Our November Editors’ Roundtable looked at “Hecho en América,” a story by GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas about migrant blueberry pickers in Maine. Laskas’ work has been featured previously on this site, and has won her a slot in the “Best American Sportswriting” anthologies four times. She has also written five books and been a contributing editor at Esquire, as well as a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine and Reader’s Digest.
Laskas talked with us by phone this week about her migrant worker story, and in these excerpts from our conversation, she discusses finding interpreters, keeping readers in the moment, and prospecting for narrative gold.
What was the genesis of this article? Did you come up with it, or did your editor?
I’m working on this book that’s called “Hidden America,” its about people who do the work that we’re dependent on. And it’s as much about the work as it is about the people. This story idea was in that mindset and in that series. The idea of this one was really quite simply “Who are the people who pick this food?”
The narrative thread of the story rises from the experiences of Urbano and his twin sons. How did you find them, and when did you know they would be at the center of your story?
Oh, God. It took forever.
Not everyone knows that’s fairly normal. Can you talk about how you found them?
First of all, it took, literally, months to get anyone to allow me to come into a camp of migrant workers. You have a choice – you can go in and sneak around, but that’s so limiting. So I wanted to go in legit.
Again, we weren’t trying to write an immigration story. I wanted the people who pick the food. That was a hard message to get through, especially to the larger agribusiness-type places. They just don’t want journalists messing around, mostly because everything is so awful. Especially in Florida and California – that’s where we started. But none of those companies would allow me to come. Another thing is that I wanted to bring a photographer, which is asking a lot of access. So there was a lot of talking and talking.
Finally we found Juan Perez-Febles. He’s the state monitor, an advocate with the state of Maine. I don’t remember how we got to him, but once we did, everything opened up. Because here was Maine, which was a state that once had terrible conditions for its migrant workers but had worked to better them and was interested in showing how you could do the right thing for these folks instead of chaining them to U-hauls, which is some of what was happening in Florida.
Once we found Juan, he was really happy to work with us. And he went to the various farms in Maine talking to the owners and asking, “Would you like to participate in this?” That took a long time, because everyone said no until Cherryfield Foods said, “Okay, you can come.”
I know they weren’t imagining the amount of access I was hoping for, but I made a trip there and met the owners and went through that door, until they saw that I was not a threat, that I honestly was not trying to expose anything or do an investigative story. That was an easy case to make.
Once you were face to face? Once you could talk to them?
Yeah, I think they saw that, and they got it, and they believed me. Finally, I was allowed access to this camp. And of course nobody spoke English, and my Spanish is very minimal. So then that was the next set of challenges.
How did you deal with the language issue?
I found kids in the camp who were bilingual. They were great translators, because they didn’t filter anything. I would say, “Can you talk to your mom and dad and ask them if they’d sit down with me and talk about their work?”
Did you have the photographer with you at that time?
No, I was still hunting for my characters then, so the photographer, Christopher [Lamarca], was not with me at that point.
I spent probably a week at that camp, meeting folks. In fact, I chose different characters who I thought were going to be our main character. I came home and told Christopher, and we worked out another trip, where we showed up together to shadow these characters I had chosen who turned out not to be the characters we ended up using.
By then we were in so deep, we were hearing so many stories, and we were finally immersed, with a whole world to choose from. And the twins and their father – their story was just one of those ones we couldn’t get out of our heads.
So you didn’t hear their story until you went back the second time?
Correct. I didn’t meet them the first time. They were very hidden.
You show in the article how they didn’t even want to interact with the services that were available to help them.
They were very fearful of every side of it. They stuck to themselves. But when I got back for that second trip, there was this rumor going around the camp that some kid was in the hospital, and nobody knew who it was. We all thought it was a little kid. There was a big talk that day with Juan, who hadn’t found him yet.
Juan the monitor?
Yes. He was going around the camp, asking, “Have you heard about this kid?” But no one knew. So when we finally found the kid, it was a bit of a relief to see that he was okay. And it was a natural thing to find out what happened. I think that’s how we met the family. We just liked them so much, we teamed up with them.
It was such a long process, and there’s no way to shorten it that I’ve ever learned.
Obviously, all that time in the camp before you meet them gives you context, but once you found them, how much time did you spend with them?
I think that third trip was probably a week straight through. So that was about my third week of research in the field, but it was much more concentrated on that third trip. That’s the trip with Christopher. It’s a little bit rare that you travel with the photographer in this day and age. Those two camps are separated, and it makes me so sad, because when you work well with a photographer, it so enhances the experiences and makes a much better story.
Christopher and I have a relationship; we’re like each other’s separate sets of eyes. There’s a lot of stuff to cover, fields and fields of people and tons of characters in the camp. We would go our separate ways and meet up every couple hours.
Unfortunately, the magazine didn’t use many of his photos for all kinds of complicated reasons. But they may be in the book. They will show up. And they’re just amazing. Each one is like a painting – really rich photographs.
I talked with you about an unusual use of voice in an interview earlier this year. In this story, you use a similar device, shifting repeatedly between third-person descriptions to relaying the father’s advice in his own words. So part of the article becomes you talking to the reader, and part of it is him talking to his sons. How do you pull that off without disorienting the reader? Do you have a strategy, or do you do it by feel?
I do not have a strategy. I’m aware that I’m doing it, and I’m aware when it needs to happen. It’s usually a really emotional spot. So that rather than quoting Urbano saying “I just stick to myself, I don’t blah-blah-blah” – which may have been things he said to me and probably were – I wouldn’t quote that kind of stuff. That would insert me into the story. Why would this person be talking to me? It seems so unnatural. So I flip that emotional work right into his head, because that’s what he’s thinking, that’s what he’s worked up about.
I remember actually being really dissatisfied and never did find a fix for one part. It happens at the end of the first section where I’m deep inside his head.
The part where he’s saying that you’re either born a king or a peasant, and there’s no use complaining?
Yes. And then he says to hang the crucifix. And then you end that section and open into the next section. And I say to wash the apple before you bite into it. Which is you, the reader, or you the American. But the you that was there just before had been him taking to his son. To me, that didn’t work.
For me, that did work. You establish this intimacy. You’re shifting into this other realm. It made me aware of the distinction between these two worlds that don’t mix.
The point of the piece is almost to get inside these people’s heads, because that’s the place we never go. Shifting out if it in that one instance, I thought it didn’t work. I struggled with it, and then I just said, “I’m going to roll with this.”
It worked for me because it felt like a parallel structure: He’s talking to his sons, and then you’re talking to us. It’s putting you in the position of offering perspective based on what you’ve seen, the same way he’s giving his sons advice based on what he’s seen.
Well, guess what? For me, it felt like a failure of imagination. Because I needed both of those elements. I really needed this sense of the apple and why this matters, where you as a reader and me as a regular consumer, we’re with the person there with the apple. I really needed that narrative thread going. But how I was going to match that up with the other one? Hmm. You’re weaving, weaving, and switching colors. To me that was like we’re on red, red, and then all of the sudden YELLOW. Why did we go to yellow?
It worked for me, but maybe other readers will agree with you and think it’s a weak point.
I would love it if anybody had a fix for it.
I even recast that next section with we: “we wash the apple before we bit into it, because that’s the way we were raised.” But it’s so preachy when you start throwing we in, like “gather round, people; this is what pigs we are.” I went back to you to have a more direct conversation with the reader.
Another interesting point is the relationships you portray, one person in relation to another – like when the state monitor comes into the story. It’s almost like the difference between quotes and dialogue. Now, we’re seeing the family, the workers, in context. Can you talk about your use of the monitor as a character?
This story was really, for me, a lot like writing fiction. Because with Juan, with my nonfiction hat on, I needed his expertise, I needed him in this story. How do you do that without just doing a space break then saying here’s a bunch of interesting facts, and here’s the expert backing them up? To me that would be so jarring, so away from the moment of being there in Maine in the fields at this specific time.
So, as it turns out, Juan really is a character in the story. I plop him in, and you meet him at this moment where he’s trying to find this kid. He has flesh and bones on him. He has a bit of a story, though very little when you first meet him. He’s left frustrated because he didn’t get that phone call. And he then disappears. So you’ve got these characters coming on stage with their little intro bits.
As you come back come back to the story, and they’re not solitary on stage. Their stories merge. The first time he meets them and finds them, they’re in the camp having a conversation, so that you see it, and they’re alive. It’s not just some paragraph saying they found him, and it was a relief, with a quote, saying, “Yeah, that boy was really in trouble.” To me, that would be so distant.
You were saying this isn’t really a story on immigration or illegals – it’s on this work and the people who do it. What are you hoping to find out with this book about all these different people and jobs?
You’re forcing me to articulate something I’m not doing that deliberately. What I’m experiencing is each time I go into one of these worlds and I learn about the lives of the people who do these things that contribute on such a literal level to my daily life, whether it’s a coal miner giving me electricity, or—I have a bunch of chapters—in this case the people who pick our food, two things happen to me.
One, as a citizen of this country, I get reconnected with this country in a new way. We are so disconnected from the resources and the raw materials of what makes our lives work, in a way that they certainly weren’t a generation ago or two generations ago. You went out and chopped your own wood and stuck it in the fireplace. You knew how everything worked.
Now everything is done for you and packaged and served up. So you’re missing all that richness. In these stories, I hope you get reconnected to what makes your life so damn easy.
I eat blueberries differently now. I eat salad differently now. It was really hard for Christopher and I to go to a restaurant and eat anything while we were researching this story. There are people, in this case suffering, really suffering, to bring us our blueberries. And not only are they really suffering, we hate them, so they have to hide.
And that’s when the immigration and illegal immigrant portion of the story becomes relevant. Because we force these people into hiding, and we hate them, while we sit back and chortle over our breakfasts with our fresh berries . . .
Is there anything else you want to say about the story or your writing that I haven’t asked you?
Well, is long-form journalism dying or is it resurrecting itself? It’s one of my questions. I think there is a rebirth thanks to the Internet and places like you guys, but I wonder if young journalists or nonfiction writers know how much fun it is. And I worry that the time it takes to do a piece like this, the commitment, I worry that people won’t want to do it anymore. So I’m turning into this advocate.
This is so much fun! There is no more fun you can have as a writer than to step into these lives and figure out a way of recreating on the page the emotional truth of the experience.
It’s hard, and it’s complicated. I teach at the university, and I have a hard time getting my students out in the world anymore. Is it too hard? I don’t know. I think somehow I want to give a message of “come out and play with me.” It’s so much fun.
Oh, god, I’m getting on a soapbox, but that’s my overarching thought. All that rich stuff you could never make up, and you could never go seek. To me, that’s the gold mine. It’s like you just point your nose and you’re hoping, but you don’t have a clue what you’re going to find.