BY JANET ZIMMERMAN
The Press Enterprise
Maria Rodriguez stands at the raised vegetable bed, its wood frame dried and gray from summers in the desert sun – much like her.
With surprising force, the 92-year-old plunges her hands into the soil, coaxing a scarlet radish from its hiding place.
Rodriguez’s arms long ago lost the definition of a field worker’s. Loose skin jiggles as she thrusts the radish skyward, like an offering. Her arthritic fingers, Zigging and zagging at odd angles now, brush dirt from the plant’s shaggy roots.
Rodriguez savors the musky smell of damp earth, relishes the familiar tingling of sun on skin.
The years fade away when she is wrist-deep in the garden.
“I feel free,” she almost whispers in Spanish.
When she straightens again, her back remains hunched, a remnant of 16 years of stooping over the fruits and vegetables she once plucked for America’s dinner tables.
That’s nothing compared with the arthritis in her knees. A generation later, they ached just like they did after eight hours kneeling in rows of peas and asparagus. Or after a day scrambling up and down a ladder to fill a crate and a half with lemons in the time it took two or three others workers combined.
Rodriguez and 44 other seniors at the Desert Gardens Apartments in Indio are some of the poorest people in America, wanting not because they wouldn’t work, but because they did the work no one lese wanted to do.
They live in the nation’s only federally subsidized housing for retired farmworkers, opened in 1988 by housing authorities who noticed a growing need among this virtually silent, uncounted population. Rodriguez was one of the complex’s first residents, and now its oldest, brought here by a housing official who visited the area’s senior centers looking for interest in such a development.
The wait for a two-bedroom apartment, like the one Rodriguez shares with her 72-year-old son, Alfredo, is four years.
Tenants get help with their utilities and groceries, and rent is held to 30 percent of their income.
With government discounts, Rodriguez’s rent comes to $135 out of hr $778 monthly social security check.
For the residents, the complex is a haven. It is their bounty in a life of meager harvests.
Others, like Rodriguez, have been finding their own way for so long that they don’t want to move in with relatives. Some have planted roots in this country and have no desire to return to Mexico.
Rodriguez chose her apartment with an eye toward the field. She wanted to wake up in the morning with a clear view of where she’s been, how far she’s come.
Rodriguez is a long way from gathering carrots that fell from produce trucks in the 1960s to fill her three youngest children’s tummies until payday.
It seems a lifetime since the weeks she went without meat – just a decade ago – to make the $350 space rent on a rundown pink trailer behind the Taco Mart in Coachella. She treasured that trailer because it was her own.
“I finally have air conditioning,” she says through a translator. “Life is easy now.”
Hard work never scared Rodriguez. It was the price she proudly paid as widow shouldering a household.
“The land has been good to me,” she says.
The fields gave Rodriguez strength and purpose, much as the garden does now.
The land has been friend and foe. It gave her life, albeit a hard one and the two remain inseparable.
Rodriguez never imagined living in a place like Desert Gardens, with its red-tiled roof, immaculate grounds and a patio exploding with pink, white and orange blooms.
Inside her apartment, Rodriguez sits primly on her brown and pink flowered sofa, always mindful of visitors and her manners. Her sense of humor is hidden behind proper politeness.
The cramped living room is cluttered with vases of silk flowers, brightly colored doilies she crocheted and an alter to the Virgin Mary.
It nears little resemblance to the mud home in Mexicali, Mexico, where Rodriguez was raising her seven children when her husband, a farmworker, was shot and killed in Oakland. It was 1947.
He had no insurance, no Social Security benefits.
She had no money.
Friends urged Rodriguez to go north, to the States, where she could earn a decent living.
“The first thing I heard when people traveled back to Mexico was, ‘Come out, make some extra money. There’s work’”
Already she was toiling into the night, sewing casket linings for the local funeral home. When she finished with the caskets, she crocheted baby clothes to sell at a children’s store.
By the time Alfredo, her oldest, could reach the gas pedal on the mortuary’s old pickup, he was transporting bodies to help out. “We had nothing,” he says from the apartment’s kitchen table.
The oranges, peaches and mangos that grew in Rodriguez’s yard helped a little. But the decorative bougainvillea and gladioli that made her so happy did little to ease her burden.
Rodriguez thought she had enough hard work, heartache and poverty.
Then life gave her something more.
Her eighth child was born at home in 1955, with only a neighbor woman to help. Rodriguez named her daughter Rosa. The baby’s father, Rodriguez’s longtime boyfriend, took off before she was born.
Rodriguez saw him not too long ago at a local thrift store. He blew her a kiss, but she was still too angry to respond. She’s not bitter about much in life, except him.
When Rosa was seven, she grew very sick. Rodriguez, alone and scared, was getting ready to beg for money on the streets when a doctor took pity on the family. He gave Rosa care and medicine, and he offered Rodriguez some advice.
“Get work in the United States,” he told her.
In the early 1960s, Rodriguez and her two oldest sons began crossing the border to El Centro and Calexico. By 2 a.m. every day, they would head out to cut and bunch carrots and green beans for less than $1 an hour. Twelve or 13 hours later they were headed home, money in their pockets.
“I was happy to be working in the fields. All the people were talking and laughing and singing. It made me feel good.”
In 1968, she put down roots in Mecca, courtesy of an American marriage that ended in divorce.
Rodriguez was in her 50s when she arrived with her two youngest children, then teenage girls, while the older children remained in Mexicali.
The grape harvest was just beginning.
“There was a lot of work here, enough to even work on Sundays. I knew there would be enough to live on,” she remembers.
The girls picked grapes on weekends and attended school during the week. Sometimes the family followed to crops to Central California.
They lived in a tiny apartment that was usually hotter inside than out. Rodriguez couldn’t afford the $112 monthly rent at one time, so she talked the landlord into letting her pay by the week.
Remembering those days, Rodriguez starts to cry.
“There was no future. It was just survival.”
She spent much of her time in the lemon groves.
When she was picking, there was no time for lunch. To make sure she made her quota, Rodriguez snatched bites of burrito between trips up the ladder. Her left shoulder is still dented from the weight of the picking bag – 60 pounds when full, she figures.
Her children remember little more than how hard she worked.
“She wasn’t very affectionate. There were no extra ‘I love you’s,’” remembers Rosa, who was 13 at the time. “But we knew she loved us because we always had food on the table. We didn’t have toys or fancy stuff, but we were happy. She did the best job she could.”
A few years before Rodriguez retired at 66, the thorny branches of a lemon tree broke her fall, along with her ribs. When she went back to work – against doctor’s orders – a supervisor took pity and gave her a position in the packing sheds.
“I worked hard, because when the boss came around and saw who wasn’t working, they got rid of them. I was afraid of being fired.”
Supervisors in the field let her take home the less-desirable peas, tomatoes and squash – all good when the gurgles in your belly rival the sound of water rushing through the irrigation pipes.
Once, farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez visited the fields.
“At the end of the season, as the harvest was falling off and our income was down, he pulled up in a pickup. When we picked up our checks, he said, ‘I have a little gift for you, un regalito.’ And he pulled out a bag.”
It was filled with rice, dried beans, canned food. The memory brings tears to Rodriguez’s eyes.
With Chavez’s help, she watched her wages climb from $1 an hour, to $2, to almost $5 by the time she retired in 1978. “It helped me out, what he fought for.”
She still has her yellow United Farm Workers card from 1975.
It’s tucked next to a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the passport she got following her U.S. citizenship in 1997.
Heavy makeup cannot mask the creases of age on her face, now illuminated by sweat from the warming day. Such is evidence of the inevitable passing of years.
Rodriguez dabs at the sides of her nose with a neatly folded napkin – as much a part of her attire as the Day-Glo polyester dresses and white nylons she favors.
The gesture is no more than a tacit nod to the Coachella Valley heat before Rodriguez gets on with her daily ritual.
With a stride as strong as her spirit, Rodriguez negotiates a shortcut through some bushes to the apartment complex’s garden. Her step was slowed just a little by a recent fall that broke her wrist and by a throat infection that sent her to the hospital.
She is at home here, pulling weeds from among the chilies, carrots and green beans with one hand, splashing them with a hose held in the other.
In the garden, she croaks out “El Pajarillo,” a Latin American folk song about a bird that sings of justice, freedom and hope. The message isn’t far from Rodriguez’s own life, one that fell short of her wishes.
The garden reminds Rodriguez of the men she’s loved and lost, the piece of land she never owned, the trips she never took.
“It’s been a very sad life,” she says.
Mostly though, life is good now. The struggles are over.
“Thank God, I am more comfortable here than in Mexico. Now I feel retired. I have enough to eat now,” she says. “I am in peace.”
Rodriguez takes joy in the thought of her children and 40-some grandchildren – “mas o menos,” she’s lost track – who live here and in Mexico. Most of them gathered in Coachella this year for her 92 nd birthday party, complete with balloons and a deejay blasting the Macarena.
These days she rises long after the sun, to the smell of oatmeal that son Alfredo has waiting for her. On a good day they might go shopping, then have lemon-herb chicken for lunch at Sizzler.
She tends her flowers on the patio and her vegetables in the community garden every day. The rest of the time she crochets – bed spreads, pillowcases, a cover for her bottle water.
Visitors always get a gift. Sometimes it’s smaller version of the white tablecloth she crocheted for former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she met by chance while on a senior-center trip to San Diego.
And always, Rodriguez takes comfort in her view of the farmland.
“I love to watch the field with the hope that some day I could return. I look at it every day. I’m still asking for work, but they told me now I had worked enough already.”
Deep down, Rodriguez knows those days have passed.
She planned long ago for the end.