Maine blueberries and the people who rake them

Photo of the Washington County blueberry barrens, taken by Aya Padrón

WHEN I WAS 13, my mom signed me up for a blueberry raking crew. She wanted my first real job — besides babysitting the neighborhood kids for $3 an hour — to be one of hard work. So she signed me up for the same manual labor she’d signed herself up for back in the early 1970s when she was about my age.

“When you close your eyes at night, all you’ll see is blueberries,” she told me.

She was right. Every morning before sunup in August, she drove me to downtown Winterport, where I’d wait in front of the gas station to be picked up by the crew. Sometimes they’d show up in an old school bus, painted white. Other times a pickup truck would pull up and whoever wanted to rake would climb in the back. I liked riding in the truck the best. Even in August, the morning air in Maine is prickling but with a promise that the sun might warm you by noon. I’d sit alone sometimes with my hood up around my ears, clutching my water bottle and granola bar for later. We’d get to the fields in Frankfort just as the sun was crowning over the hills of Waldo County.

And yes, she was right, all I could see before me were miles and miles of blueberries, whether my eyes were closed or not.

What my mother didn’t tell me about raking was that, as a kid who hadn’t yet been out of New England, the blueberry field would be my first piece of real evidence that other cultures existed. I’d often ride to the field with some local kids, but when I hopped out of the truck, I was a minority in my own home county. The fields were filled with people I’d never seen before, greeting each other in Spanish, sitting on overturned buckets and sipping on Styrofoam cups of coffee.

The Maine blueberry harvest used to be dominated by the Native American population, with most of the workers being either Passamaquoddy or Canadian Mi’kmaq. However, at the start of the 1990s, the labor force became overwhelmingly Hispanic. Today 83% of migrant laborers in America are Mexican, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or from Central or South America.

I remember entire families — with children way younger than me — congregating in their assigned rows. Mothers swatted at their toddlers squatting down to eat the berries. The smells were completely foreign from the salty pine I was used to. The smoky scent of rocky soil and sweat hung in the air, mixed with the slight tang of pesticides sprayed on miles and miles of bright blueberries nestled in low bushes. For a 13-year-old Maine girl, raised in the same town her mother was raised in, the blueberry field was a mini-introduction to the many possible worlds beyond America. [read more]