Mami and Papi
The owner of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury heads to Mexico to visit the family of his farm workers
Written onJune 13 , 2013
My partner, Meg, and I made our first journey to Mexico in the two weeks before Christmas 2009. We enjoyed some beach time on the Pacific, caught a couple of monster fish, and rode a few waves. We were joined there by our friends Isaac and Melissa, Craftsbury residents who are in the Peace Corps in Panama. After a week on the beach we rode the bus inland to Ixtapa. This is four hours southwest of Mexico City, in the state of Guerrero, and is home base for the Reyes Vargas clan. The Reyes Vargas have nine children, and we have gotten to know seven of them over the past four years. They have worked on our farm in the summers and we affectionately call them “the amigos.” I’ve never really asked them if they enjoy this moniker but it’s been a handy catch-all name for us.
The Reyes Vargas “amigos” are a classy bunch—hardworking, polite, extremely trustworthy, and a pleasure to live and work with. I’d long been curious about their farm in Mexico. (The family doesn’t actually live in Ixtapa but in Huitacotla, a tiny town perched above Ixtapa.) I’d spent many hours listening to their descriptions of cows, horses, fields of tomatoes, tomatillos, and corn. I was also curious about the parents who had produced such a great clan.
It was a real pleasure to get to know Mami and Papi. Mami is cheerful, pretty, and seems to easily handle the challenges of running an extended household of 23 members. She makes tortillas every day, cooking corn grown on their land, then wet-grinding it into masa, forming the pancake shapes with a press, and cooking them on a wood fire. Tortilla consumption is seven to eight per person per day, so that is a lot of work. Papi is short and lean, weighing no more than 120 lbs. He is sprightly and has a deeply lined face from years in the sun. He’s quiet and clearly the favorite of all the grandchildren. Apparently Mexican men do not typically show a lot of affection towards children, but he nearly always has one or two in his lap.
The family treated us like royalty. They live in small, concrete floored houses. There are five houses in a cluster, and the largest and most central house is a communal bunk and TV room that is used by unmarried children and grandchildren. This compound is perched on a barren, eroded, and parched hillside overlooking a greener valley below. Apparently no one in town could remember the last time there had been a gringo in town, and Mami and Papi were deeply grateful for how well their children have been treated at Pete’s Greens. Delicious food was forced on us nearly hourly, which caused all sorts of interesting intestinal issues.
As for the farm, I was prepared to be wowed. The work ethic that the Reyes Vargas demonstrate while working on our farm is truly incredible, and so ingrained in their being that it’s obvious they don’t just put it on for their trip to the States. They come to Pete’s Greens on the H2A work visa program, arriving in April and departing when the last root is out of the ground in early November. Unfortunately, though, life for this farm family is more complicated than just working hard. It is very dry in their area and getting worse every year. They have abandoned a prime field because water no longer flows in a brook that used to be reliable. Instead they have to walk 20 minutes down a very steep path to a field that has gravity-flow water. Erosion and overgrazing are a real problem, and I suspect the water issues are at least partially related to that.
Their climate is ideal for most vegetable and fruit crops—warm, sunny days and cool, dry nights. There are virtually no home gardens in their town, just corn for tortillas and larger-scale commercial crops, such as tomatoes and tomatillos. This was puzzling to us, as they enjoy eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. While this produce is fairly inexpensive to buy, it didn’t seem inexpensive compared to the average wage in the area, which is $10 per day. It seems almost a matter of religion to grow your own corn, as every house has last year’s crop stored on their roof, but home gardening has either never been part of their culture or has been mostly lost.
The economics of commercial production is really tough for the family. They grow two acres of tomatillos, which are about one-third of a golf ball in size and miserably time consuming to harvest. They fill burlap bags with 70 lbs. of tomatillos and carry them on their backs 20 minutes back up the steep path to the road. Then they drive them nearly two hours over several mountain passes to the market. The market is huge—perhaps 15 times the size of the Montpelier farmers’ market. There is no regulation of who shows up to sell food—it’s a “free market” at its best, or worst. When the family goes to market they have no idea what the tomatillo price is going to be—it all depends on how many other folks have tomatillos that day. The price is never great, though, averaging about $15 per 70-lb. bag. When there are gluts, the price can be a lot worse.
We also visited a half-acre greenhouse tomato operation located in another town and run by a fellow who is clearly one of the richer guys in town. The techniques and equipment used to grow the tomatoes are very similar to those we use in Vermont. The greenhouse is tall and gutter connected, the tomatoes are trellised to the peak, and hydroponic fertilizer solution is used to feed the plants. They had been getting a good price of 50 cents per lb. all fall but the previous week the price had fallen to 10 cents per lb. They were discouraged by this but still harvesting and packing the tomatoes.
I wish we didn’t need to hire the Reyes Vargas to work on our farm and that they didn’t need to travel here in order to earn a living. In the best of worlds, young people in Vermont would be raised to value and appreciate hard work and we’d have no problem getting our work done with local folks. And in the best of worlds, the Reyes Vargas would be tending bountiful, irrigated fields in Mexico and selling their produce for a fair price at their local market.
But our lives are richer with the addition of some south-of-the-border culture in the Northeast Kingdom, and the Reyes Vargas (most of whom haven’t been to school beyond 6th grade) have been exposed to places and things they had never dreamed existed (May snowstorms in particular). We are grateful for their friendship and look forward to more visits to see Mami and Papi.
Photo courtesy of Pete Johnson