This piece was reported by Rigoberto Hernandez and Stefania Rousselle and written by Mr. Hernandez.
The road trip that took us off Story Road and into the arid and dry area known as the Foothill Division of San Jose was not our first trip — nor would it be our last.
Our first road trip came a month earlier and with Armando’s invitation. He wanted us to see his life and scribbled down his address: 2538 Havana. Then he called to say Sunday wouldn’t work, Monday would be better.
Stefania Rousselle and I arrived on a Monday to find Havana, but no 2538. We knocked on doors. We called Armando. He never picked up.
Later, Javier told us that that Armando never picked up because he was sleeping off a night of drinking.
This is a common practice, Javier, the 27-year-old said. “We sit down and talk about our lives and ordeals — sometimes until dawn.”
On another visit to San Jose we ended up losing them as they exited at Crazy Horse Canyon and landed at Mendez Farms, where they buy their strawberries.
For weeks, Jose, Javier and Armando had been changing their stories on how much they make and how much their strawberries cost.
At the 220-acre Mendez Farm, Jose Mendez or “Chema” as everyone knows him, said he sells 16 pints for $8 — we’ve heard they cost $10, and later on $15, from the freseros.
Mendez, a light-skinned freckled man, has worked in the Salinas fields for 23 years. Dressed in a blue shirt and jeans and standing next to his blue Chevrolet Silverado, the 49-year-old looks like a contemporary cowboy.
Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, Mendez immigrated in 1985 and immediately began working in the farms — first in Watsonville and then a year later he moved to Salinas and stayed.
He has owned the Mendez Farm since 2003 and said he would like all his business partners to be like the freseros, who have bought anywhere from 20 to 50 boxes a day for the last three months in August.
“If it was up to me, I would only sell all my fruit to these guys,” Mendez said.
This is because the freseros pay with cash and buy when the fruit needs to be sold, which means it doesn’t have to be sent to a cooler. Also, once Mendez takes the cash, the sale’s done.
The same cannot be said for his big clients such as Safeway or other stores on the East Coast or in Canada. With these customers, the hurdles for a final sale are many.
The life of a strawberry is no more than three to four days, he said, and when the fruit travels in refrigerated trucks, it sometimes arrives at its destination and fails the Food and Drug Administration inspection.
Mendez said he is then forced to sell the strawberries at discount markets at a loss of up to 40 percent.
“Look at them, they leave with so much promise,” he said as he looks at a loaded truck. “But you don’t know if they are going to be accepted.”
Meanwhile street sellers prefer ripe Albion strawberries because the strong red coloring attracts customers. And the taste doesn’t disappoint.
Despite the hurdles, Mendez still needs to sell to the larger customers because the street vendors or farmers markets only buy 50 boxes a day. He produces 5,000 boxes a day.
And despite any losses from the inspections, strawberries remain profitable. 2008 was particularly good, he said.
The Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner’s office reported that in 2008, the value of the county’s crops, which includes leaf lettuce, strawberries and head lettuce, increased by 10 percent to $3.8 billion from 2007.
The Western Farm Press reported last year that the value of strawberries increased by 38 percent in 2007 to $600 million, beating head lettuce for second place as the county’s top crop after lettuce.
“I never thought I would own this,” Mendez said, looking at his fields.
Mendez is at the top of the food chain.
At the bottom is Brian, a 17-year-old from the state of Mexico who has been in Watsonville for less than a year.
On one Tuesday afternoon this summer when the temperature hit 90 degrees, he was standing next to a maroon pick-up truck parked in the Tropicana Foods’ lot in San Jose.
Nearby were some paleteros and the kind of salesmen that hiss, “Social security. Driver license.”
The price for the box of strawberries is $5 — half the price Javier sells them for in the Mission.
The price is low because Brian gets the strawberries for free. The owner of the farm where he works no longer wants the strawberries growing in his field and lets his field workers take them.
Even though he can make good money, he considers vendors like Jose, Armando and Javier a cut above him. They do not have to pick the berries, they only have to sell him.
“It is very tiring,” he says about picking strawberries. “It hurts my back.”
Somewhere in this chain there are also legal vendors.
Back in San Francisco, 51-year-old Pedro Lopez, who sells almost every kind of fruit on the corner of 22nd and Harrison Streets, keeps his license in his wallet ready to show
every new officer who shows up to check.
He stopped carrying strawberries ever since the first freseros started showing up about two years ago, he says.
Even though they are competition, he doesn’t mind them.
“We are all human,” Lopez said. “Hunger hits us all. What I don’t like is that someone is taking advantage of them.”
That remains our question.
The Freseros at Home
After weeks of going back and forth with the freseros, we’ve arrived, uninvited at their house in San Jose.
My legs are shaking a little and I can’t remember the last time my heart was beating this fast. After a few minutes, an adult pit bull rushed towards us.
He doesn’t bark and seems to enjoy Rousselle’s attention. Behind him is his owner, Jesse. He must be at least 6 feet and weigh 200 pounds.
“Do you know Javier?” we asked. He doesn’t recognize the name.
“The people who sell strawberries,” we said. He pointed to the garage where they live and said they are out.
While we waited, we decided to talk to their neighbors.
A skinny, short man opened the door. We identified ourselves as journalists and asked about the freseros. Making no eye contact and playing with the cracks in the door, he said, “I’ll go get the woman of the house.”
Out comes Matilde, a curvy, tall woman in her early 30s with long brown hair with blonde highlights.
“I have seen them but they never say hi,” she said. “They moved here maybe three months ago, and you know how new neighbors introduce themselves when they move in? They didn’t.”
She has also not made any effort to get to know them, she said, but she invites us in and offers us water.
Matilde has been here for 16 years and works as a janitor in an architecture firm in downtown San Jose.
In the backyard there is a small family congregation, which includes Matilde and her two-year-old daughter Jasmin, along with their friends Armando and his brother Sergio.
They showed a strong interest in us, particularly in Rousselle, who was acting like a saleswoman for Mission Loc@l.
As a Mexican national I understand the curiosity they had in a white girl who speaks fluent Spanish with a French accent, but this day, I was more interested in the freseros.
“Have you ever talked to them?” I asked. They said they have only seen them when they load the merchandise.
“People here don’t talk to each other,” Sergio said. “It is not like in Mexico where everyone knows each other.”
We heard the pack of dogs barking at the freseros’ house. They’re home.
In the next minute the freseros have opened their door.
“Why are you here?” asked Hugo, Javier’s brother. “We are sorry but we are not going to talk to you guys. You are not getting anything from us.”
Rouselle tried, but Hugo was insistent and it became clear that he’s in charge.
“We have family waiting for us back at home,” Hugo said. “We are not from this country and we don’t understand how things work here, but we just want to be left alone.”
Javier added, “I already told you guys that you are not getting anything from us.”
A few weeks before, Javier asked us to follow him for a whole day so we could really get to know the life of a fresero.
That same Javier said he had a friend who was going to do a documentary on his life and that our story would help. But that Javier had disappeared.
Hugo is in charge.
“We have suffered a lot,” Hugo said, telling us he first immigrated to Arizona, a main entry point for many immigrants. “We don’t want to jeopardize what little we have,” he added, making it clear he doesn’t believe we are really journalists.
“You guys are not dressed like them,” Javier jumped in.
Rousselle then launched into a story about why she became a journalist — to tell stories normally ignored.
Hugo stood his ground. Frustrated, I explained why I want to tell their story.
“If it was up to my parents, I would be a car mechanic,” I said. “I wouldn’t have even gone to college. I know what it’s like to live like a second-class citizen, feeling like I don’t have a voice. That’s why I became I journalist to give people like you a voice.”
Hugo seemed moved, but not enough to invite us in. “We have suffered a lot,” he said. “We don’t trust anyone but ourselves.”
“We are like a family,” he said. “In this country you can’t trust anyone. It’s not like in Mexico where everyone knows each other.”
We had heard those exact words earlier from his neighbors Sergio and Matilde. Here they are — neighbors who share the same sentiment yet never shared even a “hello.”
After the conversation with them ended, we shook hands. Rousselle cried in the car, feeling sad about how much loneliness she sensed.
We stopped reporting the following day. On the drive back to our office in the Mission, we passed by a familiar corner at 22nd and Capp Streets, where Javier normally sells. On this afternoon, there’s a new person there — a woman selling watermelons from the back of a red pick-up truck.