Ted Medina slams down a pan of, oh God, what is it? A pig's head. Snout, eyes and yellowish toasted ears bubbling like Picasso's own dinner. "You name it, it's all good!" says Ted, stocky, aproned and grinning from under a cap emblazoned Denver Fire Department. "Here, you nibble on this bit here. It's good!" I nibble. It is good.
He's making dinner for 80
farm workers due back in an hour or so from the cornfields that
surround Olathe, Colo. "They come home at around 6 p.m.," he says.
"They're from Mexico." He pronounces it "Mehico," the Spanish way -
his family is from Taos, N.M., and before that, Spain. He's worked
in fields and mines all over Colorado, and has raised six children
The corn pickers he's cooking for took a
different route to this wide, flat plain below the aspen and spruce
forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. They're from the border towns
of Mexicali and Calexico; they got here 10 days ago on big yellow
buses. For years, migrant workers around here camped out, or piled
into a crowded dormitory in nearby Delta, or packed into hotel
rooms, sleeping back-to-back on the floor to offset the price. But
in 1993, the Montrose Housing Authority got federal assistance and
opened Pueblito del Paiz, a boarding house and dining hall in the
corner of a cornfield outside the town of Olathe. Ted and LaVern
Medina keep it clean, keep it full, and mostly keep the workers
"They like to eat all different kinds of
food," says Ted, who is 55 and up to his wrists in meat he is
pulling apart to make molé sauce. "They eat coyote. They'll
take a pig and eat every bit of it. The feet. The head. They just
love it. This one, I got at Wal-Mart in Montrose. I did! I'm not
Ted is a happy man and not a bit shy.
He was raised in the potato fields of Monte Vista, Colo. He
launches into a well-oiled narrative that moves from past to
present without a hitch:
"I worked in the fields
when I was 13," he says. "Oh, I was so hungry by the end of the
day. (Now) we make chicken. We make molé. We make chile. We
make corn. We like to steam it."
"We raised five
boys and one girl. I worked in the El Dorado Mine above Ouray.
Mining's hard. Cooking's a piece of pie. I'd get home so tired I
couldn't even eat. I really, really liked working in the mine,
though. My kids are all married, except one son. He's gotten
someone really ornery. He called my wife and said, "Mom! I found
someone just like my dad!" She's a slimy little gal."
Then he laughs and laughs. His daughter Terry,
pan-browning a small mountain of rice, laughs
They put the rice, beans, molé and corn
tortillas in steamer pans, put out bowls of salad and salsa, wipe
the tables, turn on the tiny Magnavox so it booms Los Tigres del
Norte at a volume that vibrates one of my fillings, and the workers
come in. They're mostly tall, strapping young men in Levis,
baseball caps and white T-shirts, or colored ones advertising the
Vikings or the Broncos. Terry and I man the cash register; dinner
costs $5.65 for all you can eat. Kids, traveling with parents who
picked cantaloupe in California last month and will pick celery
there next month, hang on us as their tired parents make their way
toward the food. Some men greet Terry flirtatiously, some shyly.
One tall man with a ponytail and cutoff sweatpants shakes both of
our hands with a grave smile. Soon everyone is sitting, eating and
laughing. Ted moves among them like a hospitable bear, distributing
slices of lime from a plate.
Some are eating
their first meal of the day. "This is desayuno," says 29-year-old
Ruben Idelfonso, lifting his Styrofoam plate of beans and grinning
from underneath a baseball cap. "This is lunch' - he lifts his
plate of rice. "And this," lifting his soup, "is cena."
The workers make $6 an hour, and work about 60
hours a week. On the average, 30 percent of that goes to pay
Pueblito del Paiz. But they say they're bringing home riches. They
pay about $50 a month in rent back home in Mexicali. One
22-year-old plans to use his earnings to open a liquor store in the
city by the time he's 30. He'd never dream of living on the north
side of the border in Calexico. "It's just not friendly," he says.
Meanwhile, Adan Campa, who just graduated from
high school in Holtville, Calif., thinks he'll net $900 for his
three weeks here, which will go to pay for junior college classes
he'll take to become a computer technician, a customs agent or a
Long-lashed, soft-spoken Jesus Lopez,
who used to work in a clothing store and hopes to work construction
in San Diego, brings out his guitar and sings a slew of Beatles
songs in strongly accented English.
who started cooking at 4 a.m., watches with a kind of exhausted
consent. But he can't resist the activity, and pretty soon he comes
over to offer to sell Lopez his guitar, which he hasn't played in
years. Then he and LaVern - a serious, pretty woman who married Ted
at 15 and bore six children by her 21st birthday - withdraw to the
kitchen to comfort a tiny young woman who has had to leave her
seven-month-old child behind, with her mother, to work the
vegetable circuit. They look at the baby's pictures, and coo. Then
Ted re-emerges to play Lopez's guitar and sing a couple of songs in
which the word "colo" (butt) figures prominently, sending the few
crew-cut migrant kids into fits of laughter. Two of his
brothers-in-law, who are visiting, come out to listen. Then he and
LaVern retire to their apartment, which adjoins the kitchen, to lie
in their reclining chairs and watch "Suddenly Susan" on TV. They're
down permanently this
It's not always
I visit again two weeks later, excited
at the prospect of more time with the Medinas and the workers. But
when I get there, things have changed. Ted looks worn and
A bus load of Indians from the mountains
of interior Mexico - tiny, quiet men in dirty shirts and tightly
cinched baseball caps - had arrived two nights before. They didn't
have shoes or toothbrushes; they had to be shown how to use the
showers. They didn't have work permits, which is the primary
requirement at Pueblito del Paiz. But even this isn't the main
problem - Ted and LaVern will let them stay just long enough to
earn the money to get back home again. The main problem is that
most of the Mexicali crew wouldn't speak to the
"They say they don't want to eat with
these guys," says Ted tiredly. "They don't want the germs." It's
true. The workers I'd met before are on the porch, smoking and
studying the horizon inscrutably. The hostel has gone quiet. It
feels empty even with more than 50 people staying here.
"Did you ever see how rich people treat poor
people?" says Terry, at the cash register for the couple of dozen
workers who are eating in that night. "That's what it is. (The
Indians) haven't even seen a washing machine before. They stay up
all night watching TV because they don't have one. These other ones
act like they're from Beverly Hills or something. It's bizarre."
Ted is sickened. He isn't just the joshing host
of the migrant workers; he is concerned about the hardship of their
lives. He and LaVern often help them in negotiations for wages and
citizenship, or drive them to get groceries. The fact that these
Indians badly need help galvanizes the Medinas. They expedited a
food collection for the Indians from the community and found shoes
for those who needed them. After dinner, Ted distributes health
kits from the local clinic - toothbrushes, toothpaste and, to
Terry's explosive amusement, condoms.
giving the help doesn't lift his spirits. "These new guys, they
come in here and eat their meals," he says mournfully. "They don't
talk, they don't yell, they don't scream, they're not crazy.
They're so quiet. Real mild-tempered. These new guys came here so
they can send their families money. They're from up in the
mountains somewhere. You know that tribe in Africa? The pygmies?
These guys are like the pygmies!'
ones - the ones in the clean shirts that I'd met the first time -
-come in here like they own the place. It's really sad, the
attitude they have. All they want to do is leave, and I hope they
do. I'm sure they were in that position at one time, and then
somebody helped them."
This kind of racism
happens all over the world, says Ted. "Even here! Anywhere you
Ted knows racism; he saw plenty of it
growing up in a family of farm laborers in the San Luis
"When I was in the sixth grade, one day I
got to school and I got there kind of late, the bell just rang when
I got to the hallway," he says. "I went and combed my hair. Mr.
Stewart was in there, and he was about 6 feet 6 inches and he got
me and slapped me. Slapped me all around. "What do you think you're
doing?" Both he and the principal. They beat me up "til I was black
and blue. My mom and dad couldn't do nothing "cause they didn't
speak English too good. So I was taken out of school. I cut wood
and helped my dad "til I was 13, and then I started working in the
Ted goes to his apartment as soon as
the dining room clears out. The Mexicali guys who had been on the
porch have also disappeared. But four Indians are sitting in front
of the television. They're watching a documentary about baby
turtles braving shark-infested waters. The turtles' fates are met
with laughs and yelps. I sit down and occasionally ask a question,
and they answer without turning their heads. They're from the
mountains of Sonora, they say, and are cousins, and they are making
approximately 20 times more money in Colorado than they make
harvesting crops in Mexico. They walked for days to get across the
border, which isn't scary at all when you get the knack for it.
Then a shark devours two baby turtles, and I've
lost them completely.
Jones is a freelance writer living in Paonia, Colo. She last
profiled Peggy Godfrey (HCN, 12/6/99), a Colorado sheep