,x.VA The people of Piedritas, and his good friend Oscar Cabello, welcomed him with open arms. photo: Julian Cardona formed, and then the field was watered again. After each watering came another cultivation. Mexican laborers went through the rows with garden hoes to remove weeds missed by the cultivator and to make sure the plants were properly spaced. Constant vigilance was required to spot insect invaders, which could make all of the above work null and void. When bugs were found, insecticides were sprayed either by tractor or by daring aerial pilots who zoomed just feet over the crop at full throttle, shooting skyward at the end of the field, turning sharply while almost straight up and then swooping back down in the opposite direction for another pass. Watching the plants respond to all this care got into my blood. Each day the plants grew until the time came when acre after acre-450 of them to be exactstood four foot high or better, loaded with bolls. The banker came out and surveyed the field. “Best crop I’ve seen this year,” he said. Prices were holding steady. Our family owed the bank $800,000 at 14 percent interest, meaning we had to make over a hundred grand above all costs just to pay the interest. Fall came and the bolls began to pop open. Now the oncegreen rows of plants sported spots of bright white cotton. In order to speed up the maturation process, we sprayed defoliant on the plants, once again from airplanes. We lined up a contract stripper to harvest the cotton. It rained. New leaves emerged. We sprayed again, this time with arsenic acid to kill the plants. The contract stripper assured us he would come on a particular day. The date arrived, but he didn’t. I drove by the fields, fighting off feelings of pride. The plants were dead but covered from top to bottom with beautiful, white pillowy bolls of cotton. Never in my life had I seen such a crop. Cotton was bringing almost a dollar a pound so we had a shot to pay down our car loan and make a nice profit. Day after day, the contract stripper came up with excuses. We got pushed further and further back on his list. Clouds began to brew in the evenings. I watched with fear and anticipation, but the storms held off. Finally the strippers arrived. The first day, they stripped 20 acres. It yielded almost three bales per acre, which meant we had close to $600,000 worth of cotton in our field. That night I watched as the clouds formed once again. Lightning raced across the sky and loud claps of thunder came closer and closer. Drops of rain turned into a steady onslaught of rain, wind, and hail, buffeting our trailer house like a boat in a storm at sea. I knew without looking what I would find the next day, but I had to look anyway. There was no difference between the rows that had been stripped and those that hadn’t. Brown stalks remained; below that was a mat of mud, leaves, and cotton, laced with arsenic acid. An entire year’s work was gone. If the cotton hadn’t been poisoned, we could have at least turned cattle in to eat it, salvaging something. Jose and Inez knew what else the storm meant: Their jobs were on the line. No crop meant no moneymoney we needed to pay their wages. Insurance companies play the odds, and they knew that there was a great risk involved in growing cotton in the Bakersfield valley. Consequently the premiums they charged to insure a cotton crop were so high that they guaranteed a loss, even when a crop was made. So we didn’t have any insurance. 1/7/05 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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