Stories No. 53 – Jim Estrada

Ciruelero Summer
By Jim Estrada

The heat was getting to me; I needed to cool off. In the shade—of what had now become repulsive row after row of trees—it was well over the forecasted 106 degrees. After emptying my bucket of Santa Rosa plums into boxes of the loose fruit, I wiped the sweat from my brow with the sleeve of my sweat-soaked, red flannel shirt.

I needed some water. I set my bucket down at the base of the 10-high stack of filled boxes and checked to see if anyone was watching. Feeling like a chain-gang prisoner, I carefully planned my escape. In school I had read about this guy named Walter Mitty who was always letting his imagination get him into strange situations. I wondered how Mitty might plan an escape from this plum hell.

We were about three-quarters of the way to the end of the row, which was a quarter-mile in length. We had developed a pretty good lead over the other families who participated in this annual trek to the North. It was Dad’s goal to pick more than any other family—every day. It was a serious rivalry among the families, who were paid by the box—and at 25 cents a lug, this was supposed to be another good season for pickers. The family that picked the most for the season also received a bonus: ten percent of their summer pay. That was incentive enough for Mom and Dad to bring us North. They were confident we would earn the bonus.

My six brothers, one sister, and parents were swarming over the fallen fruit like ants and a brief break by one of us couldn’t hurt our chances for the bonus. I figured I wouldn’t be missed, took one last glance around and darted off toward the water cart, which was located some twenty trees back in the row of trees we were currently stripping of their fruit.

If I walked slowly, I could stretch this into a substantial break from the tedious task of filling bucket after bucket with those damned plums. Besides, my knees were sore from crawling around on the hard, crusted ground. Mom had made makeshift knee pads from old corduroys and elastic tape—filled with cotton gauze—to make being on our knees all day a little less painful. Some of the other families had store-bought, thick rubber knee-pads, with adjustable straps—that kept them from drooping down around the ankles, like those Mom had made for us.

Ours did the job, but they wore out quickly from the steady scuffing on the ground as we scurried around the trees filling our pails. One of us was always stopping to stuff the cotton back into the denim fabric, wrapping the worn areas with electrical tape, or turning the pads—worn side in. All of us complained to Mom and Dad, but they said the rubber pads were too expensive and there were too many of us to buy for. We had to make do.

I muttered, “Damn it!” I deserved this water break.

As I walked along, I wondered what my “homies” back home were doing—probably at the beach, playing football at the park, or just messing around at each other’s pads. I should have been there, after all I was one of the guys that had the idea of forming the “Counts”—one of the baddest group of young vatos at Memorial Junior High, and here I was working like a slave for a feria that I would never see. This was all kinds of bullshit!

Then I saw her. I walked a little faster, but carefully to not step on the hardened dirt clods that crunched as you stepped on them. I didn’t want to startle her or give her a reason to run off. The song “Youngblood,” by the Coasters raced through my mind:

I saw her standing on the corner,
a yellow ribbon in her hair.
I couldn’t keep myself from shouting,
Looky there, looky there,
looky there, looky there.
Youngblood. Youngblood. Youngblood.
I can’t get you out my mind.

From a distance, I knew it was her. I felt my heart race. My palms were sweating. What luck, we had both gone for water at the same time. I was finally going to be alone with her. No nosey brothers, sisters, primos, parents—or other cirueleros.

The sun gave her brown, wavy hair a lighter look. She was drinking from the tin cup, which was tied to the metal jug with a thick, insulated electrical wire—as if anyone would want to steal the damned thing.

I was so close, I thought I could smell her. It was a nice fragrance, like the smell of a newborn baby, only older. She still hadn’t noticed me. I felt a stirring feeling inside of me. I wanted to smell her, touch her, and kiss her.

Our parents had known each other from their days in New Mexico. They had kidded us about being “intended” for one another, which was a marital custom of our parents’ generation—a Mexican thing. They had initially planned for Isabel to marry my older brother Eugene before either of them were born. After Eugene’s early death from pneumonia as an infant, they agreed that the next Estrada son would be promised to Isabel.

As kids we had always seen each other at fiestas, bodas, and funerals for the Estrada and Montoya families—and those of our many friends. Even though she was more than two years older than me, she always had a smile for me or said something that made me feel special. She was one of the few reasons I didn’t mind this year’s trek to the plum orchards of the hot, humid California Central Valley.

She sensed someone behind her and turned quickly toward me. I could see she was pleased to see me. In the bright light of the mid-day sun, I could see that her lips were covered with a red splash of color. The contrast of her wet, red lips against her white teeth as she smiled made her mouth so inviting.

“Lipstick?” I remembered Angie remarking—with a hint of sarcasm in her voice—when we first saw Isabel in camp. I recalled the guys back home saying only rucas who wanted to be kissed wore bright red lipstick. “The brighter the lipstick, the more they wanted to be kissed,” they claimed.

They didn’t know my Isabel. She wasn’t a ruca, she was a young lady. She had grown and was almost my height, about five foot, six inches, which was taller than most of the girls I found attractive. She was no longer skinny, but somewhere between slender and voluptuous.

I had even caught my older brother Manuel checking her out several times, even though he and Lupe (Isabel’s older sister) had a casual thing going on over the last two summers. Back home, he was already known as a player and had even had his car shot up by some jealous vato over some chick from another barrio. He wouldn’t horn-in on me; not his brother?

It was obvious that Isabel was maturing into a young woman. Even with the loose clothing cirueleros wore to increase the circulation of the hot air, hers fit snugly in all the right places. Everyone in the camp agreed that she had developed a great shape—and a walk to go with it. The young guys—and even their fathers—whistled and made crude noises as she and other young girls from the camp walked past during the early evenings.

At night, around the campfire, the men would talk about the women in the camp and what they would like to do to them. Some—like my sister Angie, who had brothers and several cousins in camp—were not mentioned in these public discussions. However, Lupe and Isabel always made the list.

I didn’t like the way they talked about them, especially Isabel. But, I soon found myself looking at her and wondering what it would be like to have sex with her and do the things the others talked about. Most of the men had heard we were “promised” to each other and they teased me about not knowing what do with such a “ripe,” young woman. I didn’t have a clue, but I sure wanted a chance to try.

I remembered seeing her when we first arrived at the migrant camp in Colusa. We were assigned to the big family area in the center of the camp in a space next to the Terrazas. They were my parents’ best friends from earlier days in New Mexico. That was before WWII and a long time before they all moved to Los Angeles for war-time jobs.

She was waiting in the driveway to welcome us. Isabel was my mother’s favorite ahijada. My parents were her padrinos (godparents) making them compadres to the Terrazas, members of our extended family—on both the Estrada and Montoya sides. They were so close that Isabel was named after my mother’s oldest sister. She was friends with cousins from both sides of our families.

That welcome was only a few days ago.

Here we were, alone in the orchards, stealing a few minutes of privacy at the water cart. It was the pickers’ practice to soak their clothing with water to keep cool for as long as possible in the oppressive heat of the Central Valley. She had unbuttoned her men’s long-sleeved shirt to expose a wet T-shirt that stuck to her cream-colored body like a second skin.

I noticed the tiny, gold crucifix dangling from a thin, gold chain. Mom had given it to her last year as a belated birthday gift. It was visible through the soaked, transparent cotton fabric of the T-shirt and was resting comfortably in the cleavage of her pert, well-rounded breasts, which were held in place by a brassière that was being stretched to its capacity. I had guessed her bust was about a size 34B—having helped hang laundry at home I was familiar with mom’s and Angie’s bra sizes—but as we got closer to one another I realized I may have underestimated.

I was staring. I had seen chichis before, but never real ones this close. The camp’s showers were communal facilities and throughout the summer almost all the boys (and some men) had peeked through knotholes or cracks into the women’s showers. I had also seen breasts and other parts of women’s bodies in the remains of girlie magazines left in the men’s outhouses.

Isabel caught me staring. She smiled and took a deep breath. Her breasts pushed out against the already tight constraints of her bra and t-shirt, threatening to overflow. They were beautiful. I wondered how they might taste.

A hot flush covered my face. I felt guilty, like I had done something wrong. Did she think I was nasty, like the dirty old men from the camp? I would tell her I was admiring her cross.

Her head tilted down as she raised her eyes toward me, extended the cup of water she was holding and asked, “¿Quieres?”

Of course I wanted. Despite the stifling heat of the summer sun, I suddenly realized there wasn’t any water cold enough to quench the thirst I was experiencing.

“Yes,” I uttered, nervously reaching for the cup. Our fingers touched and I could almost feel the electricity flow between us. The cup slipped out of our grasp, spilling water on both of us. We instinctively tried to brush away the water. My efforts to whisk away the water—which landed on her chest—were nothing more than veiled efforts to touch her. Suddenly, she was in my arms. The heat from her body was even greater that of the mid-day sun, but for some unknown reason it was tolerable. Actually, it was welcomed.

I tried to caress all of her at once. My fumbling hands found their way to her narrow waist. Continuing around and down, I felt the metal rivets on the pockets of her Levi’s. They were loose, yet I could feel her firm, shapely bottom. Pulling her towards me, I felt her breasts flattening against me. Again, the heat of her body was willingly and gladly accepted. I searched for her lips with mine, wanting to kiss her, to taste her.

Her smell was intoxicating. The heat from both our bodies made it feel like we were meshing into each other. I pressed even harder against her. She responded to my efforts with her own. We were slow dancing in the middle of the barren orchards to the sound of our own music. She felt better than I had imagined—and believe me, I had thought of this moment many times before.

It was like one of my frequent daydreams in which one of the many women about whom I had fantasized was about to have sex with me. I was in another world. Far, far from the monotony of picking plums. Isabel and I were floating on a white, billowy cloud, high above the oppressively hot orchards and the ant-like pickers who swarmed around the green rows of trees far below.

But again my mind strayed. Had Mom and Dad noticed I was not there, helping to collect the bonus for the most plums picked? Isabel was my bonus! What could compare to this? What if I was missed? The way I felt, I could take anything they threw at me.

Suddenly, my world filled with the brightest and most colorful lights I had ever seen. I had lost myself in her arms and in the heat of passion had entered another world. I read once that the ecstasy of first time sex was a combination of “bells and fireworks.” Could the explosion of multi-colored lights all around me be the onset of love?

They were the most intense colors I had ever seen. They exploded inside my head like the fireworks at Mission Beach on the 4th of July. These colors were different, much brighter. They reminded me of neon signs. They raced across my mind in every direction, right to left, back to front and top to bottom.

For an instant, a faint scent of Isabel wafted in the air. Then I felt the pain. It was like another jolt of electricity pulsing through every part of my body. The dry, hot ground—blanketed with those nauseating plums—was rushing up toward me. The bright sun seemed to dim and the world around me went dark.

It seemed like only seconds ago, I was experiencing the most exhilarating feelings of my life; but now, instead of Isabel, all I could think of was the excruciating pain in my head. I was disoriented. I didn’t understand what was happening!

My hands squished around through the plums that covered the ground and found their way to my aching head. I found the remains of a dirt clod—tinged with my blood and wet plum juice—in my hair. I could also feel a chichón beginning to form on my forehead.

I could hear faint laughter—growing louder each second—as the flashing light and colors faded and the reality of the bright sun flooded into my real world. I recognized the laughter. It was the predictable chorus of snickers that erupted when one of us became the focus of my father’s anger.

My sister and brothers laughed in unison, but not one of them dared stop filling their buckets with the all-important plums. They knew Dad had gathered more terrones nearby—and with me thrashing around on the ground—it was obvious that his aim was pretty accurate today.

“¡Viejo condenado!” my mother hissed at Dad. “¿Quieres matarló?” she asked, rhetorically.

I knew by her tone she was upset with him. She was kneeling over me, checking for damage. The throbbing ache in my head was growing; but the greatest pain was to my ego.

What the hell, I thought to myself, I might as well milk the situation for all it was worth. It was easy to force out a tear or two as I brought both hands to my face. I thought it should be an act worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Mom ordered Angie to walk me to the water cart and apply a wet towel to cut the swelling of the golf ball-sized chichón, which reminded me of the growth on a baby goats’ heads—from where horns would sprout as they got older.

This could turn out to be another break from the monotonous plum-picking and the unbearable heat. As I walked past them, I smirked at my brothers.

“He’s faking it!” cried Milty, as if on cue.

“He just wants to get out of work,” chimed Martín.

Orale,” I said giving them a knowing nod of the head and a blink of an eye, making sure Mom and Dad didn’t see me. I thought, I might even see Isabel. She had become the silver lining to this dark cloud that would hover over me this summer.

When Angie and I finally reached the water cart, there was nobody around. I guess I had to get back to the picking. I turned and headed back to the crew.

“Ain’t this a bitch,” I whispered under my breath, as I kicked a few large terrones out of my path and wondered when I would again be together with Isabel.


Jim Estrada is nationally recognized as a pioneer in ethnic PR & Marketing and provides expertise and counsel to the most renowned U.S. corporations, public, and nonprofit clients. He is the author of The ABCs and Ñ of America’s Cultural Evolution: A Primer on the Growing Influence of Hispanics, Latinos and mestizos in the USA.

May 4, 2016
Photo by: Gessy Alvarez