Gabriel Thompson | Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture | Voice of Witness / Verso Press | May 2017 | 17 minutes (4,736 words)
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Former sheepherder
Born in: Junín, Peru
Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County
Agricultural Region: Central Valley
Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.
Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”
Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it.
Going to School in Lima Was a Dream For Me
My name is Heraclio Astete, and I was born in Peru, in Junín. It’s a city in Peru’s central mountains. My parents were farmers, and they worked raising animals. We had sheep, horses, cows—we lived in the city but spent most of our time in the country.
I have great memories of my childhood, because I was able to spend so much time with my parents and my five sisters. The thing I remember best about Junín were the festivals. We’d always go. Every year there was a big festival on August 6, which is the anniversary of the Battle of Junín. It’s the town’s biggest party, and everyone has a great time. As a child I’d be in parades with my classmates, and there’d be all sorts of sports competitions—track and field, cycling races, soccer—that we’d watch or participate in.
I have strong memories of Junín, but for much of my childhood, I was in the country. My parents’ farm was outside town near the village where my mother grew up. It’s called San Pedro.
My sisters and I started helping with herding the animals at six or seven years old. We’d stay with them out in the fields, then we’d bring them back to the barn at night. I was working at the same time that I was going to school. So on school days, we’d be up at 5:30 to take the animals out to the fields to graze. Then my sisters and I would travel into the city for breakfast, before heading off to school. Sometimes we took our homework back to the country to work on while we watched the animals in the fields. Then every weekend was spent entirely on the farm. Financially we weren’t too comfortable, but we were sort of middle class.
In Peru I had the chance to go to primary school, high school, and university. I went to the Universidad Guzmán y Valle in Lima. I’d been to Lima before, but going to school there was a dream for me—all of us in the provinces aspire to make it to the capital.
At university I studied education, because I always liked spending time with kids. I graduated in 1983. And after I graduated, I went home. My mom made a special request of me—she wanted me to start a little school in San Pedro. At the time, children from the community could go to nearby villages for primary school, but there was no secondary school in the area. So I promised my mom I’d start one.
In San Pedro there were more or less 500 people, but no real centralized village. Everyone lived spread out on their ranches because they were all farmers, but there was one old house that marked the center of the village that was called the communal house. That’s where I started the school. To start, I had about twenty-seven students. The second year it had grown to thirty-four. I was the first director of the school and one of the first teachers. We ran it as a community managed education center, and then after two years, the state took over and it became a government-funded public school.
After the state took over the school, I went back to my hometown of Junín to teach. But the school I started kept growing. It’s still there today, and now it even has electricity.
Every Time I Visited the School I Founded, I Felt Like I Was Taking My Life in My Hands
I taught in Junín for eight years. They were difficult times, though. I was teaching when Shining Path was on the rise.* It was a real tragedy for my country. Between the insurgents and reprisals from the government, you didn’t know when you went out on the street if you’d come back home.
* Shining Path was a notoriously violent Maoist guerrilla group that took up arms against the Peruvian government in 1980.
Shining Path targeted teachers. I believe Shining Path’s thinking was that teachers were the ones responsible for their students’ ideology, and if students were to have the right ideology, teachers would have to be replaced. Although it was more complicated than that—when teachers went missing, it was never clear whether it was Shining Path or the army of Peru that was responsible. I had colleagues from other districts and villages disappear, and we’d never find out what happened to them. Every time I went back to San Pedro to visit the school I founded, I always felt like I was taking my life in my hands.
During the eighties, I got married to a woman named Aída and had a son and daughter. In 1991, my wife was pregnant with our third child, and there simply wasn’t any money. The government had fallen apart completely, and government employees such as teachers were barely getting paid. So I tried to make the best decision I could for my family, and I looked into leaving the country to make money. I decided to go to the United States.
I had a brother-in-law who had already been in the north for many years with the H-2A program. He’d made the decision to work in the U.S. for the same reason—because social problems were worsening in Peru and the economy was a complete disaster.
To participate in the H-2A program I had to apply for a U.S. work visa. To do that, I went to Lima. There’s an agency there that represents a U.S. farming company—Western Range Association. My brother-in-law worked for the company, and he’d already talked with the boss here in the United States, so the boss asked the American government for my visa. I arranged my paperwork with the company in Lima, and then they sent me the visa and I was able to travel. I was told I would work as a sheepherder. It was something I’d done all through my childhood, so I felt I was prepared.
I signed a contract that stated that I had to stay in the United States for three years. If things worked out, I could renew the contract for another three years. But I just wanted to make money to support my family and then come home.
That Night We Cried Together, and Then the Next Day We Got to Work
I left for the States in October 1991. I flew from Lima to Los Angeles to Idaho, where I first worked. I remember landing in Idaho, and everything was covered in a blanket of snow. Everything I saw was white. I’d never seen anything like it. We had snow in Peru, but not much. A Mexican worker from the company came to the airport to pick me up, and then we drove hours away from the city to get to the ranch. We drove through a little town called Castleford, and then the ranch was about 20 miles further out from there. We arrived at the ranch in the afternoon and there I met other Peruvians who were also working at the ranch. We spent some time together and talked and told our stories. That night we cried together, and the next day we got to work.
We started really early, at about 5 a.m. There were six of us with the animals, and a supervisor. I was hired as a sheepherder, but my first job was actually to work in a cow feeding lot. Every day we had to carry bales of hay around and distribute it to all of the cows for food. That work lasted more or less until 11 a.m. and we barely had time to cook and eat lunch, and then we had to go back out with the animals.
One of the things I remember most from Idaho was the cold. I started working in October and it had already snowed. In November or December, it would sometimes get to 10 degrees, 15 degrees below zero. It’s very hard during winter because of the cold. Even though we had thermal coveralls, we almost couldn’t stand it. We had gloves too, thick leather gloves. But despite that, we were always terribly cold because we were outside for as much as twelve hours a day. All of us from time to time would think, What am I doing here? But we all had families back home that we needed to send money to.
Finally we’d head inside at 6 or 7 p.m., depending on the time of the year. We didn’t rest until the end of the day, and then we were still responsible for the wellbeing of the animals. There were no Saturdays or Sundays. There was no punching in or punching out. We were at the will of our bosses, and we worked almost 365 days of the year.
In Idaho we earned $750 a month, and it didn’t matter how many hours a day we put in. To get it to our families we’d plead with the boss to have him wire funds to the Bank of Peru. Back then there was no Western Union or any agencies that wire money between banks. Every year we had one week of paid vacation. But none of us had any place to go, so we’d stay put.
I was in Idaho for two years, but then the boss sold off some of his animals, so there were two of us left redundant. One day I was told I was being sent to California. I think the other extra guy was sent to Montana. I was a Western Range employee, and I was in the United States legally only because they’d hired me. So I could be moved by the boss to wherever they needed me. I didn’t know anything about California. The word California meant nothing to me, other than I knew it was a state.
So for the last year of my first contract I was flown to California and driven to Delano. It wasn’t as cold, but work in California was harder than work in Idaho in some ways. For one, instead of staying in a bunkhouse with other workers, I stayed by myself in a trailer in the pastures that didn’t have heat, air conditioning, or a bathroom. I felt like a nomad.
My job was a twenty-four-hour a day job. In a typical day, I’d get up at 4 or 5 a.m. and check on the animals. Then I’d go around and work on the fencing—we worked with fencing that could be moved depending on where the sheep were grazing. Then in the evening I’d be back with the flock again. Even at night, I’d have to stay alert.
Most days it was just me and the animals out there together. There were a lot of restrictions, and the bosses didn’t want workers socializing much. In those days, we weren’t even allowed to have a television, radio, or newspapers and magazines. If the bosses found any of these things they’d say we were distracted and wasting time. There were many times that a boss told me I wasn’t allowed to have this or that. The bosses were also very suspicious of visitors, and if my boss saw tire tracks on the road near my trailer, he’d grill me about who had passed by. We weren’t supposed to have visitors.
So I was entirely by myself, with nothing to do. The entire day was spent simply taking care of the sheep. My only companion was a little dog named Lagún. The boss, a Basque Spaniard, had named him. Apparently in Basque the name Lagún means “friend.” And indeed he was my loyal friend. But I wasn’t around other people much, and I’d talk to myself like a crazy person when I was alone. And then maybe once a day the boss would come by to check on me, but I was often in the pasture when he stopped by, so I didn’t see him.
Sheep are peaceful animals: they don’t make any trouble at all. They do require a high degree of care, though. I was in charge of grazing anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 sheep. Near Delano we had to be wary of foxes, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. Coyotes can do a lot of damage, especially during the fall during lambing season. That’s when you can’t really sleep the entire night, because you have to stay alert for predators. The sheep would sleep near the trailers and Lagún would bark whenever there was a wild animal near. Then I’d hop up and go scare off the coyote or whatever it was.
It was terrible in months like July and August trying to sleep inside the trailer. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at all because it was so hot. Many times I would go sleep outside because of the heat and also to keep an eye on the sheep.
During this whole time, my wife and children were living in Junín. We didn’t have phone lines or access to phones, so the only way I could communicate with her was by letter, and those often arrived late or got lost. It was by letter that I’d found out my second daughter was born. I didn’t hear until two months after it happened. It was very hard to be away from family for those three years. I was used to a different kind of life, and adjusting to life in the United States was difficult. I struggled with a lot of things I wasn’t used to, and one of the main things was loneliness. But I wanted to improve my family’s financial situation, so that’s why I stayed.
I Was Back with My Family for Only Ten Months
Finally, in 1994, my contract ended and I went back to Peru. I got to meet my new daughter for the first time, and she was already old enough that she was walking. I wasn’t able to get a teaching job again, but I had a plan to invest some of the money I’d made while in the States. I bought a new vehicle and I was set to be a driver. Unfortunately, transportation laws changed just after I bought the vehicle, and the one I’d bought didn’t qualify anymore for a commercial driver registration.
I couldn’t use it to make money, and I had no other job, so I started thinking of what else to do. I talked to my old boss about having another chance to come back to Delano, and he said the job was still available. I talked to my wife about it, and she didn’t like the idea of me leaving again, but she understood that I didn’t have any other good choices. So I applied for an H-2A visa, and got accepted again.
I was back with my family for only ten months. In October 1994 I went back to Delano under a new three-year contract. I had the same job, the same tasks, the same hours as before. Everything was the same.
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“If You Want to Die, Stay at the Ranch”
I completed a three-year contract, then started another one. My plan was to finish the second contract and then finally head back to Peru for good. That would have taken me from 1994 to 1999. But things didn’t go as I’d planned them.
In July 1998, I was out setting fences with some of the other workers. We went out at dawn. After the sun came up it was a very hot day in the desert, and I was feeling very uncomfortable. We’d brought ice water with us, and I drank some to cool off, but it didn’t seem to help. I was sure I was just fatigued. We continued with the work, and after the fences were repaired we fed the animals. There was always work to be done.
Late that night, I began to feel a fever coming on. I felt chills, and my body ached. I thought maybe I’d been dehydrated and overheated. But I started coughing and felt worse and worse. The coughing got worse, and by early the next morning, I was spitting up blood.
That next morning, my first task was to go feed the rams, which were separated from the rest of the herd. But I couldn’t do it. My body wasn’t even responding to my brain’s commands. Around 8 a.m. my boss came by my trailer to find out what was going on. He came into my trailer, and I couldn’t even get up. But he began to scold me. “Why aren’t you out feeding the rams?”
I told him, “I’m very sick. I need you to take me to the doctor.” Well, once he saw that I was spitting up blood, he agreed to make an appointment to take me to Delano to see the doctor. Then he left and didn’t return again until the afternoon.
When he came to my trailer at 1 p.m., I was very feverish. I felt like my head was going to explode. He got me to the doctor, and they ran some tests and gave me some medication for the fever. We went back to the ranch, and after three days we went back for another doctor’s appointment and they diagnosed me with valley fever. Valley fever is a disease caused by a fungus that infects some of the soil in California’s deserts. It’s possible to breathe in the fungus through dust. It was something I’d caught while working in the pastures.
After the doctor explained what was wrong, I was sent to Bakersfield for more tests and to see a specialist.
I had to pay for everything myself. Western Range didn’t want to take responsibility for my treatment, so all the money that I’d saved up to that point had to be spent on paying for my medicine and doctors.
I was able to call my wife using a phone card and I told her I was sick. It was a terrible blow to my family to hear what was going on. Not only were they worried for me, but being sick, I couldn’t send them any money or save any, and that was the whole reason I was in California in the first place.
My case of valley fever was bad. I went back to live in the trailer, but I wasn’t getting healthy. The doctors recommended I have complete rest to heal, but the bosses wouldn’t give me time off. My boss would say, “You have to feed the animals. These animals don’t have somebody else here to feed them.” Sick as I was, I couldn’t stop working.
So I told Western Range that I wouldn’t leave until I was dead or cured.
On a trip to see the doctor in Bakersfield, I met with an ex-employee of Western Range, a fellow Peruvian named Victor. I told him my story, and he said, “If you want to die, stay at the ranch. If not, you’ll need to get out.” He told me I should talk to a lawyer and try to get worker’s comp to help pay for my treatment.
In early 1999, after six months trying to keep up with my job while sick, I left work and moved to Bakersfield. That’s when I decided to leave the sheep. Because my sickness was clearly work related, I started receiving workers’ comp and established myself in Bakersfield. Workers’ comp paid me 75 percent of my salary from Western Range. And I received treatment at Mercy Hospital for my valley fever.
I wasn’t getting a lot better, though, and by the end of 1999 something strange happened. The fungi had eaten away at my right lung so much that it caused a perforation. I needed more expensive treatments, and that’s when Western Range began talking about flying me back to Peru. They mailed me a plane ticket and told me that they’d found a clinic in Peru to take care of me. They said it would be better if I was with my family. And on top of that, they promised me an extra $2,000.
It sounded like a lot, but I had compatriots from Peru around me in Bakersfield that I could talk to. I found out from some of them that a few other Peruvians had caught valley fever and Western Range had flown them home, but that the company had then immediately cut off contact. I heard about Peruvians who had died because nobody in Peru knew how to treat the disease. None of the doctors there are familiar with valley fever, because the fungus and disease are pretty limited to parts of the United States.
So I told Western Range that I wouldn’t leave until I was dead or cured. I’d arrived in the States in good health, and the work itself was what caused my illness. I returned the ticket for Peru that had been sent to me.
I focused on my treatments, which consisted of taking two Diflucan pills a day. I also had surgery performed on my right lung, because I couldn’t get rid of the encapsulated fungus that was eating it from the inside.
My wife arrived to the United States in 2000 with a humanitarian visa because of my poor state of health. The Peruvian Embassy processed the visa. She came here by herself and left our three kids. My wife was here for only one month. She had to go back because my children couldn’t stay by themselves.
So by around 2001 I was still in the United States by myself again and I was finally starting to get better. I had no papers to stay in the U.S., but I was able to find a job working on a farm that grew produce.
It Felt Like a Big Achievement
After I left sheepherding, I began to organize a sheepherders’ union in Bakersfield with Victor Flores. He’s the fellow Peruvian who had helped me in the first place after I’d come to Bakersfield for treatment.
Victor and I would go out at night to meet with the sheepherders in all the different pastures and fields. We collected signatures to see if they were for or against joining a union. We also gathered their stories—we had to show that there was abuse of the sheepherders going on.
The largest meetings we ever had for the union was of maybe three or four sheepherders. There weren’t ever any larger ones because individual sheepherders were so isolated by their work. Between individual sheepherders there are sometimes 40 or 50 miles. We’d go individually from one to the other to talk to them. It was difficult to organize, because everyone is so isolated and they don’t have permission from their employers to leave the area. It was a big problem for us, but we struggled and made it work, and we eventually filed the paperwork to form a union.
Then later in 2001, there was a hearing in Sacramento about the conditions faced by herders with guest-worker visas. It was a huge experience for me. After having fought for the benefits and dignity of the least protected workers here in the United States, it felt like a big achievement.
I testified about my own experience to state senators and a special commission. Victor also spoke. He explained how after a dispute with his boss he’d been dropped off at a hotel in Bakersfield with nothing.
We wanted better living conditions for H-2A herders. Better housing, food, and working hours. One of the problems was that we weren’t paid for all the hours we worked, and we were made to do work other than sheepherding without any additional pay. For example, some workers might have come over as sheepherders but then put to work in the fields harvesting crops, driving tractors, even though we weren’t getting paid near what other fieldworkers were getting paid per hour. And we wanted to make it so ranchers couldn’t just move you around wherever they wanted or abandon you whenever they wanted.
During the testimony, the statehouse was filled with ranchers. Western Range had been informed about my union work, and they were there as well. I ran into the Western Range agent who had signed me up for the program in Lima back in 1991. He said to me, “Why are you doing this? I did you all a favor by letting you enter this country.” I said, “That may have been a favor, but what we experienced here was exploitation. A real favor would have been advocating for better conditions for us.”
After having fought for the benefits and dignity of the least protected workers here in the United States, it felt like a big achievement.
That year, the California legislature passed a law protecting us. It required a graduated increase in pay over the next few years, as well as better living conditions such as electricity, toilets, and access to better food and fresh water.* It also allowed for breaks every day, and vacation. It was a big achievement for all the workers. Unfortunately, in the years that followed the law wasn’t enforced much. The Department of Labor didn’t do much to make sure ranchers were following the guidelines.
* In October 2015, the federal Department of Labor announced they were raising the wages of H-2A sheepherders to about $1,500 a month, which will be phased in over three years.
Things have got a little better over the years. The treatment of the workers on the part of the bosses has improved. Now, a sheepherder is allowed to have cell phone, radio or a television in his trailer. They can also go out more and participate in the community, like go to sporting events.
What hasn’t fully improved is the living situation—that’s only improved on a case to case basis. Now there are some trailers with solar panels that have power, so they have air conditioning, for instance. But some trailers are still like they were decades ago.
Thank God My Children Understand the Sacrifices I Have Made
Today, I still live in Bakersfield with my wife. I work for the same farm that I worked for after I left the ranch. It’s a good company—they respect the laws protecting their workers. My wife was able to get a tourist visa to come live with me. Eventually I got my papers fixed so I could stay here, and she’s working on it right now. Still, I can’t leave the U.S. and come back.
We also have two of our kids here with us. My first daughter Gisela is here—she’s twenty-seven. I also have a twelve-year-old son named Jiomar. My oldest son and my second daughter are still in Peru. I saw my oldest son two years ago when he came to visit on a tourist visa. My second daughter I haven’t seen in over twenty years. The only time I’ve spent with her was during the ten months I was back in Peru in 1994. I only know her through speaking to her on the phone. I’d love to visit her, but I can’t go to Peru and come back here. But my children in Peru are doing well. My oldest boy is a doctor. My daughter is a nurse, and she’s working on a post-graduate degree. Thank God my children have been able to understand and value the sacrifices that I’ve made.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity.
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Chasing the Harvest editor Gabriel Thompson is a journalist based in Oakland and mostly writes about immigration, labor, and organizing.
Longreads editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands