January 14, 2000

Turn to the Sea—Fish Replace Strawberries as Primary Crop for Mexican Migrants

EDITOR'S NOTE: Farmers in Texas and California have long depended on workers from Mexico at harvest time. But in one small town in Michoacan, west of Mexico City, the favored spot for seasonal work is on water, not land, and much closer to the Arctic Circle than the Tropic of Cancer.

By Peter S. Cahn

PATZCUARO, MICHOACAN — Strawberry-picking is no longer what draws workers north to the United States from this state in north-central Mexico. As the year begins, many who returned home for the holidays are gearing up for crab season.

At 26, Armando Gutierrez (not his real name), is a veteran of the fishing boats. He came back to ask his girlfriend to marry him. She agreed, but will have to plan a July wedding as he is leaving for another round in Alaska.

Armando's three brothers and two brothers-in-law have also worked on the boats, but it was his father, Roberto, who first crossed the border.

Lured by a desire for blue jeans he saw others return with, Roberto contracted to work in the United States as a "bracero" — part of a program begun during World War II that allowed U.S. farmers to hire Mexican laborers while most male citizens were fighting.

The arrangement proved so successful that it lasted until the 1960s. In 1959 Ar-mando's father picked strawberries in Salinas, California for 80 cents an hour (about $4.80 in today's dollars). He earned enough to buy Levi's and a piece of land, but Roberto did not encourage his son to follow him. "I knew it wasn't all happiness and joy. There's suffering too," he says.

During his last trip north, Armando made a videotape of an average workday. He wakes at 3 a.m. to eat and starts work at 4 a.m. These boats don't do any actual fishing; rather they process whatever seafood is in season — crab in the winter, herring in the spring, and salmon in the summer. Each "season" lasts two to four months, and workers do not leave the anchored boat during that time.

The 100 or more workers at a station put in 16-hour days when there is sufficient fish, with two fifteen minute coffee breaks and 30 minutes for midday lunch. About 150 fish pass by each minute on the conveyor belts of four processing lines. Armando is a packer — he receives a basket of fillets, places it in a metal tray, and seals it. Then he does it again. And again.

The work may continue until 8:30 p.m. After dinner in the cafeteria, Armando showers, and retires to his room, decorated with photos of his girlfriend and images of celebrated Catholic icons from home.

His co-workers come from Samoa, Poland, Vietnam, Guatemala, Philippines, and at least six different Mexican states. Armando and his brothers signed up for work at a hiring office in Seattle. But Mexicans who live further away or cannot communicate in English can hire on through the Alaska Seafoods Employment Company without leaving home. The agency is run by a woman who grew up fishing salmon in Alaska, married a Mexican man and moved here. Her brother visited at Christmas time in 1992, noticed how many workers returned unemployed in winter, and persuaded managers of the Alaskan fishing company he works for to accept Mexican workers.

Both the numbers of workers and of companies participating has bloomed. This January there will be five group departures to Seattle. From there, the fishing companies take charge and transport workers to Alaska.

To qualify for work, a man (and they are nearly all men) must have a U.S. residency permit and Social Security number and submit to a drug test. An approved applicant must then sign a release allowing the employment company to deduct US $200 from his paycheck.

He is guaranteed work. The proprietor explains, "Since I'm from Alaska, I know where I'm sending them. I can tell them what to expect. In fact I'm even sending my daughter to work this year." She claims that workers can return with up to $6,000, enough to invest in building a house or a small business.

Yet the earnings are not impressive. Workers receive the minimum wage, $5.25 an hour and $7.87 an hour overtime. In addition to the $200 service fee, the employment company deducts $550 for round trip air fare to Seattle. Most workers face further deductions for cold weather boots, pants, and jackets, and snacks from the on-board store.

If for some reason a worker cannot complete his contract, the transportation to Alaska is deducted as well. Moreover, employees are paid only for hours worked, and there is no guaranteed number of hours — processing workers depend on the success of the fishermen. Those who do complete the contract can usually expect $1,000 bonuses.

The employment company explicitly notes all these possibilities, along with the likelihood of seasickness, frigid temperatures, bad food, loss of contact with family, and physical exhaustion. Still, 500 workers signed contracts last year, including some who have made the trip twelve times.

But after this season, Armando seems to have appreciated his father's lesson. "I don't want to go back," he remarks while reflecting on the videotape, "there's too much work and not enough pay or sleep."

Peter S. Cahn is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Return to Frontpage