Things to think about when you buy green onions |

Things to think about when you buy green onions

Michelle Nijhuis

In the northern Mexican town where I taught English this winter, people used to make a living farming their own fields. These days, even 8-year-olds will tell you about career options. You can work in the mostly U.S.-owned border factories – the “maquiladoras” – or you can work in the mostly U.S.-owned onion fields.

The factories are protected from visitors by a fortress of paperwork, but anyone can go to the onion fields. Sixteen-year-old Ana Maria agreed to be my guide.

It was dark when we arrived, so we used the headlights of a growling tractor to guide us along the rows. We picked and stacked green onions for about an hour, then sat down on a couple of Pepsi crates. Ana grabbed six “cebollas,” peeled them and snapped two rubber bands around the slender bundle. Her hands flashed through the long-practiced motions.

“Asì es,” she says. This is how it is. As I fumbled with onions and rubber bands, she and I gossiped about boyfriends, sharing a bag of sweets from a vendor on the edge of the field. Little kids darted around us like pollinating bees, running from mothers to uncles to older siblings. Young men exchanged soccer scores and teased each other about girls.

It was a merry scene, but the mathematics of the day poked up from below.

At dusk, the field manager paid Ana two pesos for every dozen bundles. When she got home, everyone asked her the same question: “Cuantas docenas?” How many dozens? Ana makes about 70 dozens in a very long day’s work. That’s 140 pesos a day, or a little more than 15 dollars.

It doesn’t sound like much, and it sounds like even less when you know food often costs as much at the local “abarrotes” as it does at the Albertson’s in Yuma, Ariz. During the summer, when there’s no work in the fields, the price of fresh food rises as quickly and cruelly as the thermostat.

Though the work doesn’t look hard, it’s as painful as the pay. At the end of the day, I add my measly pile of onions to Ana’s and gratefully flop into the cushioned seat of the car. My knees feel permanently bent. Ana says it gets a little easier, but it never quite stops hurting.

After Ana puts her tired joints to bed each night, she knows the onions she’s picked travel north, across the border. She also knows that some of them end up near my home in western Colorado, where each rubber-banded bundle sells for about 50 times what a worker is paid to make it.

Ana is excruciatingly, unavoidably aware of you, of me, of all of the people who shop for groceries on “el otro lado,” the other side. She knows, even when we don’t, that we haven’t been buying as many onions since Sept. 11. That’s why she’s been sent home early dozens of times this year. She’s sometimes been told there’s no work in the fields at all.

But the border is a one-way mirror. It’s easy for us, the buyers of cheap onions, to forget about Ana. She’s far away – a whole country away – and our livelihoods don’t depend on what she buys at the market. Empathy is a scarce commodity, and international trade agreements are making it even scarcer.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, helped make green onions a major employer in Ana’s town: It made it harder for small Mexican farmers to compete with imported grain, and made it easier for U.S companies to hire underpaid labor in Mexico. Now President Bush wants Congress to give him the authority to negotiate a hemisphere-wide NAFTA, known as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, or FTAA.

This agreement, set to take effect in 2005, promises to widen further the geographical, economic, and emotional gap between buyers and sellers. If it’s hard for us to understand how Ana tries to make a living, imagine how difficult it will be when her job moves 2000 miles further south.

After my day in the fields, I ate dinner at my friend Magdalena’s house, where all of us at the crowded table laughed about my pathetic onion-bundling skills. Toward the end of the evening, Magdalena looked at me, still laughing a little at my expense. “Ni modo,” she said. Oh well. “The people have to work,” she adds. “They have to eat.”

She and I looked at each other across the table, the table that had held so many of our shared meals, and it suddenly seemed very wide indeed.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( in Paonia, Colo., where she lives and freelances.

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