All you can eat at Pueblito del Paiz
by Lisa JonesTed 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 here.
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 fed.
"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 kidding!'
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 too.
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 policeman.
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.
Ted Medina, 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 time.
It's not always laughter
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 drawn.
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 newcomers.
"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.
But even 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!'
These other 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 go!'
Ted knows racism; he saw plenty of it growing up in a family of farm laborers in the San Luis Valley.
"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 fields."
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.
Lisa Jones is a freelance writer living in Paonia, Colo. She last profiled Peggy Godfrey (HCN, 12/6/99), a Colorado sheep rancher. © High Country News