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The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman

September 03, 2006|MARK ARAX | Mark Arax is a senior writer for West. He is the author of "In My Father's Name" and co-author of "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire."

This was the sum of Hilario Guzman's ledger as he walked into the grape fields on the morning of his death.

$6,700

to the coyote who smuggled him and his family over.

$2,000

to the bandits who robbed them along the border.

$350

a month to rent a tin shack in the San Joaquin Valley.

$400

a month to feed four children with another baby on the way.

*

He had a job that paid 20 cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105-degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a 10-hour day.

That September morning, with a fruit tub in one hand and a sharp curved blade in the other, he cut enough bunches to make 10 trays, and then he vanished. No one saw the Triqui Indian leave, not the crew boss who thought he saw everything or the men and women picking in their delirious states. He didn't tell them that his baby son, Geronimo, the one born on the right side of the border, had been sick for weeks. He didn't tell them he had been drinking all night and woke up drunk. Later they would hear the story that he went straight from the vineyard to a liquor store near Fresno and drank some more. He must have nodded off halfway home because on Jensen Avenue, just past the crematory where the dairies send their used-up Holsteins to become chicken feed, his '93 Ford Escort began to veer, first to the vineyard on his right and then to the alfalfa field on his left. He tried to slow down but the car hit a dirt embankment, bucked and flipped, and he flew out the window and through the air, landing on his head.

The police found his pregnant wife, Veronica, in a lopsided trailer deep in the vineyards. After they convinced her that they had come not because of her complaints of wild dogs but because a man named Hilario Guzman, 32, the same one in the photo, was dead, she tried to remember everything about the previous 24 hours. She could remember only that he had picked up medicine for the baby the night before and lingered strangely on the child that morning. "Geronimo was feeling better, doing better, and Hilario stood over him and began to speak," she recalled. "He told him, 'You are going to be responsible someday. You are going to be the man of the house. The man of the house,' he said. Then he took his lunch and water and left for work."

Had Hilario Guzman died of heat stroke while laboring in the fields, the United Farm Workers would have sent an honor guard to stand over him. Instead, with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit, his body lay in a funeral parlor in Selma, the raisin capital of the world, for the next 10 days. It took that long for the Triqui, a community of migrants who had crossed the border illegally over the past five years and settled in rural California, Washington and Oregon, to raise $2,600 to ship him back to their village of corn and beans and dust and fog high on the mountain. And so his body was returned to San Martin Concepcion but his soul remained trapped on that patch of alfalfa between Fresno and Kerman. This is where the tribe's transplanted elders and bad curse doctors would gather--without a single woman present--to erect a cross in cement and set down enough votive candles and bottles of his favorite beer to send his soul back to Oaxaca.

By this time, his grieving wife had returned to the village as well. Only she was wearing a mark of shame on her forehead, put there by Hilario's mother. Veronica was the reason her son was dead, the old lady spit. Her greed, her selfishness, her constant belittling--all had caused him to venture north. Why was he drinking so heavily if not for her failings as a wife? Why was she not working beside him that morning like the other wives who had gone to America? Her tirade ended with Veronica's banishment from the village, from the house that belonged to Hilario and her. To see the mud adobe hut standing there was one thing. It had no running water, no toilet and only a single bare bulb as light. But it became something else once you got to know their dreams. The plan had been to pour their savings from the California fields into a grand remodeling and to return there--in three or five years--with the children, maybe this time for good. But not one penny had been saved in those 18 months in the United States, and now his body was buried next to his father in the cemetery on the knoll, and Veronica was left to wander back across the steep ridge road to her parents' village on the other side.

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