Musings on a farm labor lexicon

I GREW UP in Crystal City, a South Texas town that became a virtual ghost town every summer as most of its residents, including my family, went “up north,” as we referred to it, to work in the agricultural fields of states in the Midwest and Northwest. 

My family started going north in the summer of 1943, a month or so after my sister Dora was born. The family piled onto the back of a labor contractor’s flatback truck covered with a heavy tarp. They were joined by the Trujillos, a family that lived a couple of blocks away, and possibly others, on their journey to Wisconsin, where they thinned and weeded sugar beet fields. 

One day my father and Mr. Trujillo went into town and came back with a car they had jointly bought. Before the summer was over, one of the men bought the other one out and, just like that, we had our very own car.

We were to stay on the migrant trail for the next couple of decades, even as most of my siblings (I am the youngest) married and left the family. In the end, it was just my parents and me, traveling to California where we worked in the numerous food processing plants around Gilroy. And in the very, very end, it was just me, going West to work during the summer break from college.

When we talked about going up north, we were talking, for the most part, about three possible types of jobs: las piscaslas limpias, or el desahije (des-AY-heh). There were other types of work, but these were the most prominent.

Las piscas (from the word piscar, to pick) more often than not referred to picking cotton, and that usually involved traveling to other parts of Texas. (I never picked cotton.) Work picking other crops was usually not called la pisca. Instead, we referred to it by the name of the crop we were picking: la papa, el pepino, el tomate, etc.

La limpia (from the word limpiar, to clean) referred to any work removing weeds from a field, either with a hoe or by hand. 

Finally, el desahije was a word reserved almost exclusively for sugar beets, and it involved thinning out, with a hoe, the young plants to ensure that each surviving plant had enough room in which to grow. 

Sugar beets required both a desahije, performed first and a limpia, done several weeks after the desahije to remove any weeds that may have sprouted since. In particularly rainy summers, some beet fields required a second, or even third limpia.

The beets had to be harvested, of course. The harvesting was originally done by hand but by the time I started to become aware of things, a machine had already been invented to do the job. The hand harvesting of beets was not called a pisca, though; it was called a tapéo (tah-PEH-o). My guess is that word came from the English phrase “to top” because before they could place the beets in the baskets, workers had to first cut off the leafy top with a sharp machete (which had a nice hook at the tip with which they could pick up the beet from the ground). That was called “topping,” hence the word tapear. I think.

THERE WERE other works for other harvests. For instance, gathering onions was called “el rebote.” I’ve never been able to figure that one out, for rebotar means to bounce, to rebound. The only possible explanation I have is that in order to gather the onions, you had to first snip off the roots (la barba) and the leafy green stems with a pair of shears, and the onions drop to the ground (or into the bushel basket), where they bounce around a bit. 

There was el mananeo, (or manoneo?) the gathering of green onions into a bunch with a rubber band around them. I’m not sure about this, but I think the term came from the fact that the bunches were usually what a worker could fit in his or hand (la mano) at one time. Pure conjecture here.

All of this just to talk to you about my fascination with the word desahije. For years, I have wondered where that word came from and how it came to be. I tried to find it in various Spanish dictionaries but had no luck. Until it occurred to me to break up the word. “Des” in Spanish is the same as “un” or “de” in English, so if I take off the “des,” I’m left with a word that sounds like aijar.

But I remembered that most Spanish words with an “a” or “i” sound often are preceded by the letter “h,” which is silent. So now I had ahijar. Bingo! That word exists in the dictionary. Among its various meanings is “to bud, to shoot out.”

A related word is ahijado (or ahijada), which means godchild, from the root words hijo/hija

Suddenly it all began to make sense. To desahijar means to remove the godchildren of the beet plants that are budding or shooting out near the plants you want to keep (the rule of thumb back then was that the distance between two plants should be 12 inches, or the length of the hoe’s blade). As mentioned above, this serves to give the surviving plant plenty of room in which to grow.

There’s one more word related to sugar beets I’d like to mention: descuatar. It comes from the word cuate, which means twin. We used it when we came across two sugar beet plants so close to each other that one of them couldn’t be removed with a hoe. We had to stoop down to pull out the interloper (the cuate) with our fingers. That meant extra effort and it slowed us down, so we hated having to descuatar

AND A FINAL thing: when we talked about farm work, we never used the word campo to refer to a field (neither did we refer to ourselves as campesinos or migrantes; I don’t know what we called ourselves, actually, other than trabajadores). Instead, we worked in las labores. That may have come from campo de labores, which my dictionary says means “cultivated fields.”

So that’s it. A migrant worker dictionary for you. 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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3 Responses to Musings on a farm labor lexicon

  1. Sara Fernandez says:

    Thank you for the vocabulary lesson, it was very enlightening. My grandfather worked as a migrant when they moved to the states but nothing further was ever discussed.

  2. Allan Van Fleet says:

    This is great! Thanks, Mr. Palomo

  3. Excellent detective work Mr. Palomo. Expressions as rich as the soil from which they sprouted.

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