BY ERICK JARED
I’ve grown up watching my mother cook almost all her meals with one staple ingredient — la cebolla, or an onion. She throws chopped up onions in calditos de pollo, tacos, enchiladas and huevos rancheros.
At first, I wasn’t fond of onions at all. Not only are they bitter in flavor, but every time my mom orders me to cut la cebolla, my eyes burn, and I begin to shed tears.
But my mom convinced me onions don’t have to ruin my appetite — or my eyes. She taught me onions can be rich in flavor, but that flavor comes at a cost.
Sure, onions add taste to your food, but I never took an onion to be an expensive item in the produce department at the grocery store.
Let me tell you what my mother meant when she said they are costly.
There was a time when money was tight at home. My mother was the only one working, and we barely had enough money to pay the rent and the grocery bill. We didn’t have enough money to pay for gas to fill up our car — something we needed to get to and from school, the grocery store and other necessary places.
But my mother figured out a way to fix the problem. She responded to an ad that offered work in the onion fields. She wasn’t going to do this alone. Mother told my sister and I we are all going to work in the onion fields to help pay for gas.
Unlike my sister who had picked cebolla before, this was going to be my first time. All I could think about was the sun — that big bright star on top of your head that burns and transforms you into a nice toasted slice of bread.
I was not prepared to go to la cebolla — an onion field.
Why was our only option la cebolla? Why couldn’t my mother just ask one of her friends to lend her money for gas? She said it was because she still owed Alejandra, Maria and Ana.
“When I die, I’m not going to be here to give you the gas money,” she said to me in Spanish.
There was no arguing with my mom.
The following Saturday was the day I was dreading — the day we planned to head to la cebolla.
We got there at about 6 p.m., and that’s when I saw the bins that could hold hundreds of onions. They had to be filled to the rim in order to receive payment.
My mother, sister and I began picking onions out of the earth. We pulled them, cut the roots and leaves and placed them in the bin. It took us three and a half hours to fill just one bin. During that whole time, my back burned from bending over for so long.
As if that wasn’t enough pain and inconvenience, mosquitos and mites came out to nibble on my dirty face while sweat dripped down it.
Fortunately, I was able to move at my own pace, as long as I finished the area assigned to me. We were able to take as many water breaks as we needed, but I learned it’s best to take my own water bottle. People without their own water had to walk almost half a mile to quench their thirst.
Throughout the night, some workers left with $17 in their pockets after filling just one bin. Others stayed to do more back-breaking work. My family consisted of those who stayed.
To keep us awake and moving, the “Spirit of la Cebolla” carried into the fields, helping us all finish our work strong. The “spirit” was alive when workers chanted together, allowing workers across the fields to hear the echoes in the night.
Eight hours later at 2:30 in the morning, my family and I called it a night after filling three bins. We left with $54 in our pockets — $54 to pay three people for eight hours of labor. That is $18 a shift.
That money allowed us to fill the gas tank and buy $24 worth of food.
The next day, I helped my mom prepare breakfast. We had eggs, vegetables and, of course, onions.
My mom asked me to cut the onions, and once again they made me cry. But this was a different cry. These were different tears. Instead of feeling the pain in my eyes, this time I felt the pain in my back and my legs and my hands.
This is when I understood why my mother told me onions are costly. She wasn’t referring to the price of la cebolla. She was referring to the working conditions of la cebolla — the back-breaking labor and the low wages.
My people kill themselves when working in la cebolla to earn little money.
I understand the onion now — in the taste and in its value. La Cebolla is rich in taste, but painful for the body.
The onion is one tricky cebolla.
Erick Jared is a committed college student at Bakersfield College. He hopes to acquire a higher education to give back to his community. He is involved in Latinos Unidos Por Educacion (L.U.P.E), which encourages a higher education for all Dreamers while providing a safe space to familiarize with other Dreamers.
South Kern Sol is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.