Hard Harvest: Picking New Mexico’s Green Chile Is No Picnic

“They think we’re like Pancho Villa and will attack them”
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Workers earn between 65 and 80 cents for each large bucket of chile they pick. The fastest pick 100 buckets a day. Photo: Joseph Sorrentino

From Joseph Sorrentino at the Santa Fe Reporter: Hard Harvest - Picking New Mexico’s Green Chile Is No Picnic.

The first workers start getting up a little past midnight to prepare for another day in “el field.” About 100 men sleep on the floor of the rooms and hallways in the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project shelter in El Paso.

The place is crowded and smells of stale sweat and onions, one of the crops they’ve been harvesting. Two or three women sleep in a small alcove off the reception area, sharing their cramped space with a water fountain. Most people sleep on a thin mat or a blanket spread out on the linoleum, spending the night in the clothes they worked in the day before.

All through the early morning, workers awaken, quietly stow their bedding and possessions, and get ready to go again. They fill their water bottles, stuff some food in their backpacks and head out. Then they walk the six blocks to El Paso Street and wait for a ride to the chile fields of New Mexico.

Last season, just under 78,000 tons of chile were harvested in New Mexico, with about three quarters of that coming from Luna and Doña Ana counties near the southwestern bootheel. While the annual pepper harvest is worth $65 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the real economic impact is much greater.


Guillermo, the fastest of the workers, managed to fill 90 buckets that day, for a gross pay of $72. It’s not a bad day’s wage for him, but most workers picked far less. Most were like Raúl, who picked 52 buckets, netting $38.42 for a little over six hours of work, or just over $6.40 an hour.

Certainly, no one’s earning a living wage, especially when other expenses are accounted for. “If you can pick 70, 80 buckets, that’s good,” Mancha says. “I can pick about 70 in a seven-hour shift. Let’s say you pay $6, $7 for a ride. You take a burrito from [the shelter] or you buy some burritos, that’s another $3; Coke is $1. After all that, you might come home with $20, $30.”


There’s surprisingly little anger and resentment among the workers, even though they’re aware just how little they’re valued by the people who consume the food they harvest. One worker sums it up best. I sit in front of the shelter when he approaches me. He stands silently next to me for several minutes, a tall, good-looking man who appears to be in his mid-40s. Finally, I ask his name. He turns slightly from me, and in accented English he says, “My name is Nobody.”

Some names have been changed at the worker’s request.

Read the whole thing, and see more beautiful photos, here: Hard Harvest - Picking New Mexico’s Green Chile Is No Picnic. It’s compassionate, honest, yet not (too) depressing.

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