Soon after arriving in this country, Cristina* found herself picking grapes in the heart of one of America’s most fertile farming regions: California’s San Joaquin Valley. Along with 15 to 20 others, she slept each night on a mattress in a chicken coop that had been converted to a living quarters for the grape workers.
“The living conditions were horrible, because there was one bathroom for so many people,” she says. “You sleep there with men and women or children. And they’re deplorable conditions, dirty.” She slept lightly out of fear that “someone was going to do something to me.”
“I saw terrible things there. … Sometimes, I heard about children being abused. But there’s no law, there’s no government. Everyone stays out of it.”
She worked seven days a week. The work was grueling, the pace unrelenting. There were few breaks.
Grapes that are used to make juice are harvested by machines. But for wine and table grapes, workers like Cristina must perform delicate work with small blades or scissors. They must be careful to not over-prune the vines or bruise the grape clusters. They must work quickly, because the managers drive them hard.
Mornings could be cold and afternoons blazing hot. She had little protection from the elements.
Cristina was not accustomed to such hard labor. She grew up in the city in Mexico, where her father was a politician. She had attended college with the goal of being a teacher. But she made the mistake of answering an advertisement that promised good wages in the U.S. for educated people like her. She was told she would get her papers and would be working, legally, in an office.
Instead, at 18, she would become a victim of human trafficking. There were no papers. Her guides took her to the vineyard labor camp and left her there. “The people told me that, since I didn’t have documents — not my visa or anything — that I was working illegally in this country. They told me that if I made a move, if I tried to escape, they could kill me. Or they could take it out on my family in my country.”
If she went to the police, she was told, they would only put her behind bars.
After the first 12-hour day, Cristina cried. “I didn’t think I could make it.” But she had little choice but to return to the fields.
When payday came, Cristina was told there was no money for her — that she was working to pay off the expense incurred by those who had brought her to the U.S. She had not been told this before. “I asked them how much I was going to have to pay. And they told me, ‘Oh, you have no idea. The debt is very large, but we’ll let you know when you’re done paying.’”
For six months, fear of the police and her captors kept her there. She had no way to contact her family in Mexico. “My father gave me [up] for dead.”
Escape from Captivity
Finally, Cristina’s fear gave way to despair. She could no longer stand captivity. “I decided to escape one night. So, I ran, ran, ran until … I found a person in a truck.”
The man, it turned out, was the owner of the farm. He was not aware of what was happening in his vineyards and that she was working, essentially, as a slave. The owner helped Cristina, who has remained in the United States and now works to help other exploited farmworkers.
The grapes that passed through Cristina’s hands might have been shipped to Mexico or Canada, both leading importers, or served as a snack on tables across the U.S. Her harvest could just as easily have landed on the table tops of tony restaurants in New York City as a house wine. But the experience has left Christina only with pain, both physical and emotional.
“I had nightmares for a long time.”
*Not her real name