Sounds of Home

The roll call of names flowed from the merchant’s lips as Antonia and the girls rushed to the village store where women and children gathered for news from El Norte. Inside, the village’s unofficial postman drew envelopes from a pouch. He’d carried these miles from the nearest town, where mail arrived almost daily, postmarked with the names of far-away places: Arkansas, Texas, and California. Always so many from California. He waved white envelopes in the air, calling out names.

When Antonia heard hers, she nudged through the crowd, past the outstretched arms, and reached for the letter.

She hadn’t heard her husband’s voice in more than a year, since he’d left to labor in San Buenaventura, California, a place of good fortune, as its name in Spanish denoted. She and the children longed to hear his footsteps approach the bend in the dirt road near their adobe home and his voice sing, “¡Ya regresé, familia!”—“I’ve returned, family!” The words carried a melody as nostalgic as a Pedro Infante ranchera they’d heard streaming from the rare battery-powered radio inside a villager’s home.

*

“¡Números!” the foreman announced at dawn, rattling off numbers near the orange groves of Ventura. Don Luis listened, ready to answer  as if it were his name. More than a year into his bracero work stint, he longed for the sounds of home: crickets singing in a village lit by a full moon’s glow and family calling out “¡Papá!” upon his return.

“Forty-four!”

Don Luis slung the canvas sack around his shoulder. The foreman directed him to the orchard, where a crew of braceros gathered.

They propped 14- and 18-foot ladders against the trees. Don Luis dashed up the trees. He grabbed the fruit with one hand and clipped with the other. He climbed, clipped and dropped the fruit into the sack. On the way down, he poured in the oranges into a crate. He’d scrambled up and down like this for days in hopes of a hefty check.

At sundown the ladders came down and foremen counted the boxes. Workers climbed into trucks and headed back to camp.

In the evening, the men retired to their barracks and rows of cots lining a large hall. The scents of lemon, orange and sweat hung in the air. Don Luis lay on his cot. The men spoke in hushed tones.

The lights went out; the voices trailed off. In a corner, a ranchera sung by Las Hermanas Padilla, a duet, streamed from the speakers of a radio perched on a wooden crate, the song of a dove, a palomita mensajera, sending a message of love across the distance. Don Luis closed his eyes, a pile of letters by his cot. He’d answered each one, tucked a money order inside. “I’ll be home soon,” he’d written in the last one.

Days later, the foreman issued paychecks. Don Luis took his. One hundred dollars and over 500 boxes appeared next to his pick number. But nearly $25 had been deducted for board and meals: oatmeal and fruit, white bread bologna sandwiches, taquitos, spaghetti, beans and the occasional meat. He pocketed the check and ventured into town one last time.

On the main drag, he and his fellow braceros entered a store to cash their checks and make purchases. Some rushed to the men’s department for Stetson hats, watches and boots. Others scoured the women’s section for nylon stockings, cosmetics and jewelry.

He watched as the men flocked to aisles nearby. He followed them, passing phonographs, typewriters, treadle sewing machines. He stopped and stared at a boxy device on display.

He marveled at the brown leather handle, wooden paneling and shiny dials.

“¿Cuánto?” he asked the clerk for the price.

“Cincuenta.”

He fished for the check in his pocket to cash it and pay the $50.

He remembered his first shopping trip in Utah as a war-time bracero working on the railroad tracks. In town, nylons, sugar and new radios were scarce because of the war. English voices blared from shopkeepers’ radios, delivering news of the war along with the latest Andrews Sisters songs. But back in camp, he and his fellow braceros reveled in the sounds of home they heard in the double Rs that rolled from their tongues and the Mexican songs they’d discovered on a radio.

“I’ll take it,” Don Luis said to the clerk, after confirming that it was battery-powered. He carried it back to camp.

That night, he packed cloth, girls’ dresses, pants and shirts into cardboard boxes. He nestled the radio between the garments and closed the flaps, tying them down with twine. But the radio swayed and tumbled, so he unpacked it. He wrapped thick towels over it, placing it inside his suitcase instead.

The next day, workers filed into a single line outside camp, their numbers checked off a list by a labor contractor. They loaded cardboard boxes and green metal suitcases atop buses and boarded for the trip south.

Don Luis slumped into a seat beside a buddy, who told him his plans to set up a sewing shop for his family and fill it with customers from the village, the mother who needed to mend her children’s pants, the girls eager to see the new patterns and colors of cloth from El Norte, to be fitted around their waists.

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

Don Luis described the light-brown exterior, wooden cabinet and shiny dials of his prized possession.

“¡Qué chulada!” his buddy exclaimed. It was a beauty, Don Luis agreed.

The bus rumbled past strawberry, orange and lemon fields. As it neared the U.S-Mexico border, the braceros guarded their goods with a watchful eye. They got off, as boxes, knapsacks and suitcases were unloaded from the bus.

Don Luis and the men knew the routine. Stories abounded of the watch or hat that enticed a border guard. Some carried extra cash just in case, though the goods they carried were free of tariffs. Yet they clung to the cash in their pockets to pay for the additional bus or taxi fare home, the last leg of their journey.

Up ahead, a border guard inspected a bracero’s suitcase. Don Luis held his breath. Then he watched as a guard unknotted the twine on his cardboard box to sift through the pile of clothes.

“Muévanse” the guards said, prodding the men to move along.

Don Luis secured his cardboard box once again and took his belongings, the radio stored safely in his suitcase. He boarded the bus bound for Zacatecas.

It travelled for nearly a day, crossing one Mexican state after another. Braceros got off at each stop, including Don Luis’ buddy, who waved goodbye, hauling his sewing machine.

The bus finally slowed at a familiar spot. Don Luis gathered his boxes and suitcase and hailed the only taxi in town.

It weaved in and out of narrow paths and onto dirt roads leading to a remote village, its silence broken only by the “cri-cri-cri” of crickets singing in the countryside.

The driver braked. Don Luis unloaded the boxes and handed coins to the driver. He gripped the suitcase, leaving the boxes behind, to cross a drier than normal river bed. His shoes crunched on the dirt path. Around the bend, voices erupted near a pair of orange and lemon trees in the dirt courtyard.

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

His family huddled around him, the small glass bulb of a petroleum lamp lighting their faces.

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

When he’d settled in, he opened the gifts. Swatches of cloth, clothes and a brown rectangular object spilled out.

His daughter traced with her finger the letters engraved on the radio: P-H-I-L-C-O. That night, the voices of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán flowed from the speakers, singing of love and loss.

At sunrise, Antonia and the girls patted tortillas as the radio blared songs and radio novelas. The radio followed them outdoors for “Tardes Rancheras,” a medley of afternoon tunes that reached the ears of neighboring villagers. They listened and lingered, wondering when their husbands, fathers or sons would return.

Don Luis plowed the fields with his yoke and oxen. The oldest children assisted with planting corn and beans despite the drought-plagued land. At the foot of a mesquite tree, he and Antonia collected top soil and walked back home. They poured the soft soil beside the orange and lemon trees and planted flowers. Rare raindrops trickled down a few days later.

But the call for brazos, arms, to work in El Norte continued to pour into the villages. It came in handbills posted in municipal offices, in newspapers, in chats among returning migrants. And in the announcements heard on  new battery-powered radios.

After several months at home, Don Luis gathered a satchel with a change of clothes and walked out onto the dirt path, his name secured on his village’s bracero list.

“Adiós, Papá,” his children said, wrapping their arms around him.

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

The taxi rumbled on as he waved and waved, long after his family faded from sight.

He’d board a bus and train en route to the bracero recruitment center in northern Mexico, 800 miles away. He didn’t know where his work stint would take him or the pick number he’d be assigned, but he’d memorize it too, as sure as his name.

*

In a remote Mexican village, a child tugged at the hem of a mother’s dress, asking for a father’s whereabouts.

“He’s in the North. He won’t be long,” she’d reply, as the radio played songs of longing and a tune about a palomita mensajera, a dove carrying a message of love.

Far away, Don Luis lay on a cot at night as the voice of singer José Alfredo Jiménez wafted through speakers from inside a California bracero camp, accompanied by memories of raindrops on blooming chrysanthemums and women’s hands patting tortillas at dawn, singing alongside a radio.

Fruit of Labor

The flat-bed truck rumbled along the back roads of Ventura County, California. Don Luis crouched in a corner. His buddies’ elbows poked his ribs. It had been a long day, climbing ladders, filling sacks, emptying lemons into crates on the way down. But it beat picking beets in Nebraska. He’d returned home penniless after that stint, despite pleas to officials at the border bracero office to recoup his wages. At the cooperativa store in his Mexican village, he’d awaited a check in the mail that never came. Now, a year later, the memory of that fruitless trip to the Great Plains still stung like thorns tearing his skin as he picked lemons. But he’d get his pay, he thought, as he leaned against the truck’s side panel, while the engine hummed and he fell asleep.

Then a siren shook him from his slumber. Braceros scrambled, flailing their arms in the dark, canvas sacks still slung across their shoulders.

Don Luis sat upright. In the distance, the red lights atop a patrol car blinded him. Brakes screeched as the truck skidded off the road. A few feet away, a door slammed and footsteps crunched on gravel.

An object gleamed in the dark as a man approached the truck.

“All of you, get down,” he said, a badge affixed to his uniform. The foreman slammed the driver’s door and instructed the men, in Spanish, to climb out, then followed his crew.

Don Luis and the men flung canvas sacks off their backs and jumped out of the flatbed truck.

“Single file,” the police officer said.

Don Luis lined up, just as he did at the border bracero processing center where ranchers’ representatives gathered to select workers. He knew the routine. No shiny belt buckles, smooth hands, or back talk.

His neck stiffened and hands fidgeted. Was someone in trouble? As far as he knew, everyone had bracero papers. Or did they? In recent years, contracts had been harder to get.

The officer scanned the men’s arms.

“I need you,” he began, pointing to each of them. “There’s a fire raging over there.” He pointed to the hills.

Don Luis and the men broke away from the line. Fire trucks screeched as crews disembarked, hauling hoses, protective gear, and equipment.

Don Luis followed them into the desolate hillside. His feet and legs dragged, heavy from the day’s climbing. Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

After nearly two hours, his legs began to buckle as he reached the hilltop. He looked up and saw firemen frantically extinguishing flames. Don Luis and his buddies hauled buckets, equipment, and hoses to them through the night.

As the sun peeked above the Ventura skyline, a sweet aroma cut through the haze. Workers set up a table, spreading it with bread and coffee. They sat there – braceros and firefighters together – atop the hillside, amid the embers. Don Luis poured a cup of coffee and bit into the bread. It filled his empty stomach.

Then he and his buddies followed the foreman for the downhill trek and drive back to the bracero camp, where lemons and oranges waited to be picked.

*  *

About that time, the postman at the village cooperativa store announced: “A letter for Don Luis.” Antonia grasped the envelope addressed to her husband, then handed it to her father to read.

“From Nebraska,” he said, opening the envelope. A check spilled out.

It came just in time. Food was scarce at home. They went to town to cash it.

In town, the teller studied the check.

“And where is Don Luis?” he asked.

“In El Norte,” Antonia replied.

The teller shook his head, returning the check. “He must sign.”

Antonia and her father headed back to their village. She dictated a letter to her sister and inserted the check in an envelope addressed to Luis in California.

It would arrive in two weeks.

*  *

Don Luis removed his canvas sack and followed his buddies back to the Oxnard bracero camp. At the entrance to the barracks, the mail carrier waved letters in the air. Braceros gathered around him, arms outstretched. Don Luis listened for his name.

When it came, he grabbed the envelope — a letter from home! – and unsealed it: a check for $100 from Nebraska. It was less than he’d expected. But it would put food on the table back home. He pocketed it and cleaned up for dinner at the mess hall. At night, he guarded it near his cot.

On Sunday, he presented the check to his foreman.

“It’s good,” the foreman said in Spanish, examining it. So Don Luis donned his best pants, straightened his shirt collar, and headed into the colonia, where – unlike in Nebraska and Utah – store clerks greeted him in Spanish.

He walked into a store displaying women’s and men’s clothes. He picked out a shirt and pants, then reached for the check inside his pocket.

“Please cash it,” he told the clerk.

“Sure,” the clerk replied. Don Luis signed, and walked out with his purchases.

The following day, he was back to climbing ladders and picking lemons. At sunset, he and the men mounted ladders back onto trucks, and stacked crates. On the way back to camp, he thought of the letter he’d write home.

But at the barracks’ entrance, he stopped. A badge sparkled on a man’s dark uniform.

“Hey, you,” he barked, in Spanish.

Don Luis’ neck stiffened. Was there a fire to put out? Or was someone in trouble? The police officer stared him down.

“Were you at a store? What did you get?”

Don Luis stood erect. But his hands fidgeted.

“A pair of pants and shirt,” he replied.

“You need to go back. And be sure to take the money and pick up your check. It’s no good.”

Don Luis washed. He grabbed the unworn pants and shirt and stuffed his pockets with change left over from his last paycheck. He headed into town.

At the store, he laid the clothes on the counter and paid for them with cash.

The clerk took the money and retrieved the check. “It’s no good,” he said, shaking his head.

“Why not?” Don Luis asked. “What’s wrong with it?”

The clerk shrugged his shoulders, but suspected it had expired.

Don Luis sighed, took it and folded it in his pocket and headed back to camp. The letter home would have to wait.

That night, he paced the barracks. He circled a trash bin near his cot, drew the check from his pocket, then stuffed it back in. He’d sleep on it. He hid it in a spot by his cot.

It stayed there for two days.

His mind raced. He recalled the sting that shot through his back in Nebraska’s beet fields.

One day, he approached the foreman. He spoke to him of Nebraska, the police officer standing at the barracks, the family back home, the check that was no good.

“Don’t fret,” the foreman said. He took the check, scrolled a white paper through a typewriter and tapped on the keys. Don Luis watched as he signed the letter with a flourish, folded, and sealed it alongside the check in an envelope.

Weeks passed as Don Luis labored in the orchards. Then one day, the postman arrived and another check from Nebraska fell into his hands.

That Sunday, he donned his new shirt and pants and went into town. He fingered the crisp check in his pocket.

At the store, the clerk greeted him. “You again?”

Don Luis placed the check on the counter and signed it with a flourish.

“How’d you do it?” the clerk asked, processing a money order for $100.

Don Luis grinned. Then he eyed the colorful cloth displayed on an adjacent counter. “Give me a swatch of cloth, for a woman this tall,” he said, pointing up to his chest.

The clerk rolled out the cloth, measured, cut and folded. Don Luis grabbed a pair of women’s nylon stockings. He remembered these had been rationed during the war.

He paid for his purchases and walked out, passing stores along the way. Then footsteps crunched on gravel nearby.

He glanced back at the shop he’d just passed. Voices in Spanish grew louder.

He watched as braceros exited the shop dangling shiny belt buckles and cowboy boots in their hands. Behind them, other braceros hauled Singer sewing machines atop their shoulders on their way back to camp.

Don Luis chuckled under his breath. He could hear them already – the machines whirring late at night, a seamstress in a Mexican village churning out dresses. He patted the money order in his pocket, and caressed the smooth cloth – a shade of green, the color of lemons ripening on thorny branches before the harvest.

The Tracks Home

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

Bracero’s Hands

Don Luis tucked his work contract into a small bag and boarded a bus at the U.S-Mexico border near Texas. It would be a long trip to Nebraska – a place closer to the Canadian border, a rancher’s representative warned the men on board. But to Don Luis, distance didn’t matter. Work meant dollars. Dollars meant a letter and gifts to send home. So he slumped in his seat as the bus rumbled north.

They traversed state lines, stopped at roadside barracks overnight. The men opened their daily brown sack lunches. Don Luis pulled out a cold bologna sandwich with yellow sliced cheese. The pink meat slithered in his mouth. He bit into the dry cheese, so unlike the Mexican queso fresco that wet his tongue and dissolved easily. But it satiated him until they arrived at the camp and the mess hall for a hot meal.

Like the one he had enjoyed upon his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah that snowy winter of 1945. At sunrise, he and the men had lined up at the mess hall for eggs, oatmeal, and an apple before heading to the railroad tracks. They were war-time braceros then, contracted Mexican workers brought to the U.S.

The war had long ended, but the work contracts continued for men with brazos, strong arms, and hands to harvest the fields. At the bracero processing center, they’d spread their hands on a table as officials probed for calluses and pointed towards departing buses.

At week’s end, the bus was chugging across Nebraska. It skidded off the road into a small ranch dotted with shacks. Don Luis grabbed his small bag and stepped off. A cold gust wind slapped his face and howled in his ears. The rancher’s overseer led Don Luis and three braceros to a ramshackle house. He opened the door to a room, cold and bare, except for a small stove, matches, cooking utensils, and a row of cots draped with blankets and pillows. They’d be going into town to buy groceries, he explained. “Bring your bracero papers,” he added.

The rancher’s overseer drove them into town. At a small store stocked with cans and bottles labeled in English, they reached for familiar items – rice, beans, and eggs. At the counter, they drew their bracero papers. The grocer scrutinized the documents, jotted down numbers, and bagged their groceries. No money passed hands.

That evening, Don Luis and the men huddled near the warm stove. One paisano boiled beans in a pot, while Don Luis stirred rice. The warm meal filled their stomachs.

That night, Don Luis rested on the cot as the wind wailed.

He awoke at 4:00 a.m., lit the stove and cracked eggs over a frying pan. After breakfast, he and the men headed out the door. The rancher’s overseer handed each of them a small handled tool, curved at the top. Don Luis turned the object around in his hand. He’d harvested crops in the Mexican countryside all his life, but never used such an instrument.

The beet and asparagus fields stretched out across the land. “Work those acres,” the overseer said, pointing to a marked section. They were to treat the crops gently to minimize damage. The short-handled hoe, el cortito, would come in handy.

Don Luis bent his knees, arched his back, and angled the hoe carefully to the ground. He removed weeds, cleared the soil, and circled the fields, row by row. He topped beets and thinned asparagus, until the sky turned gray. A frosty wind pelted his back. At day’s end, he and the men struggled to straighten. They moaned back to camp and their beds that night.

As they labored for days and weeks, Don Luis and the men awaited their check. But it never came. He and his buddies hankered to leave. They fished into their pockets for bus fare, but nothing turned up.

Here, things had been different from the start. They had been contracted by the rancher, not the U.S. government, as they had during the war. Here, there was no mess hall or foreman. Perhaps pay would come later.

So Don Luis and his buddies rose at 4:00 a.m., hoe in hand. Don Luis stooped to the ground, his chin nearly touching the soil. The asparagus grew several inches overnight. He sliced it and gathered the fistful of green spears that fell to the ground.

One afternoon, a dark cloud circled overhead. The men hobbled back to camp, chased by a whirl of wind. Dust clouds ripped through the ranch, then streaks of lightning and thunder. Inside, Don Luis looked out a window. In the distance, sheds that were tethered with wire swayed in the wind and were nearly yanked off the ground.

That night, thunder and rain shook the floor and cots. Don Luis tossed in bed. His waist and back ached. He longed to write a letter to his wife, as he’d done in Utah. He’d begin with: Aquí mando dinero para la familia. Here is some money for our family. But the pay hadn’t come.

His mind drifted home to scant food on the table, and la aguanieve, sleet, that would drop on the village. And to the warm coats the family would go without. He shuddered.

Weeks passed. Be careful to not damage the crops, the overseer reminded them. On weekends, they bought groceries in town, presented their bracero papers. No cash changed hands.

On a cold and blustery day, the rancher’s overseer stormed into the bracero camp. “Get your stuff together,” he said. In two days, he’d be here early in the morning to pick them up and take them back to the office, where braceros were dropped off.

At sunrise on the third day, the man arrived. “Let’s go. Get on the truck.” Don Luis looked at the cots, the stove, and empty floor. There were no green metal suitcases to pack, or cardboard boxes to fill with gifts. Just the clothes on their backs, the same bags they’d carried on the bus. A searing pain shot through his back and waist as he walked out.

They hopped onto the truck. Tires kicked up dirt and dust. Don Luis stared at the cultivated fields, the ramshackle house sitting empty on a Nebraska prairie: property of a rancher whose face he never saw.

The truck pulled into town. Don Luis and the men climbed out.

Oye, quién nos va pagar?” Hey, who’s going to pay us? Don Luis asked.

“In there,” the overseer said, pointing to the office. “You’ll arrange for pay there.” He sped off in his truck.

Don Luis and the men walked into the office, scanning the desk for signs of a check issued in their names.

“We’re leaving to Mexico,” Don Luis said to an official. He looked squarely into his eyes. “We worked months and received no pay,” he said.

“Where did you work?”

They described the ranch, the beet and asparagus fields.

“Who brought you?”

They described the rancher’s overseer.

At the desk, the official scribbled on paper.

“And our pay?” a fellow bracero protested. The official asked for their names but offered no explanation or pay.

Don Luis and the men looked out at buses stationed outside, braceros lined up for boarding. And in the other direction, at the Nebraska town filled with strangers, save for the grocer who knew them only by their numbers. Here, they knew no one.

Outside, buses started. It would get them halfway home, back to the border bracero processing center, where they could plead their case. They lined up for boarding.

Don Luis slumped into a seat, empty-handed, save for coarse skin jutting from his thumb and forefinger where he’d cradled the short-handled hoe. Go on, the inspector had said two months ago when he’d placed his hands, palms up, on the desk to reveal his calluses.

The bus sped off, past the office, the fields, the shacks that were nearly ripped off the land by the wind. Hours later, a brown sack lunch landed in his hands.

If the rains didn’t yield a bountiful crop back home, he’d return to El Norte, display his hands and wait for an official’s nod. And if the pay from Nebraska hadn’t arrived, he’d recoup it somehow.

Cardboard Box Dreams

The train screeched to a halt in Empalme, Sonora. Don Luis adjusted his wide-brimmed sombrero over his head and clutched his small bag tightly to his chest. It carried the barest essentials: one change of clothes, including a thin shirt and a pair of pants for the journey that lay ahead.

He dipped his hand into a pocket and retrieved the identity documents he’d need to be contracted as a bracero. The men filed out of their seats, adjusting their norteño hats. Empalme represented one more stop along their journey – a junction, as its name in Spanish implies, a temporary way-station en route to El Norte.

Men sat cross-legged, others propped themselves against each other, their hats slumped over their faces, shielding them from the Sonoran heat. Lines of aspiring braceros snaked around the station. They shuffled their feet, kicking up dust, waiting for the lista de braceros, the bracero list from their home state regions to be called.

The loudspeakers above the station crackled for a few seconds. Braceros perked their ears, standing at attention. The contracting was finished for the day.

Don Luis, joined by two paisanos from his home village, dug his hand into a pocket. Against his coarse fingers, he felt the smooth round pesos inside the lining of his pants. His buddies did the same. Put together, this would buy them arroz y frijoles at the food stand.

“¿Y ahora, qué?” And now, what? He turned to ask his buddies, as sunset neared. He wiped sweat off his forehead.

They joined the throngs of men leaving the station in search of shelter. Dust coated their shoes and sandals.

By evening, Don Luis and his paisanos walked the neighborhoods of Empalme. Men, women, and children spilled from their homes. They lounged in their front yards, scantily dressed in thin shorts and t- shirts.

“Un peso,” a man in shorts said to them, as he walked across his small yard. “¿Cuántos?” he asked, leading them into his house. How many?

Tres,” Don Luis was about to say. But by then, ten braceros gathered at the door. They each drew into their shirt pocket, pants, or bag. One peso per bracero. The man led them indoors, as Don Luis and his paisanos laid cardboard slats on the ground. For a peso each, he furnished them with a piece of floor. It beat sleeping on the hot Empalme roads, nakedly exposed to passers-by.

The men laid the cardboard in neat rows. Don Luis laid his back on the cardboard. Its hard edges rubbed his spine. He lay next to his buddy. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. It must be two in the morning now. He licked beads of sweat off his lips, salty like the rest of his body.

Salty like the lake next to the railroad tracks that he remembered from his first stint as a bracero. Destination: Salt Lake City in Utah. Los Estados Unidos had asked for brazos, arms to be put to work in the fields and on the tracks during the war. Those first braceros had boarded the train flashing the “V” for victory sign. Some had returned in ’43 and ’44, wearing jeans and belt buckles, and their wallets a little fatter.

So he’d followed their lead and boarded a train in Mexico and a bus at the U.S-Mexico border bound for Utah. The bus made a final stop in Reno, Nevada, where he’d slept two nights in barracks before arriving at the snowy bracero camp. Don Luis and the men shivered in their thin shirts. To battle the cold, he purchased a sheep-skin coat that ran down the length of his pants. With it, he survived the cold blasts working on the railroad tracks.

Now, he yearned for even a driblet of that icy wind to extinguish the heat radiating from his body. It never came, and neither did the sleep.

At dawn, the men rose from their cardboard beds and headed to the contracting station. A swarm of braceros paced back and forth. They waited. And waited some more.

The hunger pangs were not long in coming. Don Luis dipped into his pant pocket.

Ni un cinco,” he said. Not a nickel.

They left the station and soon found themselves on a street on the outskirts of Empalme. A man summoned them over. He stood outside his yard pointing to trash cans on the side of his home, a water hose, and a littered sidewalk.

“Clean the debris and trash from the sidewalk. Use a water hose to wash it all out. Just be sure to not splatter too much mud.”

They worked through the hollow in their stomachs. When all was done, they had earned a few pesos each for their efforts and a meal for the day.

That night, it was back to the cama de cartón. Don Luis rested his head and body, in search of sleep. But it wouldn’t come, just like the work contract that hadn’t come today.

At dawn, a smaller number of braceros congregated outside the contracting station. Loudspeakers blared out names. For the unlucky, it was the call to surrender. Holding their small bags at their sides, braceros trudged back to the depot and a trip back to their village or some other place to try their luck.

Don Luis watched them go. They boarded just as they had arrived: with small bags tucked under their arms, sombreros atop their heads. But bowed lower this time.

Just then a fleet of buses circled the station and pulled into the depot. Brakes screeched. Doors opened wide.

The men filed out of the bus, some carrying boxes.

Don Luis walked towards the bustling crowd. Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face. A voice drew near, as a hand, calloused just like his, reached for a handshake. It was a good friend. He carried bags.

“I’ve been all over,” he said.

The man began to rattle off all the places he’d been, all the things he’d seen. Don Luis stopped him short.

Mire, no me platique tanto. No hemos comido. Denos algo.” Look, don’t rattle off so much. We haven’t eaten. Give us something.

The paisano reached into his pocket, and dropped several pesos into Don Luis’ hands. He put his arm over his shoulder. Then he gathered his belongings and headed towards the buses departing south.

Don Luis took the money. The aroma of rice and beans from the food stand beckoned him. For the first time in a long time coins clinked in his pocket, weighing down his pants.

The money carried them through another three days.

He and his buddies waited each day at the contracting station. The coins in his pockets dwindled. And then the loudspeakers crackled.

Ya salió la lista!” The list has come out! At last, the list of braceros.

Outside, Don Luis played with the few remaining coins in his pocket, turning them over and over in his fingers.

He hadn’t yet stepped inside the contracting station, but already, his mind was churning. If he was lucky enough to get a three-month contract, he’d walk into a money order station and send almost all his money home. With a six-month extension on that contract, he’d buy cloth for his wife and the girls to order tailor- made dresses. He’d get shirts and pants for the boys.

And if the dollars stretched far enough, he’d buy a battery-powered radio for his family. It would be one of the few in his village back home without electricity. He’d package it all with great care and tie it with twine inside a sturdy brown cardboard box.