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Mutual Aid at the Heart of “Gordo”

by Alex (Alexandra) Rocha-Alvarez

Part of LM Voices' Tiny Reviews series


At the heart of California’s farmworker communities, the most valuable thing people have is each other. This message ties together Jaime Cortez’s Gordo, a collection of short stories centered around a young boy growing up in one of Watsonville’s migrant worker camps in the 1970s. Around the boy, tomato fields stretch towards the horizon, and his life is defined by his separation from the wider world. While depicting the stark reality of this geographical isolation, Gordo also celebrates farmworkers’ unwavering support for each other. Mutual aid isn’t simply an ideal for this community, it is a sustenance practice. It is a heartbeat, the undercurrent sustaining their daily life.


Isolation is an omnipresent force that shapes the lives of the people living at the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp—in a place where nobody ever goes “unless they work here or they’re visiting the family”; even a vendor selling donuts is a novelty. In the opening scene, a vendor’s van ruptures the monotony of childhood days at the camp, teasing the children with donuts only one child has enough money to afford. Olga, the lucky one, buys two donuts. In a strange play on the holy communion, Olga lines up the rest of the camp kids and splits the first donut into pieces, sharing her “body of Christ.”


The kids at the camp are the inheritors of a cultural practice: their elders have taught them that what you have, you share. In “Chorizo,” a family of four arrives at the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp with nothing but the sacks on their backs, in search of a glass of water. What they find is a community of people who, once just like them, see no other option but to help them on their journey. Gordo’s grandmother allows them to sleep in their carport for a few nights and promises to connect them with employment in the neighboring fields. When her husband comes home and, annoyed, asks them who those people are, she answers, “They just arrived from the other side. They don’t have any place to sleep.” He doesn’t need to hear more to know who those people are.


Farmworker labor camps are inaccessible by design. Located miles from the nearest city center, out of reach for public transportation, and intentionally separated from other residential neighborhoods, these localities are relegated to a permanent “other” space. The farmworkers who live there, having no choice but to be othered along those same racial and class lines, spend their days in a community of people who share their ethnic background, profession, and cultural norms. Not belonging anywhere else, they choose to belong to each other.


Feeding each other goes beyond the literal for farmworker communities. It means that one of the most meaningful ways that to care for others is by responding to each other’s sustenance needs. Although the labor that sustains farmworker communities makes them vulnerable to poverty, isolation, and injury, the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp will never go hungry because in the face of external indifference and invisibility, the characters choose to see each other--and through that lens, we, the reader, have a unique opportunity to see them. Gordo shows that our response to adversity is rooted not in idealism but in the practicality of collective care. Always, always, we reach towards each other, recognizing that our system can weather heavier storms with our roots intertwined.

 

AlexRocha-Álvarez (she/her) calls Watsonville, California and its strawberry fields her first home. Her second home was New Haven, Connecticut, where she studied the history of farmworker communities at Yale University. Now she lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works to support queer and trans youth and their families.

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