Credit: James H.

In May the first showers sink heavy drops into the parched earth of Michoacan, Mexico. The wrinkled men of La Soledad, a town of barely 700, look at the sky and wonder, as they always have, about the seeds they’ve placed in the ground. Around the same time, maybe a bit before, the letters come.

There is no questioning the importance of the envelopes, carrying stamps and seals from both sides of the border. United States Postal Service Registered Mail. $10.38. The return address is Nestle USA, 216 Morton Street, Morton, IL, an address that nearly any adult in La Soledad will recognize. It’s la Nestle; or, to workers who’ve been around longer, la Libby’s. To some it’s the letter from la calabaza. Pumpkin.

Illinois is the top pumpkin-producing state in the nation, and Morton is the self-declared pumpkin capital of the world. La Soledad, Michoacan, helps make it that. On thousands of acres around the canning plant, contracted farmers plant the proprietary seeds Libby’s developed to produce pumpkins with more meat, fewer seeds, less water.

Inside the factory, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the seasonal workers come from tiny La Soledad. But this is not a story about illegal immigrants. Workers here have green cards and some are even American citizens. This is the tale of two towns separated by 2,000 miles and an increasingly tense border that are dependent on each other, though one of them barely knows the other exists.

The mailman brings fistfuls of the Nestle letters, written in English and Spanish. The arrangement: Seasonal jobs ranging from $7.97 an hour to $11.72 an hour, from general laborer to supervisor, wage scale negotiated by Teamsters, Chauffeurs & Helpers Local 627. Return to your old job or apply for a new one. Sign and return the form. We are looking forward to the 2006 pumpkin season and your return.

Pull off I-74 into Morton and you’ll be greeted by three flags: the American flag, the Illinois state flag, and the Nestle flag. Below the Nestle flag, which depicts a mother bird feeding two babies, there’s a message from the Swiss firm that is the largest food company in the world: “Nestle welcomes you to Morton.” Behind this sign sprawls the dingy white factory, which processes as much as 90 percent of all canned pumpkin consumed in the United States. A skeleton crew watches the plant most of the year, but during the canning season, which everyone here calls the Pack, its machines never stop. On their conveyor-belt journey through the factory, pumpkins are cleaned, sliced, cooked, pulped, pureed, reheated, canned, recooked, cooled, and packaged. For ten weeks a year the factory smells like cooking squash.

Morton, population 15,000, is Peoria’s comfortable neighbor; it’s 98 percent white and a popular place for Caterpillar executives to live. The canning factory was built in 1925 and soon purchased by Libby’s; in the 70s Nestle took over, keeping the Libby’s brand name. The plant contributes fewer than 20 year-round jobs and a mere $33,000 in property taxes (less than 1 percent of the total taxes collected in Morton Township) to the local economy, but village president Norman Durflinger says it gives the town something invaluable: an identity. “We think pumpkin around here,” he said. “I don’t know what we would do without it.”

That may be, but not many residents think about the 200 or so people who arrive in Morton every August when the pumpkins are ready for canning. Father Mark DeSutter, pastor of Morton’s Catholic church, says the plant is a bit of a mystery. “It’s right there. It’s at a major intersection in town. We see the trucks come in, we see the pumpkins. But it’s like they throw the switch in August and they throw it off in November and then it’s just dormant.” DeSutter says that in his seven years at the parish he’s never met anyone who works there–neither seasonal workers nor managers. “We have a pumpkin festival,” he says, “but it’s not like the workers are marching in the parade.”

All shifts are 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from mid-August till as late as November. If rain makes the fields too wet to harvest, it’s a day off without pay.

Martha Ramirez is 45, though like many of her coworkers she looks older. This is her fifth season. She prepares for her night shift by taking four ibuprofen tablets. Naked cans come down the line at her and machines slap labels on them; her job is to feed labels into the machines. The movement makes her arms ache, from her hands up through her shoulders. She eats lunch at 2 AM, gets off work at 9, and falls asleep with a heating pad across her shoulders. It took her five days to get used to her schedule, but now, at the end of October, she says night when she means day.

One of just a handful of women from La Soledad, Ramirez has come with her husband, Pedro Quintero, who also works all night. They sleep in the bedroom of their apartment, and her aunt and uncle, Virginia and Rodolfo, sleep on a red metal-frame bed in the living room. Rodolfo, working the Pack for the first time, lost eight pounds in two weeks. Virginia wanted to work at Libby’s but she has a bad leg; she’s found a job in another Peoria factory where she can sit. The Pack jobs offer no benefits but workers get to take home pumpkins, and Ramirez cooks hers in water and piloncillo, a hard brown sugar. The apartment smells of sweet pumpkin.

In the 1970s the company provided dorm-style housing for its migrant workers. Now most of the workers from La Soledad rent cheap, run-down apartments for three months from landlords ten miles away in Peoria. Rafael Quintero and his godson pay $260 a month for a kitchen, two furnished rooms, and a bathroom. For a shower, there’s a bucket and a Tupperware container they use to splash water over their heads.

Down the block from Rafael’s apartment, men in bright hard hats gather on a street corner and wait for rides to the plant. Anchoring the corner is a store that workers call La Mexicana, though that’s not its name. Once a week the Palestinian owner drives to Chicago to bring back Mexican goods: bags of pastries, chile lollipops. Across the street a backyard fence has become a clothesline–jeans hanging over the top and socks shoved through the chain link. Inside the fence a few gawky stalks of corn stand as a testament to the perseverance of culture.

The workers favor a single word to describe what it’s like to work the Pack: enfadoso. Tedious. Annoying. Rafael, who’s 59, has worked 15 seasons at the factory since 1976. This year he was paid $9.75 an hour to fill gas tanks and drive a forklift around the plant, as empty metal cans clanged constantly against an overhead conveyor belt. “It’s not hard work,” he says. “But it’s enfadoso.” In the end it’s worth it. Some workers cash only a single paycheck during their stay in Morton, and after ten weeks they go home with $6,000, $7,000, maybe more.

Inside the lunchroom at Nestle, someone has hung architectural drawings of a church. Careful letters in red ink read iglesia de la soledad michoacan mexico. Two thousand miles to the south, Mingo Rodriguez is perched 45 feet off the ground at the top of a crude wooden ladder, balancing a five-gallon pail of cement mix on his shoulder. The sun and the weight of the pail draw beads of sweat from his 23-year-old face. He’s helping to build a steeple to the iglesia that will eventually reach 77 feet. Work on the church–Nuestra Senora de la Soledad–is proceeding at an almost frantic pace because the migrants will soon be home for the holidays, not only those from la calabaza but nearly everyone with papers who can afford the trip.

In La Soledad’s region of Mexico there is a hundred-year-old tradition of migration to the United States. In the plaza old men pass the day chatting and watching the occasional pickup pass by, but back in the 40s and 50s nearly all these men were braceros–contract farm laborers recruited by the U.S. government. Some remember their fathers talking about their own trips north in the early 1900s to lay railroad track out west.

After the bracero programs ended in 1964, many of the men kept going north illegally. When the U.S. government declared an amnesty in 1986, dozens became legal U.S. residents and began to seek legal residency for their relatives. The La Soledad diaspora is concentrated in Peoria, Dalton, Georgia, where there’s year-round work in the carpet factories, and Chicago.

And this is how a church is built. Elias Ortega, who’s a Chicagoan now, spends weekends looking for his paisanos, other natives of La Soledad. Parties are good for this, he says–baptisms, first communions. “We went to one party–we got $2,000 right there,” says Ortega, visiting his mother in La Soledad. Soccer games are also good–La Soledad fields two teams in Chicago. Ortega is part of a Chicago-based committee that’s collecting donations for the church; there’s another committee in Dalton.

The church was designed by a La Soledad native, Abel Menchaca, whose brother worked at Nestle this season. If the money keeps coming, Menchaca says, the church could be finished by December of next year–but there was a four-month halt this year when funds ran out. Once a year during the Pack, someone

from Chicago drives to Peoria to collect from the pumpkin workers. This year it was Ortega. He asked for $200 a worker. Even the Palestinian store owner of La Mexicana chipped in that much.

The room Ortega is sitting in, the room he was born in 51 years ago, used to have a dirt floor. The walls were wooden planks, the roof grass. For light, the family filled a soda bottle with oil, stuffed one end of a rag into the bottle, and lit the other. Now the walls are brick and there is a spotless white tile floor. And a TV set–in fact an entertainment console. There’s a refrigerator and stove, a telephone. There are two kitchens. There is a funny little clown that plays the trumpet if a loud noise sets it off. The house speaks for itself, and nearly everyone in La Soledad has a house that tells a similar story.

Ortega, who worked for six seasons in Morton in the 1980s, estimates that the pumpkin plant is responsible for some 35 percent of all the dollars that flow into this town. The first man from La Soledad to land a job at Libby’s worked there in the early 1970s. After that “one brother comes, then another,” says Jose Pimentel, who first made the trip in 1975. This has been a bad year for the calabaza workers–too much rain, too many days off. Workers who haven’t already wired money home are coming back with just about $6,000 each. Even so, that’s $400,000–to be conservative–that will find its way to La Soledad this month.

“The highway, the plaza, the church–all of it has been built with the help of the migrants. Where would we get that kind of money here?” says Ricardo Mora, a La Soledad native who works for Mexico’s ministry of social development. The ministry oversees the “three for one” development programs that provide matching local, state, and federal government funds for projects launched by migrants, including Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. In Mexico, churches are considered property of the state and government funds can be used to construct them. The tab for this one: $325,000. Money from migrants has helped pave every road in town but one, build a fence around the school, and lay sewer lines. Residents who stay behind donate faenas–days of work. Ortega, who has helped collect $50,000 in Chicago and Peoria alone, is already thinking ahead to the next project: a town ambulance.

There is a saying in La Soledad that people use if you praise their lovely plaza, paved streets, beautiful house: “Thanks to God and el norte,” they say. Often they’re more specific. Thanks to God and Chicago. Thanks to God and Peoria. Thanks to God and Nestle.

Some years, calabaza workers charter a bus from La Soledad directly to Peoria. The bus this year crossed through a country much more openly hostile to immigrants than it has been in a long time. Yet Mike Badgerow, executive director of the Morton chamber of commerce, says the arrival of the workers is as reassuring in his town as the arrival of the Nestle letters is in La Soledad.

“It wouldn’t actually feel right if they didn’t come,” he says. “It would make a lot of people wonder, are we losing the plant? You know, any company can decide, ‘We can make more money canning somewhere else.’ If we didn’t see the migrant workers showing up I think everybody would be rumbling, ‘What? Is the boot about ready to drop, or what?'”

Just about every farmer in a 50-mile radius of Morton grows Libby’s pumpkins, most in rotation with corn and soybeans. The pumpkin festival in September attracted 70,000 people to town this year. And then there’s October’s annual Morton Punkin Chuckin’ Contest, where massive air cannons and catapults are rolled out into empty fields to fling leftover pumpkins distances that approach a mile.

Martha Ramirez knows only one coworker who’s American. “They’re lazy,” she says. “They can’t take it. It’s every day. There are [Americans] who work a few days and then leave.”

Cristobol Rodriguez, 69, says he and others from La Soledad got jobs 24 years ago by waiting outside the canning plant until someone quit–usually on a weekend. “The Americans are not used to working Saturdays and Sundays,” he says. He’s come up every season since.

But outside the Peoria unemployment office, Lee Johnson says a job at Nestle would be better than nothing. Johnson, out of work since June, didn’t know anything about a pumpkin factory in Morton. He’s looking for a job that matches his skills–general labor, janitorial–and was just told there weren’t any. Johnson thinks companies prefer immigrants. “I don’t know if they think they’re harder workers or they’ll settle for whatever you give them, any amount of pay as long as they’re working. You know, [we’re] picky. If you ain’t crossed the border, if you ain’t Mexican, [you’re] pretty picky.”

A few miles away, Morris Ross, a janitor, is at a Kinko’s printing up coupons for a Cajun restaurant he’s starting. He knows about the factory but wouldn’t consider working there. “A job like that is really lower than restaurants. Like a McDonald’s. You’re going to work hard at a McDonald’s. But you’re going to work twice as hard at the Libby’s plant. When it comes to the mental stress, along with the wear and tear on your hands–you leave that to someone else. I wouldn’t let my son do it. Hell no. I’ve always told him, ‘If McDonald’s won’t hire you, you’re going to the military.'” On the other side of the Kinko’s counter, Sylvia Bellinger says her husband worked at Libby’s for about four seasons in the late 70s. But when he found a permanent job he was glad to get out of there.

Nestle spokesperson Roz O’Hearn says that about 20 percent of Morton’s seasonal workforce is local. But many workers who leave a Peoria address with the company may actually be from La Soledad. Some receive mail at a relative’s address; others have settled permanently in the area. O’Hearn wouldn’t say how many letters the company sends to Mexico.

“What exists in Mexico is a tremendous knowledge of the labor market in the United States,” says Gustavo Lopez Castro, a scholar of Mexico-U.S. migration at the Colegio de Michoacan in Zamora. “In the instant that there is an opening, or that certain types of jobs will become available, that is known in Mexico. I have even seen cases where it was known in Mexico that jobs would be opening up before it was known in the local community. That’s the type of information that circulates in the social networks. It’s basic.”

The Pack is over once rain and cold rot the pumpkins. This year’s ended on October 31, a Tuesday. By Saturday the first of the pumpkin workers were returning to La Soledad. Some brought pumpkin seeds to plant in their gardens.

“It’s a good job because it’s temporary,” says Jesus Murillo, who worked six seasons at Nestle beginning in 1979. “You work ten weeks. In those ten weeks you make a lot of money. You work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no time to spend any money, no time to go to a bar. It’s just work, work, work. That’s the main reason people go.”

The job coincides with agricultural cycles people from the La Soledad region have followed for hundreds of years. Pumpkin workers leave their fields planted with corn or sorghum; the end of the Pack coincides almost perfectly with their harvest. But just a week in Morton can bring in more money than a year of farming. In bad years, farmers in La Soledad lose money. There are no farm subsidies, and there are few other jobs.

This circular migration–working in the United States for a finite period and then returning to Mexico–is what some people on both sides of the border would like to see more of. Migrants who stay for short periods in the U.S. use fewer services here, and they spend less time separated from their families in Mexico. It’s a migration pattern that social scientists say changed as it became harder and more costly for undocumented migrants to cross the border. Another reason they weren’t as quick to go home is that they began filling year-round factory and service-sector jobs in addition to agricultural jobs.

“There’s a certain type of immigrant who still prefers to live in Mexico and keep his family in Mexico,” says Juan Mora-Torres, associate professor in Latin American history at DePaul University and author of an upcoming book on early Mexican migration. “If you calculate it, it’s a rational decision: work seasonally, return with some savings. As opposed to working here in the city, trying to make ends meet, seeing your family change and sometimes for the worse.” But Mora-Torres said he was surprised to find immigrants to Illinois still coming and going on the basis of agricultural cycles. “I thought that was over,” he says.

In a sense, says Mora-Torres, the Nestle situation is like a guest worker program brokered by individuals rather than governments: “That’s why Mexico is so important for the United States. Mexico provides the U.S. with this vast pool of labor that is very flexible. It adjusts to the U.S. economy.”

La Soledad’s residents know how to wriggle around the laws to make this relationship work. Some of La Soledad’s Nestle workers are U.S. citizens but most are permanent residents, which means they’re supposed to live in the U.S. for at least six months of the calendar year. And many do–the Nestle money doesn’t last forever, so they return to the U.S. to work another job before the Pack begins. It’s doubly important to maintain U.S. residency because the wages they earn in the States aren’t the only compensation they’re eligible for. Legal permanent residents pay into social security and some collect unemployment when the season ends.

Those who stay too long in Mexico will probably ride the bus to Illinois rather than take a plane–even though the trip is longer that way and can be more expensive. It’s understood that immigration officials ask fewer questions of those arriving by land.

Meanwhile, in Michoacan, the rains are ending, and La Soledad is coming alive. Padlocks are disappearing from front doors. The male voices are back, singing to the radio, hollering to wives and children. Windows shuttered for months let the sun in again. It will be months before the rain and the letters return. Months before the next crop of pumpkins is ripe. Months before the pilgrimage north.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Catrin Einhorn.