Our November Roundtable looks at “Hecho en América,” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Laskas immerses herself in the world of migrant workers picking blueberries in Washington County, Maine, and illuminates the distance between the worlds of those who pick the berries and those who eat them. The story ran in the September issue of GQ magazine.
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
On weaving together facts and narrative:
One of the hardest things to do gracefully in narrative writing is to fold in hard facts, numbers, experts, all the tough background and context, without interrupting the flow of the story. Jeanne Marie Laskas does it smoothly and beautifully in “Hecho en América.” She understands that those hard facts and concrete information are not extras to support the story – they are part of the story. And so that is how she handles them.
She folds facts and numbers into lively sentences and paragraphs. There are six numbers in these two paragraphs, but because they are spread out, and each number is married to a concrete noun (a box, a check, a peach, an orange grove, etc.), they are easy to swallow and easy to remember. She begins and ends the graf with lively writing – comparing blueberries to pinball games, and then one quick sentence reminding us how hard the work is.
Blueberries have always fetched the highest pay of any crop on the East Coast. They’re like the bonus round at the end of a pinball game—all of a sudden the points really started adding up. A good raker with a strong rhythm averages one hundred boxes a day. At $2.25 a box, it’s not uncommon to see a weekly check for $1,350. Compare that with just $375 a week picking Georgia peaches, or $400 down in the orange groves of Florida.
Washington County, occupying the far eastern tip of the state, is where the majority of the blueberry barrens are located, and it has 12.2 percent unemployment, the highest in the state. And yet the money does not draw the locally unemployed into the fields—an inexplicable dimension to the new American dream repeated nationwide. Raking is hard, backbreaking work, and the sun is hot.
She gives the reader relief. She does this by varying sentence length, following a long complicated sentence with a shorter one, to give the reader breathing room. And she’s not afraid to give you breathing room in the middle of a long sentence, setting off a vivid image by dashes, as below:
Without 1 million people on the ground on ladders, in bushes—armies of pickers swooping in like bees—all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America’s $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots.
She uses second person. She does this for a lot of reasons, but the main one is intimacy – to tie you, the reader, to the story. And so you see your blueberries bobbing around in your milky cereal, and you remember that the fat ones are tasteless and the little shriveled ones are the “rock stars” with all the flavor. She does this over and over in this piece.
She reminds you of things. Yes, she told you up at the top that the afflicted boy was 14. But then she went into a lot of digressions, about immigration, and coyotes, and blueberries, and the difference between camps up north and camps down south, and so when she gets back to the boy, she reminds you so gently what this is all about:
Juan took the phone from his dad, as a 14-year-old will do, and dialed the number. The phone rang into voice mail. “Can you help us?” Juan asked. “My brother is blind.”
She waits until you need to know something. The back story on Urbano’s situation is outrageous and terrible, but it would not have resonated if she had told it right away. She kept it back until we got to know Urbano, got a feel for what kind of dad he is, and how hard he works. And then she waited a little longer, until the rains came and washed away his profits – and then when she told us why money was so important to him, it was, by then, important to us too.
She gives you lovely surprises. This graf is facts about blueberries, and where and how they grow. It could be a purely informative paragraph, dropped into a story, and you would read it and understand it and move on. But look at the last sentence – “a vigorous conspiracy of nature.” Laskas wants to make sure that you remember the stuff she tells you, and so she wraps even fairly straightforward stuff in delightful prose.
Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. The woody plants occur naturally in the sandy gravel understory of Maine’s coastal forests, where little else bothers even trying to grow. The plants thrive here because of mycorrhiza, a fungus clinging to their roots that allows the plant to extract nutrients from the otherwise lousy soil. Wild blueberries have been surviving here for centuries, a vigorous conspiracy of nature.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
On quotes vs. dialogue:
In Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story, dialogue moves the storyline forward and reveals the personalities of her characters.
Let’s differentiate between quotes and dialogue. Quotes are what the reporter acquires when a person tells her something in an interview. Dialogue is what the reporter captures when she overhears people talking to one another.
Quotes delay a story, because the reader has to step out of the narrative flow to process what’s being explained. Dialogue keeps the reader in the flow.
“While quotes provide information or explanation, dialogue thickens the plot,” Roy Peter Clark explains in “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer.” “The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard. The writer who uses dialogue transports us to a place and time where we get to experience the events described in the story.”
Laskas uses plenty of quotes, especially to explain the perspective of Urbano and his two sons, Juan and Pedro. But there’s one scene in which dialogue reveals the tension between Urbano’s family and Perez-Febles, a migrant advocate who is trying to help the family.
“Can I get something for you?” Perez-Febles said. “Can I bring you some food?” He was a hefty man, impeccably groomed, wearing jeans and the kind of dressy short-sleeved shirt that brings to mind cigars and nightclubs in Havana.
“We have plenty of food,” Juan lied. “We are all set.” He was leaning against their car, a dark green Passat. Urbano stood next to him, a shield protecting Pedro sitting inside.
“The rains are coming,” Perez-Febles said. “You need a dry place, no?”
“We’re all set.”
“They are saying one more day of raking before the rains,” Perez-Febles told them. “You should have a good day tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Urbano said. “Okay, thank you.”
Without trying to explain too much, Laskas shows us Juan and Urbano’s fear and wariness, and perhaps a bit of pride. She shows us Perez-Febles’ gentle insistence and tenacity. He knows that one way he can get Urbano’s family to accept help is to appeal to their desire to work and make at least one more day’s pay.
At the same time, Laskas uses the dialogue to move the plot forward. We begin to see Urbano trust Perez-Febles. That shift eventually enables Urbano to get a better cabin for his sons and a better-paying job.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
On point of view:
After reading Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story of migrant fieldworkers – a piece both tender and tough – I resisted the temptation to jump online to GQ and scan the reader comments. Perhaps my reluctance is misplaced: Maybe GQ’s readers are an especially thoughtful bunch; maybe their sympathies lean to Urbano and his sons; or maybe GQ doesn’t allow anonymous comments, a controversial boundary that seems to encourage civility. But I’ve encountered enough bumper-sticker vitriol (meanness, hatred and worse) in the commentary stream on coverage of the immigrant issue that I don’t go there happily.
Simply by writing the above, I invite the same spitballs that Laskas likely faced: The reactionary assumption that I have a bias or an agenda. And that said bias or agenda must be a liberal one. Risky waters for a journalist, especially in these turbulent times.
In “Hecho en América,” Laskas didn’t just dip a toe into the whitewater. She dove in, headlong and deep. She dared to do journalism with a strong point of view. Good for her. And good for the readers who dive in with her, keeping an open mind throughout, not equating point of view with opinion and recognizing the intricate, nuanced world Laskas beckons them into with keen reporting and vulnerable writing.
I wish we could find a better lexicon for this genre of journalism. Words like point of view, perspective and empathy are too easily confused with bias, opinion, advocacy. Throw the much-misunderstood notion of “voice” into the mix, and we get sucked deep in the muck.
This is not an academic tangent. It is crucial that journalists know how to do point-of-view journalism, and do it in a way that can stand against (even rise above) assumptive attacks, because it is crucial that point-of-view journalism be done. It takes us into other lives and worlds, and delivers those lives back to us with a tricky combination of courage, compassion and accuracy. It is the polar opposite of shallow he-said/she-said articles. It has the chance to offer context and experience as well as information. It is, at core, the stuff of true stories. (The plural is important here. I leave it to religion and politics to presume there is One Truth. The journalist’s job is to find and report the truths experienced by those who live them, and to put those truths in context of competing truths.)
The key to understanding and executing the best point-of-view journalism is recognizing that it is not defined by the reporter’s political or personal views, but by the place she chooses to stand when telling a story.
That choice, of course, could indicate a bias. But let’s be clear: Every decision made and every action taken outside of a cold-climate laboratory is subjective. In this kind of journalism, reporters step out of their own subjective shoes and into the shoes of their subjects. And they ask readers to walk along, experiencing another life or reality or point of view, for the duration of a story.
Put more simply, it’s the difference between telling a story from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
This is the stuff of wing-walkers. There is no quick list of tips or tricks to keep you safe when you fly. There will always be those who want to shoot you down. But this genre of story ranks with the best of investigative work on the continuum of journalism that matters.
When Laskas went inside the blueberry pickers’ camp in Maine, and further inside the life of Urbano and his sons, here are some things she did to stay aloft:
Found a credible subject, then rendered that subject fully. Urbano is a sympathetic character, but a far from perfect one. Laskas’ reporting indicates she knew his background well enough to know that she could trust the authenticity of his situation. And she showed his flaws.
Gained full access. When choosing subjects, the reporter needs to know everything about them, even if not everything is shared in the story. Conditions or off-the-records are a giant red flag. Do criminal background checks. Find what’s hidden in the closet. Ask everything. Just because you know it doesn’t mean you have to report it. But you do have to know it. In this kind of journalism, it is vital to neither victimize nor villainize. That’s especially true of rendering the main subject (see above). Any hint of the romantic can scuttle the credibility of a piece like this. So it’s also vital to show the ugly – those who exploit the system or are far from sympathetic.
Immersed herself. Some of Laskas’ backstory had to be reconstructed. So may have been the opening scene with Pedro waking up in the tent, blind and in pain. (An editor’s pique: I can’t tell, frankly, what’s reconstructed and not. That blur makes for more a more compelling story, but I err on the side of transparency. If the entire story of that night was a reconstruction, I would prefer some elegant but clear road signs to signal that.) Overall the depth of reporting, including description and dialog, told me that Laskas was in the field. She used observation as a tool equal to interviewing.
Put klieg lights on her nut section. Narrative purists might say Laskas bogged down her storyline with the fat contextual section that comes after her opening scene. She has little “show” and lots of “tell.” She layers in numbers and history and other reports. Does it slow the story? Yes. Does it gird the story in essential ways? Absolutely. Laskas raises, in compressed form, the counter-arguments that frame the immigration debate. She uses classic persuasive logic to give detractors their due, then returns to her subjects’ point of view as her focal point: “To the people I talked to, a tighter border control was mostly a matter of prolonged homesickness.” The message to me, the reader, isn’t that she is telling me what to think, but she is letting me in on what her story subjects think.
Dared to address her audience directly. Laskas used second person in her nut section, using “we” and “you” to encompass the shared reality of her primary audience. Second person can be a trite trick. When used correctly, it can be a powerful tool. “The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It’s easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food.” This is where Laskas is daring me to walk in those shoes for a mile or two. She’s not asking me to agree with some political position, but with personal, human reality.
Dared to go deep on one aspect of a broad, complex issue. The thing that cripples this kind of journalism is often the desire to tell it all. Would that we could. (I’m often reminded of my mother’s admonition to an over-ambitious daughter: “You can have it all, dear, but not all at once.”) Laskas isn’t writing The Book on migrant field workers. She’s writing one magazine piece. Her piece fits into a river of other stories and other points of view on the same complex subject. She and her readers need to remember that the river is fed by lots of tributaries. She can’t write the ocean.
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated
On finding the right story arc:
Structuring the article around the story of Urbano and his two teenage sons has obvious advantages. It humanizes the polarizing issue of immigration. It gives us characters to care about and root for. And it provides Laskas with a narrative from which she can digress to discuss a variety of subjects related to immigration: the myth of the national crisis, the distinctive farm labor conditions in Maine, the cultural disconnect between Anglos and the Hispanic migrants who pick their fruit.
But what really makes it work is the arc of the family story. After the dramatic opening scene in which Pedro awakens unable to see and his father and twin brother frantically try to help him, and subsequent scenes in which Pedro finally gets the treatment he needs, we learn what brought the family to Maine’s blueberry barrens: the murder of Urbano’s father; Urbano’s long, financially ruinous stay in Mexico; and the bank’s threat to foreclose on his house in North Carolina. The twins volunteer to work with him in Maine, thinking they can go on an adventure and also help their father save the house. Their living conditions by the blueberry barrens are squalid, but the boys decide they want to stay beyond the raking season, quit school and get jobs. In the end they do stay, and with the help of an advocate for migrant workers they and their father move into a cabin of their own. But Urbano insists that the boys go to school, ruining their fantasy of making money and buying a motorcycle.
Urbano has gone from a construction worker with his own house in North Carolina to a field worker with a small cabin in the Maine woods, and his sons have become migrant kids – “loser kids,” as Pedro puts it, in small-town New England. It’s a huge transformation, perhaps emblematic of the challenges and reversals of fortune experienced by many immigrant families. But you suspect that Urbano and his twins, with the drive and adaptability of so many immigrants past and present, will come out all right.
For more on this story, check out our Q-and-A with Jeanne Marie Laskas.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? Send a link to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.