, let alone work a seven-day week. Were this a workday, she would be wearing a baseball cap over her shoulder-length hair and long sleeves to protect her arms from pesticides. Instead, she chose a short a short-sleeved black top, black print slacks an backless espadrilles.
On her right middle finger is her ring from Edcouch-Elsa High School. So could not afford a genstone, so the center of the ring is clear glass. Etc in the glass is the school mascot the industrius bee. THE REWARD for years of good work and loyalty is the best trailer in the camp.
Five mobile homes squat on one side of a grass and gravel cul-de-sac surrounded by towering maples. A chain of clotheslines stretches the length the oval drive. The Sanchez home, the last of the cluster, sits parallel to the gravel road. Two bench-style car seats out front serve as lawn chairs.
Erica Sanchez and sisters Diana, 13, and Brenda, 10, share one bedroom. Their parents get the other. Domingo Jr., 21 and Jose Miguel, 18, sleep on tattered sofas in the living room, where the door is open to an early after breeze.
“This is heaven for us, for camp to be like this,” Erica Sanchez says, others in the living room nod. Some migrants have to sleep in tents. Other sleep in their cars. “We’ve stayed where the shower is outside, the bathroom is outside, everything is outside.”
The Sanchezes have a television and a stereo old enough that it uses a turntable. They had a phone two summers ago but took it out after Erica ran a $200 bill calling friends in Elsa. To the left of the television, stacked next to the door, are four fresh tires for the van.
Jose Miguel is parked across from the tires, playing a video game on the TV set with Robert Orozco. Jose Miguel is in a recliner, and Robert, a 14-yr. old camp neighbor, is slouched across the mismatched ottoman. He’s wearing black Michael Jordan uniform top.
Diana and Brenda are riding herd on a 3-year-old girl and 8-month-old boy the children of another camp neighbor. Domingo Sr. is watching the video game and Eleuteria is watching everything.
“Strawberries are the worst,” Erica says, and again there is agreement in the room. “You have to bend down all day. You get home, and you’re all red You even smell like a strawberry.”
The only good thing about strawberry season is that it means that cherries are coming. All harvests pay roughly the same, about $250 a week after taxe for a good picker. But cherries are easier, there is more variety to the work and the fruit tastes terrific right off the tree.
“I can eat cherries all day and all night,” Sanchez says, smiling at the thought. Workers can take cherries home, and they tend to eat them until the bodies beg for mercy.
“You going to get sick this year?” Jose Miguel asks Robert.
Robert, busy killing futuristic gladiators, does not take his eyes from TV screen. “Yep.”
IN THE EARLY 1960’S, before automation, northwest Michigan growers needed 35,000 migrants to get the crops in.
Local restaurants served blueplate Mexican dinners on Thursday night. On weekends, Spanish-language movies were projected onto the outside wall of a store in Suttons Bay.
The industry gets by nowadays with 4,500 migrants, many of whom work only during apple season. A dead-end job has become deader.
By the time the younger girls finish high school, the Sanchezes may have given up the road. Christina will be a nurse. Domingo Jr. has trained to paint cars. Domingo Sr., who built the family’s small home in Elsa, is slow working on a larger one-four bedrooms, two baths-and he says that when it is finished, so is he.
Only Erica plans to keep coming north.
She has found her calling and her college, Pan American University of Edinburg, Texas. She has not found the money to go there, but she says with absolute certainty that she will.
She will become Miss Sanchez the schoolteacher, and when her students go home for the summer, she will go to Suttons Bay. She will work with migrant children, she says, teaching them to read and dream. And every year, on a bright July Saturday, they will all go to the cherry festival parade.