The invisible man

 

Name Ricardo Arriagada

Age 30

Occupation Goat herder

What herding means, day to day Four hours in the morning and two in the evening, filling water tanks and maintaining and moving the electric fence that keeps the goats corralled.

The upside of living alone in a travel trailer on the Bay Area's exurban fringes "Things aren't that accelerated here. I don't like the noise and chaos of the city."

Most difficult moment "In my second year, my father died. I guess that if I haven't lost my mind by now, I am going to be OK."

HERCULES, CALFIFORNIA

In the hills east of San Francisco Bay, hundreds of goats graze on a dry, oak-studded slope within easy view of teenagers staring out the windows of Hercules High School. The hired animals are this suburban city's best defense against brush fires: They munch weeds wherever houses nudge up against open spaces too steep for mechanized mowers.

The goats have become a familiar roadside attraction. Their caretaker, however — a compact, doe-eyed Chilean man — is nearly invisible.

Ricardo Arriagada came to the United States four years ago, when a friend told him about Goats-R-Us, a company co-owned by a Chilean with a tradition of hiring guest workers. At home, Arriagada worked construction. Now, he spends his days making sure the goats have water and maintaining and moving the electric fence that keeps them corralled.

Easy work, he says. The hard part is the isolation that comes with his job. Except for a biweekly trip to the grocery store, he's not allowed to leave the animals alone.

"I never talk to anyone," says 30-year-old Arriagada, who speaks no English and wears the worn jeans, leather boots and ruddy cheeks of someone who works outdoors. "Esta soledad ..." he says. This loneliness ...

Arriagada is one of about 60,000 immigrants who hold H-2A visas, issued to foreign nationals so they can do temporary agricultural work that American citizens are unwilling to do. The long hours he works are legal because herders are exempt from the wage, hours of work and overtime provisions in labor law. Sheep ranchers, who have long hired foreign shepherds to work in mountains across the West, have successfully fought to maintain those exemptions.

Herders' wages are set by each state. In Wyoming, where they spend much of the year living in the mountains, herders earn only $650 a month, or 90 cents per hour.

Arriagada receives free housing plus $1,200 a month, which works out to about $1.67 an hour for round-the-clock work — California's monthly minimum. Of that, he spends a little on food, sends $200 home to his mother, and saves the rest. He doesn't complain about the pay. "What I like the most about my job is its peacefulness, the tranquillity," he says. "And the sunrises are beautiful."

That ability to appreciate small pleasures would seem to be a job requirement. Arriagada's only company is a dog, the subdued soundtrack of the goats' chewing and rustling and the hum of far-off traffic.

Home is a travel trailer, parked for now in a gravel clearing screened from the road by bushes. It's 200 yards and a world away from the nearest house.

These crackling-dry hills leave Arriagada homesick for Cochrane, the Patagonian town of 3,000 — "a beautiful place along the river, where it is green all year long" — where he grew up with six brothers.

As an agricultural visa holder, he was required by law to return home in 2006. He played soccer with old friends, who remarked that Arriagada seemed more talkative than usual. After three months there, he was eligible to reapply for the H-2A visa — and despite the loneliness of the work, he did.

On this October morning, he is five months into another yearlong contract.

"I accepted the job to know other places and cultures," says Arriagada, wearing a Rambo-style black bandanna that belies his soft-spoken manner. "But I stay here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long."

He keeps his eyes open for a better-paying and more sociable job. Meanwhile, he occupies himself with books, television and cooking — sweet and sour shrimp is his favorite meal. He has no computer or Internet access, and speaks to friends by cell phone. He talks to his two dogs, to himself. 

"Imagine if I was a pessimist," he says. "I would probably shrivel."