Marking season's halfway point

Party: Having picked mountains of crabmeat, migrant workers re-create a bit of Mexico.

The Pilgrims Of Palomas

A Sun Follow-up: The Journey of Migrant Workers from Mexico

September 05, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

HOOPERS ISLAND - Anyone looking for a fiesta - make that FIESTA! - need search no farther than this narrow strip of marshy waterfront that is the summer home of Mexican women who do the dirty work in Maryland's seafood industry.

It's been 2 1/2 months of monotonous labor since they arrived on the Eastern Shore in June, bleary from a four-day bus trip that began in the small mountain village of Palomas and other towns in central Mexico.

Like the workers in a dozen or so packing houses on the island, the women at Charles H. Parks and Co. have already picked mountains of crabmeat this summer, averaging 400 pounds a day packaged under the Capt. Charlie label.

That, they say, was reason enough for a big bash marking the halfway point in what will be a 5-month stay in the United States.

It also happened that Viviana ("Call me Vivian when I'm in the U.S.") Guevara Tovar turned 22 this holiday weekend. She and the others will be working today, but their two days off let them arrange a party to rival similar festivities back home.

Tallying birthdays offers a way of re-creating a small bit of their homeland for seasonal workers in a visa program that takes them far from friends and family to fill seasonal jobs in the United States.

So Friday afternoon, Guevara rustled up two friends, Victoria Tovar and Consuelo Moralez, for a whirlwind shopping trip to Cambridge.

"It's my birthday, and I get to say what the food is going to be," Guevara said. "Tamales. That's it; that's what I want."

That would be tamales for 60 people - assorted friends, relatives, fellow crab pickers, boyfriends, would-be boyfriends and others who had heard the word-of-mouth invitation.

The trio, none of whom speaks English, bustled into a year-old Mexican grocery, Mi Tierra Mexicana (My Mexican Land) in downtown Cambridge, gathering a cartful of assorted dried chilies, corn husk wrappers for tamales and corn flour.

Across town, the women headed straight for the women's clothes section in Wal-Mart, where Victoria Tovar picked up a green zippered jacket and black tank top to wear for the party.

After stocking up on plastic cups and paper plates at the Dollar General store, they headed to Food Lion, where they bought cactus leaves, beans, peppers, avocados and more dried chilies. The store carries a full line of many of the brand names that are familiar to them, such as Jumex beverages.

Moralez, 52, who has worked here under the temporary visa program for 15 years, says there is little they would find at home in small neighborhood shops that they can't find in Cambridge. This summer they bought a tortilla press at the Mexican store and a 5-gallon metal pot for steaming mammoth quantities of tamales. Their employer, Virgil "Sonny" Ruark Jr., usually drives the van for their once-a-week shopping excursion.

Most eschew American food, though they occasionally eat a burger or a pizza, Moralez said.

"We have our Mexican store now, and Food Lion carries more of our food every year," she said. "If we have it at home, it's here, too."

This year, like no other since the temporary visa program known as H2B began in 1990, workers have reason to celebrate.

The temporary visas proved so popular in landscaping, hospitality and other industries that need low-skill workers that Maryland seafood processors - and their Mexican workers - were about to be squeezed out this year when the program reached its quota of 66,000 workers.

It took an act of Congress engineered by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, in the spring to extend the program for two years as lawmakers strive for comprehensive reform in immigration law.

The workers, who have few job options in their homeland, earn $2 a pound or $5.25 an hour, whichever is more. The fastest of them can earn $6,000 to $10,000 in a good year, but all the wrangling on Capitol Hill made for a late start. They're eager to begin working six days a week as soon as Maryland's crab harvest reaches its peak. By mid-November, they'll be heading back to Mexico.

Thirteen of the women, six from Palomas and seven from the Durango region, share a compact and immaculate three-bedroom, three-bath home on Hoopers Island.

The furniture is sturdy, and the place is air-conditioned. With a den and a living room on opposite ends of the modular house, each with its own television, the women say there are few squabbles. Food bills are shared, and there are two refrigerators.

Ruark charges $25 a week for rent. Thanks to satellite television, Spanish soap operas and game shows blare constantly. "We have all known each other for years," Guevara said. "We have the two televisions and 27 Spanish stations. We all get along."

Occasionally, there is minor strife, based primarily on a household with a 30-year age span, 22 to 52. For workers who rise at 3:15 a.m., work from about 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and are often asleep by 9 p.m., a ringing telephone or late-night comings and goings are frowned upon.

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