This piece was reported by Rigoberto Hernandez and Stefania Rousselle and written by Mr. Hernandez.
It was just after 8:37 p.m. on an August evening when we hit 95 mph while going south on Highway 101. Our goal was trying to keep up with a beige van transporting five strawberry street vendors and their merchandise.
One of my lenses had popped out and was lying on the floor of our rented, gold 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. My colleague, Stefania Rousselle, was almost on the floor too, laying low so her distinct Caucasian features wouldn’t give us away.
“Maybe it’s not a good idea to stay two cars behind them,” I say. “I keep losing them.”
After about an hour their van merges left getting ready to exit. We are three lanes away and a steady flow of cars won’t let us pass. The van exits on Story Road in the Foothill Division of San Jose.
We cut across three lanes of traffic and make the exit.
As we discovered over more than four weeks of reporting this summer, that was the easiest part of our journey.
More difficult was answering basic questions about Armando, Javier, and Jose, the strawberry vendors in the van. You know them. They stand on street corners with their boxes of strawberries stacked behind them. They avoid looking at you straight in the eye. The story of Armando, Javier and Jose is really the story of dozens of men in San Francisco and perhaps thousands statewide.
In the Mission, they stand on Capp and 20th, Capp and 21st, Capp and 23rd, Harrison and 18th, Mississippi and Mariposa, Bryant and 18th, Harrison and 23rd. Now, in the winter, there are not so many of them and they are selling oranges only. They stand on these corners until they move a few blocks east or west when asked by inquiring police.
In a neighborhood where undocumented immigrants blend seamlessly into a place that’s nearly 50 percent Latino, the fruit sellers stand out. Maybe it’s their isolation on street corners, maybe it’s that many of them are recent arrivals and know little about the place where a beige van drops them off every afternoon – except on Mondays.
We wanted to know: Were the strawberry sellers a part of a network of vendors? Was there human trafficking going on? Where did they get the strawberries? How long have they been here?
The answers to each question became increasingly complicated. Instead of leading to concrete answers, five road trips and weeks of talking to vendors, experts and neighbors gave us only a glimpse of their lives. We met characters who would be welcoming and intimate one minute and aloof and vague the next. We heard tales of a rival crew run by a man named Fidel. We went to their bars, their fields and we met their neighbors. But at the end of it all, we never really got Armando, Javier and Jose to trust us.
We ended up following them to San Jose because their increasing vagueness, missed appointments and obvious lies began to make us think they were actually part of Fidel’s crew or one like it. And what they and others had told us about Fidel was not good.
They described Fidel early on as the head of 15 freseros, or strawberry sellers, whom he had smuggled in from Puebla, Mexico. Armando and Jose often talked about Fidel’s story in opposition to their own: Fidel’s workers are forced, they aren’t.
We also met 22-year old Luis from San Miguel, Puebla, who Fidel recruited at the start of the summer.
He makes $300 a week working for five hours a day, six days a week in the Excelsior District.
“It is really good, he pays for everything,” Luis told us.
Out of those $300, however, Luis sees only $100 because Fidel deducts the rest in living expenses, he said. On top of that Luis has to pay off the fees for coming to the United States. He declines to say how much this adds up to, but they range anywhere from $2000 to $3000 dollars, according to the Mexican Migration Project.
“This is a smuggling ring,” said Anamario Loya, the executive director of La Raza Centro Legal. But, it’s not one anyone — as far as we could tell — is looking into.
Belinda Reyes, who has studied Mexican immigration for 14 years and directs the Cesar Chavez Institute, a community-based research center, said that it’s increasingly lucrative for smugglers to focus on these kinds of operations.
“With border controls it has changed the dynamic of immigration,” Reyes said when we told her about Fidel.
Fidel, we hear from Armando and Jose, has threatened them over turf. What scares Jose is that Fidel knows his mother in Puebla. She runs a convenience store in her hometown.
Jose said that when one of Fidel’s crew wanted to leave, Fidel stopped him at the door, stripped him of his suitcase and cell phone and beat him.
We try to find this fresero, but another one selling on the corner of Mississippi and Mariposa says to us that Routillo has gone to Washington to pick bell peppers.
“In a tough economy, legal employees are reluctant to confront their bosses,” Loya said. “Imagine these guys.”
Armando tells us early on that he too has been threatened by Fidel at the farm where they buy strawberries, but he shrugs it off.
But that’s early on — before Armando and the others have put us through the paces of skipped appointments. We figure the only way to understand what might be going on is to see where they live, to talk to their neighbors and at the very least to follow the route the strawberries take from field to street corner.
In the end, this is what we found.
Javier, 27, wears his baseball cap twisted sideways. He points to his boxes with one finger and doesn’t smile much, not unless you talk to him — and few customers do.
Jose, 16, has a droopy eyelid and a smile with beautiful white teeth. He stands and in a soft kind of voice calls out in English “Strawberries, strawberries.” “Strawberries, strawberries.”
Armando, 22, has short hair, an untrimmed small mustache, a fleshy physique. He favors striped polo shirts. He looks at you with big brown eyes, forces a smile and raises his eyebrows when he is noticed.
Like many of the freseros in the eastern neighborhoods, Javier and company are recent immigrants from Puebla.
“Unlike the traditional immigrant sending states like Jalisco or Michoacan that have three or four generations of immigrants, Puebla is a relatively new state in the migration wave,” Reyes said.
This means their networks are less secure and trust is at a minimum.
“It is a defense mechanism,” Loya said about our difficult interactions with the freseros. “It is a very tough population (recent immigrants) to serve.”
Javier and Jose arrived separately within the last year, part of a diminishing number of Mexicans crossing the border.
The global recession means Mexican immigration has dropped to just over 200,000 a year in 2008, from a peak of around 700,000 a year in 2005 and 2006, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Even though things are bad here, Javier says, things in Mexico are worse.
In Puebla, where he was a ceramics artisan, he used to make around 50,000 pesos — roughly $4,500 dollars a month — selling in the market seven days a week, 12 hours a day, but sales have been dropping for the last two years.
Nevertheless Javier said coming to the United States was not just about money. “I came to see what life is like here, to look for adventure.”
Even though he likes ceramics better, he said he’ll do “whatever comes up. I just came here to work.”
He was working in landscaping when he saw someone selling strawberries and decided to do the same.
Sixteen-year-old Jose noticed the strawberry vendors when he was on a paint job.
“I saw him and thought I am going to sell strawberries,” Jose said. “It’s not as tiring.”
But it’s dangerous. Teenagers rob freseros and other street vendors because they carry cash. Armando says he was kidnapped by two “cholos” who took his fruit and cash and dropped him off near the Golden Gate Bridge. He never reported the crime.
The vulnerability and exposure of standing on a street corner for eight hours makes them suspicious of anyone who does stop to talk.
“One never knows if people are who they say they are,“ Javier said. “You can tell me you are a journalist but I don’t know that.”
There’s been at least one reported case of a kidnapping in the Bay Area.
On Monday, June 29 at around 4:30 p.m., two door-to-door strawberry salesmen ages 22 and 27 were kidnapped in San Jose by at least two men in a black sports utility vehicle.
Their families reported the kidnappings after being asked for ransom money, according to police. Two days later, without receiving any ransom money, the kidnappers released them unharmed.
“They are so vulnerable. they don’t speak English and don’t know how to react,” said Officer Juan Garcia, the public information officer at the San Jose Police Department.
In calls to nearly a dozen legal aid offices and nonprofits that work with immigrants, no one knew much about the strawberry sellers. Some had heard that the men they work for take advantage of them, but beyond that, there’s very little information.
Typically, these sources ended the conversation with, “Let us know what you find.”