by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
La Cueva, N.M.
Sepytembet 2, 2007
LABOR DAY, IMMIGRATION AND THE SALMAN RASPBERRIES
LA CUEVA, N,M., Sept. 1, 2007 -- Don't talk to me again for one minute of one hour of one day about legal or illegal immigration issues in the United States of America until you've worked one day in their shoes.
Make that half a day, at 96 degrees in unshaded and unforgiving Mora County sun. Give me a full report.
Come to think of it, even then, hold off until we talk about native Americans, Los Conquistadors, the Holocaust, and pioneering spirits.
The story of the Salman Raspberry Ranch is everything that is great, heart-warming, tear-jerking and "gee-whiz!" about America, and everything that is confused, tragic, inequitable, and phony. The great part is the people who own the ranch and their antecedents. The disgraceful part is the rather recent government in Washington--recent when viewed through History's lens - and its capricious stupidity.
"They" are folks doing work I definitely don't want to do. Let's start at the end. My half day of "U-Pick" raspberries, where you bring your plastic containers into the shed to be weighed, and pay $4 per pound. Consumers, note that a frozen 1-lb. bag of California raspberries in my local grocery store (not even close to being a "super" market) was $3.99.
Here's the drill, with apologies to the memory of Cesar Chavez for the only explanation I can figure out: Roast a marshmallow around the campfire. Pull the black crispy, sugary "shell" off of the stick. Leave the white meaty gooey stuff on the stick. Don't break the crust. Careful. Place this crisp black shell gently in a basket.
Oh, one more thing, this fictional "marshmallow" is hardly larger than the pink eraser on the top of a No. 2 pencil.
Now you have the picture of raspberry picking.
The U-Pick is a cheap way to harvest some crops when seasonal workers aren't available in sufficient numbers, or when labor competition is tough. Remember, your elected officials have told you that "illegals" are taking the jobs of millions of good ol' U.S. citizens. I guess they are staying away from La Cueva (Spanish for "the cave"), named after "La Cueva de Los Pescaderos" - cave of the fishermen - where shepherds Vicente and Josefa Romero spent their nights tending their flock in 1835).
Now comes the disclaimer: I am a city boy. When I was growing up, my food came mostly from such exotic places as the A&P and Safeway. But as a parent, volunteer, and newsman I have picked oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, strawberries and satsumas ("tangerines") in Florida, and as a kid in New York I often "borrowed" figs, Bing cherries, and granny apples from neighbors' trees. Stooping for crops is tough, but raspberry picking is tougher.
At the top of the bushes on a nice day, if you happen to be 5-foot-4 or shorter, it's not too bad. But the berries at the top go fast.
The bulk of the berries is in the middle, or worse, and the base of the plants have to be prepared for harvesting. That's the hoe from hell. You are competing with bees, bugs, spiders, and birds for the sweet, juicy, reddish-pink and purple prize. Gloves are useless. Think roasted marshmallows again: You are required to "test" the fruit bud for softness. If it "gives," then squeeze a bit harder; if ripe, the bumpy shell which is the berry you prize, will come off in your fingers. One at a time. It's slow work for the novice.
Most of the work requires that you wear long sleeves, even in the summer sun. The sleeves protect your arms from the small but annoying thorns and spikes in the plant. Again, the first run of the season along the top of the bush isn't bad. Anything lower down requires pushing aside the branches with your arm, holding the branches up and back from your face with one hand while doing the picking with the other hand. Too hard a tug or a strong squeeze and the squishy red splotch might be fine for Mr. Schmuckers, but not for your own pies and tarts.
I am way beyond just being called out of shape. But the visitors from California or two hours down the road in Santa Fe who parked their Escalade or Hummer and spewed forth Nike-clad kids with loads of energy, also were dragging their berry-tired butts in an hour or two.
The 11,000 acres of the Salman Ranch is what remains of the 32,000 acres granted to the Romeros, which was part of the 827,889 acre Mora Land Grant ceded by the Governor of the New Mexico Territory in the early 1800's.
The San Rafael Mission Church, built in 1860, the grist mill - which still stands - the mercantile building, with a garden walled by flagstone as a barricade against Indian attackers, a store and café, all survive today because of the raspberry industry.
Jams, sauces, salad dressings, chocolates, candies, and many more raspberry-derivative products are sold online and at the store. When I asked an employee why there was no raspberry wine (which is a well-received specialty in the French countryside and elsewhere) I was told, "We have lots of rain this year, but three years ago all the irrigation ditches dried up and we are technically in a nine-year drought. Quality wine requires a reliable and pure source of water every year. Our conditions don't guarantee that, so we take a pass on the wine."
The expanse of north central New Mexico, the proximity to old Fort Union where the U.S. Cavalry sent predominantly black troops to guard the frontier with honor and where the Romero family had steady customers for fruits and vegetables, all demonstrate the foolishness of a "one size fits all" immigration policy.
Native American and later Hispanic settlers crossed the line from what is now Mexico and New Mexico for centuries before politicians drew boundaries. Even today, in many New Mexican families there is little distinction between serving in the U.S. Army and living in the United States for five or six generations and sending your kids to a dentist in Sonora whose grandpa went to school with your uncle.
Socially, culturally, economically, and morally, an outside force attempting to undo the traditional values and habits of the former Territory of New Mexico. or even earlier, is doomed to failure. Most Americans don't care who picks raspberries as long as they don't have to. Most Americans will pay $3.99 for a frozen bag and not question who packed the berries.
New Mexico writer and reporter Ollie Reed of the Albuquerque Tribune did a magnificent piece on Salman Ranch three years ago, and filled in some of the historical blanks. What exists today is thanks to Col.. William Salman, an unlikely U.S.Army veteran, but probably also a rather unexpected American at all.
By the year 1919 and into the Great Depression, the Romero family and their heirs, who had been one of the 76 original Mora grantees, had sold off large chunks of their land. "It was a fragmented shadow of its former self," Reed writes.
Mrs. Frances Salman Koenig explained to the writer that her father William Salman, who died in 1988, was a successful Russian timber dealer who always wanted to own a farm, or a ranch, or a plantation, but since he was a Jew, he was not allowed to own property in Soviet Russia.
All the policymakers who think they can shove America's rich immigrant past into some modern formula, take stock of William Salman's example.
Here's the speed reading version:
William Salman bought the old Romero ranch, farm, and homestead in 1948 and spent years improving irrigation systems, crop-rotation schemes, creating improved grasslands, adding corn and other grain fields, and raising herds of Holstein and Hereford cattle. The raspberries became their most famous crop around 1985. Daughter Frances Koenig, an Albuquerque psychologist, still commutes to La Cueva on weekends and more frequently during the summer raspberry season.
Ironically, when Salman purchased the land, a German settler named P.W. Shufeldt, who was a self-described "mercenary in South America" and ornithologist (after his death, his collection of 4,000 Southwest and South American birds specimens was donated his family to the Smithsonian), had owned the property. Salman allowed Shufeldt and his wife to live there until the former owner's death in 1950, a time when the Salman family resided a half-hour away in a house in Las Vegas, N.M. .
There are no numbers readily available about the income derived from Salman Ranch raspberries. The enduring legacy of the Romero family's agricultural spread and the Catholic mission seems more a labor of love than of economics. When New Mexicans speak of "going to La Cueva," it is as much a tribute to Don Vicente and 17 decades of La Cueva settlements as it is to the attraction of the scattering of potters' workshops and llama ranches, or the bittersweet ride through the what-might-have-been and what-once-was of the specimens and impoverished county seat of Mora, N.M.
In 1973, the Salman Ranch was designated La Cueva National Historic District. Thousands of artists and photographers have been inspired by it; probably in deference to Archbishop Jean-Batiste Lamy of Santa Fe cathedral fame, a centerpiece of the District is the Gothic style of windows in the San Rafael church.
New Mexican Elmo Baca, a writer and photographer, may have the ultimate answer for all those who ask today, Who is an American? and, Who is a legal American? A visit to Salman Ranch, he said, is "not just a fascinating cultural landscape of many facets and great integrity; it also now embodies a narrative of inspiring power."
Gotta go. It's Labor Day weekend. The wife is baking raspberry pie. It is literally humble pie, at least in terms of my inconsequential role in its history.
AR Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum has written about New Mexico, Panama, Serbia and other exotic places, including his native Florida, in eight years of contributions to The American Reporter.