Translated by Katrina Hassan
Rosa tries to reposition the nylon bag full of oranges that she carries on her back. She is barely able to take a step because the bag weighs fifty pounds. She is short in stature and the bag is half her size. The pain in her back makes her walk hunched over. Rosa has been working in the same job for sixteen years ever since she came to California from Xicotepec, Puebla, Mexico. She barely speaks Spanish. English even less, she know only very few words. Rosa is an indigenous Otomi. She speaks mountain Otomi, one of nine linguistic variants of the Oto-mangue. This makes communicating even more difficult for her. There aren’t any indigenous people from her region either where she lives or works.
She has exchanged her indigenous clothes for jeans, and a sweatshirt. Who would have guessed that Rosa would be wearing these clothes and boots. Through out the years here colleagues have taken pictures of her with their phones and she sends them back home to Xicotepec. Back home her family have admired the changes she has made, wearing mestizo men’s clothes, as her mom says. Rosa tells her mom that every time she has a chance she wears the outfits they sent her. She barely wears them, since she works from Monday to Saturday in the orange fields. Sundays she works in a fast food restaurant making hamburgers.
Rosa managed to emigrate without documents thanks to her dad’s cousin that lives in Nebraska. He lent her family the money. If she wouldn’t have gone to the United States, her siblings and two kids would’ve never survived poverty. Her mom would have never treated her breast cancer and her dad his cataracts that almost made him blind. She truly had a good deal because she was able to leave her domestic job at Xicotepec de Juarez. Rosa doesn’t have any family where she lives now, by now she is used to solitude. When she was a domestic employee, she only saw her family only once a month.
Twice she was cheated on by the same man. He fathered two of her children. She could not bring them up working as a domestic employee. Nor could she help out her parents with her younger siblings. It was her father who decided she will be sent to the United States. Her children would be taken care of by the grandparents. Her mom said “Do as your dad says.” Rosa was only seventeen when she emigrated.
Rosa lives in a basement with fifteen other migrants from Mexico and Central America. There is a guy from Honduras whose waist is smaller than any of her slimmest friends. Rosa is surprised at the ease he has to do his makeup and nails. He uses high heels, skirts and dresses on his days off from work. His hair is longer than hers but he ties it in a ponytail when he goes to work. When he gets back home he undoes his ponytail and his hair goes all puffy. Everyone at home is trying to help teach Rosa English. Romina, as Francisco said she would like to be called, bought her a book with stories. Romina told her that her mind would eventually learn the words by memory. Romina also told Rosa she is a transexual woman. Francisco is a character from the past Romina explains. Rosa totally understands. Where she comes from, people accept two spirit people and everyone else as they are. Two spirit people are respected and there is no discrimination. Rosa doesn’t care if it is Romina or Francisco, as long as their soul is happy. “The most important thing is the soul,” Rosa says.
Romina works in a factory cutting cardboard. There she is Francisco. While she awaits her process, Romina wants nothing more than to go to work legally as Romina. For this she needs to not be undocumented. Rosa would love to have Romina’s flirtiness, her way of swaying her hips. She doesn’t like the way Romina bathes in perfume, those smells give her a headache. Rosa is used to using a lime in the armpits as deodorant and some beetroot on the cheeks for blush. Where she lives, everyone sleeps on mattresses on the floor. There is no room for actual beds. They have made this space a refuge and brotherhood for the undocumented.
Sweat is pouring from her whole body. She wears two layers and tractor shoes that tire her more because they feel like the breaks are on when she wants to walk. Her chin itches, she scratches over her handkerchief. The handkerchief covers most of her face, it doesn’t let her breathe properly. It is harder to breathe in this infernal California heat but she needs to use the handkerchief in order to prevent skin infections caused by fertilisers and pesticides. She is also shielding from the sun, from the snakes that always fall off from the trees and from the fibres in the air that cause inflammation. The clear plastic glasses are good for protecting her eyes from dust.
The sunblock irritates the eyes but is necessary. It constantly drips through the corner of her lips. She wipes it off with the tip of her gloves. If Rosa removes them and uses her bare hands, she wastes loads of time. She needs her mobility to fill up the bags. She is paid by the bag not by shift.
It is not just any old day today. Rosa just received a call to say her youngest son had drowned. She is in shock and has not processed the news yet. She keeps cutting oranges and walking through the furrows. She comes and goes with the great big fifty pound bag and her clothes drenched in sweat.
It will not be until night time when she goes home that her roommates hug and give their condolences. Only then will Rosa wake up to the nightmare and the biggest pain in her life. She will not sleep as she bites her lips and screams without consolation until she has no more voice left. The next day, with her soul broken, she will get up, as many other undocumented people do when a family member dies back home, and she will go to work. The payment for the funeral is on her shoulders. She will witness her son’s funeral through video call under an orange branch in the burrows. Rosa knows that she is only one more person that lives out her pain from afar; the absence, the final goodbye. Her load stops weighing fifty pounds. Now it feels enormous. Her soul has been ripped out of her in one fell swoop.
Rosa sits on the furrow and touches the top edge with her fingertips. Meanwhile she holds her phone in the other hand. She watches as her son is being buried. She takes a fistful of earth and does the motion of throwing it over the casket. Only the furrow knows the weight every farm worker carries. Many workers, like Rosa have felt this very same pain.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado