It's early when Ana Maria and I arrive at the onion fields, so early that we have to use the lights of a growling tractor to guide us along the rows. I stumble through the mud behind Ana, listening to the sounds of slamming doors and shouted saludos drift through the cold, damp air. When Ana finds a spot she likes, she stops, grins at me from under her baseball cap, and stoops down to jerk a handful of onions out of the ground. I bend next to her and start pulling, the two of us quietly building a wall of slender scallions at our backs.


As the sunlight strengthens, we stop picking and settle ourselves on a couple of plastic Pepsi crates. Ana grabs a stack of blue rubber bands and loops them over her first two fingers, then reaches for our knee-high wall of cebollas. She chooses six bulbs the size of her thumb, peels them, and bundles them together with two rubber bands. As her hands repeat the long-practiced motions, she laughs and shrugs, amused that she actually has to explain this to someone.


"Asi es," she says. This is how it is.


This is how the real work of the day begins. We're in far northern Sonora, Mexico, just a half an hour south of the international border, surrounded by a patchwork of onion and kale and spinach fields. In the small town where I've been teaching English this winter, people used to make a living farming their own land. Now, even little kids will tell you there are only two career options. You can work in the mostly U.S.-owned maquiladoras, the border factories, or you can work here, in the mostly U.S.-owned cebollas. The maquilas are protected from visitors by a fortress of paperwork, but anyone can visit the onion fields. Sixteen-year-old Ana has agreed to be my guide.


As I fumble with onions and rubber bands, she and I gossip about boyfriends and first kisses, sharing a bag of sweets from a vendor on the edge of the field. Little kids dart around us like pollinating bees, running from mothers to uncles to older siblings. Young men exchange soccer scores and tease each other about girls. After a couple of hours of peeling and bundling, the cebolleros build small fires between the rows of onions, preparing to heat up foil-wrapped packages of fresh, meat-filled tortillas.


It's a merry scene, but the mathematics of the day are not. At dusk, the field manager will pay Ana two pesos for every dozen bundles. When she gets home, everyone will ask her the same question: Cuantas docenas? How many dozens? She'll hear it from her mom, Graciela, who gets up at 4:30 six days a week to make Ana a fresh lunch. She'll hear it from her older sister, Bibi, who works the night shift in the Sony factory and, come May, will be a single mother. She'll hear it from her little sister, Luz Elena, who chose to stay in school after Ana left in the sixth grade. There will be other, more sympathetic questions about Ana's cold fingers and the day's weather, but this one will always be asked. And the answer will always be remembered.


I can't help but remember it, too. Ana, who's only been working in the cebollas for a year or so, usually makes about 60 dozens in a very long day's work - and takes home a little more than 15 dollars. Her coworker, Jesœs, famous for his fantastic speed, almost always hits the 100-dozen mark. That's 200 pesos a day, or about 25 dollars. It doesn't sound like much, and it sounds like even less when you know that food often costs as much at the local abarrotes as it does at the Albertson's in Yuma, Arizona. During the summer, when there's no work in the fields, the price of fresh food rises as quickly and cruelly as the thermometer.


The work doesn't look hard, but it's as painful as the pay. At the end of the day, I add my measly pile of onions to Ana's and gratefully flop into the cushioned seat of the car. My knees feel permanently bent. Ana says it gets a little easier, but it never quite stops hurting.


After Ana puts her tired joints to bed each night, the onions she's picked travel north, across the border. Some of them end up near my home in western Colorado, where each rubber-banded bundle sells for about 50 times what a worker is paid to make it. The organic onions we're picking today are even less lucrative for the workers, because their smaller size means more are needed to complete a bundle.


Ana and Jesœs know about all of this. They live in a place where the most complimentary thing to say about a product is that it's export quality. They are excruciatingly, unavoidably aware of you, of me, of all of the people that shop for groceries on el otro lado, the other side. The cebolleros know, even when we don't, that we haven't been buying as many onions since Sept. 11. That we haven't been going out to restaurants like we used to. "No hay mercado," they say. There's no market. That's why, in late January, they've already been sent home early dozens of times. Why they've sometimes been told that there's no work at all.


After my day in the fields, I eat dinner at my friend Magdalena's house, where there's much loud laughter about my pathetic onion-bundling and a lot of teasing but genuine concern about my sore muscles. We talk about how hard the work is, and everyone at the table tells a story of a frigid morning, a dismal season, a permanently skewed back. Magdalena looks at me, still laughing a little at my expense but with something sharper in her usually gentle eyes. "Ni modo," she says. Oh well. "The people have to work," she adds. "They have to eat."


She and I look at each other across the table, the table that's held so many of our shared meals, and it suddenly seems very wide indeed.


Former HCN senior editor Michelle Nijhuis writes from Paonia, Colorado.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michelle Nijhuis