September 3, 2006

The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman

This was the sum of Hilario Guzman's ledger as he walked into the grape fields on the morning of his death.

$6,700 to the coyote who smuggled him and his family over.

$2,000 to the bandits who robbed them along the border.

$350 a month to rent a tin shack in the San Joaquin Valley.

$400 a month to feed four children with another baby on the way.


He had a job that paid 20 cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105-degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a 10-hour day.

That September morning, with a fruit tub in one hand and a sharp curved blade in the other, he cut enough bunches to make 10 trays, and then he vanished. No one saw the Triqui Indian leave, not the crew boss who thought he saw everything or the men and women picking in their delirious states. He didn't tell them that his baby son, Geronimo, the one born on the right side of the border, had been sick for weeks. He didn't tell them he had been drinking all night and woke up drunk. Later they would hear the story that he went straight from the vineyard to a liquor store near Fresno and drank some more. He must have nodded off halfway home because on Jensen Avenue, just past the crematory where the dairies send their used-up Holsteins to become chicken feed, his '93 Ford Escort began to veer, first to the vineyard on his right and then to the alfalfa field on his left. He tried to slow down but the car hit a dirt embankment, bucked and flipped, and he flew out the window and through the air, landing on his head.

The police found his pregnant wife, Veronica, in a lopsided trailer deep in the vineyards. After they convinced her that they had come not because of her complaints of wild dogs but because a man named Hilario Guzman, 32, the same one in the photo, was dead, she tried to remember everything about the previous 24 hours. She could remember only that he had picked up medicine for the baby the night before and lingered strangely on the child that morning. "Geronimo was feeling better, doing better, and Hilario stood over him and began to speak," she recalled. "He told him, 'You are going to be responsible someday. You are going to be the man of the house. The man of the house,' he said. Then he took his lunch and water and left for work."


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