Immigration, Labor

Apricot Pickers Have Similar Immigration Histories

From MercuryNews.com, Joe Rodriguez, Mercury News Columnist, 2 Aug 2011.

One of these days the last apricot orchard in Silicon Valley will be gone and so will the last apricot picker. But for now we still have Clemente Garcia, who picks apricots for Andy Mariani, whose father arrived from Europe 70 years ago to pick — what else? — apricots.

Mariani, who owns and operates Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, waxed historic the other day on the immigrant stories of his Croatian father and Mexican employee.

“It’s a sort of parallel history,” Mariani said under a canvas awning on his spread south of San Jose. “The two stories are similar.”

Occurring a century apart, the complex forces that drove Croatian migration and the latest Mexican wave to this country were vastly different. Then again, an immigrant is an immigrant. When it comes to motivation, there isn’t much difference between an apricot picker in 1931 and an apricot picker in 2011.

Garcia and Mariani sat for a while after work last week to compare histories. Andy’s Orchard grows high-quality fruits, the only way to make a profit on 55 barely rural acres. Having harvested early summer Serafin Royal and Blenheim apricots, it was time for Gold Dubloon peaches and Freckle Face nectarines.

While it was plain to Mariani what his father and Garcia share in common, Garcia, who is the silent type, seemed a bit puzzled by the notion. After all, he didn’t get here in the same way as Andy’s father, Joseph Mariani.

“I got caught in the desert in Arizona and they sent me back,” Garcia said, sitting on wooden crate in the packing shed. “That was on my first attempt to cross the border.”

One of 10 children from a farmworker family in rural Guanajuato state, and with only a third-grade education, he had figured out that picking crops in the U.S. beat picking crops in Mexico. He also had some uncles in America who could find him work.

He sneaked in on his second try, near Tijuana, in 1984. He was 20 years old.

In 1931, another young man in his 20s became desperate and left.

As the eldest son, Joseph Mariani stood to inherit his father’s house, vineyard and other properties on Vis, a remote Croatian island on the Adriatic Sea. But father wasn’t going to die anytime soon.

“My father was making a pittance working hard every day, not able to save anything,” Andy said. Joseph’s wife, Simila, encouraged him to follow his uncles — who inherited squat in Croatia — to America and a farm town named Cupertino.

His uncles arrived near the tail end of the Croatian wave, which peaked in 1910 and ended with the start of the first World War. Most of them were young men looking for work and who would bring their wives and children in time. About 421,000 Croatian-Americans live in the United States, with California having one of the largest populations, at 39,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One of Joseph’s uncles had an orchard and hired him to pick apricots.

“Be he still wasn’t making enough to save money to bring his wife and kids,” Andy Mariani said. “He was just another farmhand!”

Although Joseph had only a second-grade education, he learned that fishing paid more. He signed on to trawl for sardines in Monterey Bay, salmon off Alaska and tuna in Southern California. The money was so good, Joseph was able to bring over his wife and two children after only two years and to buy a small orchard and house of their own. The house is long gone, replaced today by a steakhouse standing directly across from a company named Apple.

Joseph and Simila Mariani — whose cousins founded the Mariani Packing Co. — put four sons through college. Andy returned to agriculture after college and worked a brief stint as assistant city manager for Saratoga.

“I came back and realized this was where I belonged.”

Clemente Garcia recounted his own story, pointing out some differences in Andy’s parallel history.

Unlike Joseph Mariani, he didn’t have an address to report to. Instead, he banged around Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico picking crops.

“That was very hard,” he said, “even for a young man like me.”

Luckily, an uncle knew a labor contractor for Andy’s Orchard, who found Garcia a job there in 1985. After narrowly escaping an immigration raid, Garcia caught the biggest break in his life — amnesty from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The law granted him and about 3 million others legal residency and the ability to bring over their spouses and children.

He didn’t have to live in the shadows anymore, but climbing the social ladder the way Joseph Mariani did was going to be impossible. The sardine fishing was done and the valley’s last remaining orchards were beyond his reach.

“The only way for us to get ahead is education,” he said. “For my children, not for me. I’ll just keep working in the fields.”

The Marianis offered him a permanent job and low rent in a mobile home on the farm. Clemente settled in and sent money home to his parents. After winning legal residency under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, he returned to Mexico and married his sweetheart, Margarita.

She stayed put in Guanajuato while he lived and worked at the orchard, returning home twice. Finally, after two decades living apart and a considerable amount of money paid to immigration lawyers, he was able to bring his wife in 2008 and then each of their three children once they finished elementary school.

The oldest son, Jose, 21, attends Gavilan Community College and still works at Andy’s. He actually earns a higher wage than his father because he’s bilingual, does paperwork and operates forklifts and tractors.

The Garcias have two children at Live Oak High School, Arcadio and Maricela, who plan on attending college. So does the youngest, 10-year-old Maria.

She rode up on her bike when Garcia turned the conversation to retirement. He never became a U.S. citizen, figuring he’d return home someday and live well on U.S. Social Security benefits. He and Margarita could visit their future grandchildren here once in a while. But Maria protested.

“I want them to stay here,” she said.

Clemente Garcia smiled at her and considered something else: Joseph Mariani, who died in 1973, stayed in America.

Source and photo essay: MercuryNews.com, “Apricot pickers have similar immigration histories” by  Joe Rodriguez, Mercury News Columnist, 2 Aug 2011.

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