Community and Culture
— Interviews with Non Timber Forest Workers originally from Guatemala. Interviews are excerpted from "Voices From the Woods: Lives and Experiences of Non-Timber Forest Workers". Black and White images courtesy the same text.
I'm from Guatemala. I left because of lack of money and also because the land was very poor. I came alone to California, and stayed there for one-and-a-half years doing construction work in Oakland. My wife joined me a year later. Then we came to western Washington because my wife didn't have work and she wanted to work. She couldn't write in Spanish; she has only indigenous language. I had heard from a friend that the brush work was available for women.
We were given a ride by a friend and lived in Olympia for four months. Then we made some new connections, Mexicans, who told us to come to this town and come to work. We moved here about one-and-a-half years ago. We worked with these Mexicans connections.
We started working in one of the big floral greens companies when we moved here. We work together, husband and wife. It is very common. Our son accompanies us when the weather is good. He likes to carry bunches. We earn okay, it pays very well. When there is more brush, we are paid less, but when there is less brush, we are paid more. So one makes about the same. I have picked up to 250 bunches in a day as a record, with the price at 70¢ a bunch. My wife has picked up to 150.
I like the work, so does my wife. It's not easy making a life in Guatemala. We could only be making $3 a day there. Here we make $150 between the two of us. We spend for food, rent, bills and save the rest, about $1,500 per month. We don't have a house in Guatemala. We want to earn money to build a house there.
I would like to be here for three more years and then return to Guatemala. When I left three years ago, I left newly planted coffee plants and they are already producing. My father is telling me to come, to stay here only for another two years. The land there will be for us.
I don't know why they say there isn't brush. Perhaps they don't have the desire to work in this and leave for other areas. I've only been here one-and-a-half years picking, but it seems to me the brush will still be here. The brush stays the same. You take some and it grows again. That's the way it is. You get the same each year. Five years from now? I don't know, it could be.
Pedro Q. - Brush Harvester
I'm from Guatemala. I left due to the guerrilla war going on, similar to what Colombia is going through nowadays. As a campesino I was caught between guerrillas and government soldiers. I lost family, and twenty people from my town disappeared. I could not leave my house after dark for fear of being killed. Many came to the U.S. during that time. I came in 1984 with an immigration offer, got a permit from INS and then amnesty. I had relatives in California and went there with my family. We worked in agriculture. Then we heard of Washington from others who were traveling around. I heard you could earn more money. I came here for a month to check things out, picked salal, then went back to get my family in California.
The companies pay very little [because] they see there are a lot of people. When I first arrived, there was a lot of brush in the mountains, but you don't make much now. People keep coming because this is easy work to start without documents. At first, one can get help from others who are already harvesting. I work alone or with my kids when they are out of school. I work on state lands. Sometimes I don't go because it costs $10 just in gas to get to my areas (one-and-a-half hours one way). I sell to whomever I want and get paid in cash. I make about $50 a day and this is not enough for my family.
When the season is over, there is not much work. You could apply to other companies, but they don't call you for a month or more and the season is already ready to open. I don't really like the brush work because of rain and cold. When it pays well it's okay, but some days I don't earn more than $30. For me, we're here to work, nothing more.
A little of everyone harvests: Anglos, people from Cambodia, Latinos, etc. Some Americans are racist, don't like Latinos. They think we all are robbing the brush. Brush is part of nature. The money they get from it gets spent in the community on food, taxes, etc. They don't like it because of the robbing. There are others who rob and others who pay them for it. But for what they do, we'll all pay for it. It is a mix of problems. They call INS sometimes. The INS is in Seattle, and don't know what is going on until they are called.
People are just here to work. Maybe there are a few who cause problems, but most are here to work, many with their families. It can be bad if a family is separated. I have everything set and can apply for citizenship anytime. I am working on the residence for four kids, so I don't want to get involved in anything that could affect that process.
The brush won't last too many years I think. Every year we pick more and it isn't growing as much. I don't see a future. Plus, I have been picking for long and see how the cold and wet start to affect knee problems, joint problems, illness. If I continue to pick for another five or six years, I will have more ailments. But I don't worry about the industry ending because I can get work with a different company, for example in Alabama, where I have some family. I might move there in a few months when the kids are out of school.
Well, what can we do? It's their land. The brush won't end, it will always come back. The government does not invest anything in it except watching the land. They don't spend anything on the brush.
Raśl G. - Brush Harvester, Christmas Trees
I'm 21 years old. I started to work when I was 14 or 15 helping my father doing agricultural work, but what we raised and earned was not enough to sustain ourselves. We thought about going to the States because there wasn't enough for us in Guatemala. We went to Mexico, rode buses or got rides on trucks to get to Mexico. I came with another friend. We went to Tijuana and then we crossed the border and arrived hidden in California. It was 1994. We worked in whatever we could find, doing yard work, construction, doing whatever.
After one-year-and-a-half I ran into a friend and he told me about the work in Washington. I arrived in this town and stayed with some friends. They told me I could work in the brush and learn how to do it and see if I liked it. My friend had his crew and he showed us how to do things. That's how I started. My first day I picked thirty-five bunches; little by little I've gotten to 150 or so when there is brush.
I work six or seven days a week. From when I leave home to when we arrive I work nine or ten hours. But I do like picking brush. I also pick boughs. I can get hourly wage jobs, but they almost all pay minimum wage and it's hardly worth it. I agree that the forest work is very cold. When it snows or freezes it gets really cold. As you get wetter and wetter, it can get to you. I'm okay now, but maybe in a year or two after picking and picking, my body is going to give out.
When the season ends between April and July, I sometimes go to Oregon to pick strawberries, or look for another job. Each year I do something else. More than anything, I work harvesting brush and in the Christmas trees. I work for the same Christmas tree company picking boughs. That's a two months season. This year the pay was about the same as harvesting brush.
My crew [of brush harvesters] worked for a big company. I picked for a year with them. Right now I work for a different big company. I change companies because sometimes there was not enough brush on their lands or there was a little bit more on another company's lands. Also one company's lands might be closer. For me the companies are almost the same. People talk about abuses and low prices in the companies. I'm pretty much okay with them. They've never said things to me and pay me the same as everyone else.
There are areas where there are problems and where there aren't. There are areas where they stopped renting land to harvesters. For example in the Forest Service land they sometimes don't rent areas. Also sometimes there isn't much brush there and some harvesters will go to nearby private properties to pick. They steal the brush. But they (Forest Service) think that everyone is stealing the brush when it is maybe two or three, or six people. They think we are all stealing from private properties. Only a few are doing this, not all.
It's harder than before to enter Forest Service land. Before they would let you enter without ID. Now you have to have ID or a driver's license to get a permit. If you go into Forest Service areas and they find you, they can make a lot of trouble for you. That's what I've seen. It's a little easier working with a company.
The risk exists for people who are undocumented. Sometimes there are police who are racists who will stop someone at their pleasure to ask for documents, or license, or where you are going, or permits. Also when one is in the area and the owner is there, there are some who will just call the police. They don't warn you nor show you the boundaries of the properties. Sometimes you don't know the boundaries and if they call the police, you will have a problem. There are some owners who are just racist.
From what I have heard from my friends, almost four to five years ago, there was really good brush in whatever area. When I started in the brush, there was a little more, but now there are so many of us, there is much less brush. Working six to seven hours a day you can get 140- 150 bunches. Before I worked four or five hours to get about the same. Now you also have to travel more to get the same amount. When I arrived they were paying 50¢ for a small bunch. A week later it dropped to 40¢. Right now Hiawatha is paying 75¢.
Unless I find another job that I like that pays well, I'm going to keep harvesting. Within four or five years there might not be any brush or there might be more. Who knows? I have plans to be here for a while, a few more years at least. If God allows, I'll be able to earn enough money to set up a house, start a business or something to be able to return to my home. You just have to keep working.