"Topping the Plants," Hookerton, NC (2017), by Jeremy M. Lange
Riding the Tornado
By Daniel Blue Tyx
Documenting migrant workers’ cross-country journey
utside a gleaming new bus station in suburban Houston, hundreds of passengers, some nibbling on tacos from a food truck parked in the lot next door, milled about beneath an enormous metal canopy. Although buses had periodically dropped off passengers, they had pulled back out without taking on new ones, leaving the dozen or so berths disquietingly empty.
No one else seemed worried, so I tried not to be either. After a few more hours of waiting, a silver-haired woman appeared from inside the station, a cordless microphone tracing the shape of her jaw as if she were a TV game show host. “Atención, pasajeros,” she began, her voice amplified by a loudspeaker. Rapid-fire instructions followed, only in Spanish, and the haphazard arrangement of travelers quickly fell into order: passengers on one side of a waist-high fence in a sidewalk waiting area, their bags opposite them on the blacktop, straddling the painted yellow lines outlining the vacant berths.
Unable to keep up with the pace of the instructions in spite of my undergraduate Spanish degree, I felt anxiety creep in: What if I got on the wrong bus, or missed mine entirely? Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Where are you going?” the silver-haired woman asked, in English, doubtlessly noticing I was the only Anglo in the crowd. Without waiting for my reply, she took the ticket from my hand and noted my destination. “Over here, please,” she said, pointing me to the correct line. “Have a good trip.”
I was traveling aboard the Tornado, a cross-border bus line whose slogan, written at the top of my ticket, is Uniendo Familias en México y Estados Unidos—Uniting Families in Mexico and the United States. The trip had taken shape somewhat impulsively. In the summer of 2016, I worked on an oral history project documenting the stories of migrant farmworkers who launched a since-forgotten strike fifty years ago in the cantaloupe fields near my home in the border town of McAllen, Texas. That project led me to research more-recent farmworker movements, one of the most successful of which was a five-year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Around the same time, I moved to a new house close to the bus station. I began noticing the large number of bright yellow Tornado buses driving through my neighborhood. Tattooed on their flanks were the company’s orange cyclone logo and an all-caps litany of destinations: FLORIDA, TENNESSEE, GEORGIA, ARKANSAS, LOUISIANA, LAS CAROLINAS.
Then, the election happened. Out of a flailing desire to do something, anything, to push back against the dehumanization and scapegoating of immigrants that ran so contrary to my lived experience in a part of the country that’s ninety percent Latino, I visited the Tornado website. The departure and arrival drop-down menus were organized by city, listed alphabetically without regard for country. I was astonished by what I found. Scrolling down, even the U.S. cities were places I’d never heard of, like Loxley, Alabama, and Slidell, Louisiana, and Faison, North Carolina. One of the places was Mount Olive, site of the famed farmworker victory. An idea took shape: to take the oral history project I’d begun in South Texas on the road, experiencing the same trip as migrants themselves while also documenting the prior events, both in their own lives and globally, that compelled them to embark on the journey. I bought a ticket to Mount Olive.
Before I left, I considered myself well equipped for the task. Besides being (usually) proficient in Spanish, I am also a seasoned bus passenger, having shuttled cross-country between divorced parents on Greyhounds in my teens and later, in my twenties, road-tripped by bus across Mexico and South America. But nothing in those previous journeys had prepared me for what I would experience riding the Tornado.
The trip to Houston from McAllen had taken seven hours. That included a ten-minute stop at the Border Patrol interstate checkpoint sixty miles north of the border, where a pair of olive-uniformed twentysomething Anglo agents boarded the bus to inspect our documents. Most of the other passengers arriving in Houston had come from points far more distant. The buses pulling in while I waited hailed from across Mexico—from the interior states near Mexico City, to the Pacific and Gulf Coasts, all the way to the Guatemalan border. Their passengers had traveled for days already and most likely were delayed for hours at the international bridge, where they would have de-boarded for their first, more intensive round of inspections.
I knew these passengers were the fortunate ones. If you’d traveled from Mexico by bus, you almost certainly had documents that would pass muster with the agents at the bridge and the northbound checkpoint. Those without had likely made a much more lengthy and dangerous journey through deserts or swift currents or in hidden compartments or overheated tractor trailers. Knowing this fact was another source of anxiety for me. As an Anglo and a writer riding by choice rather than necessity, I was embarrassed to be viewed in the same light, at least superficially, as the checkpoint agents a decade my junior, another sort of emissary from a country that, after all, had elected a xenophobe like Donald Trump president.
My bus in Houston was more than three hours late when, in quick succession, eight buses appeared in single file all at once, electronic signs above the windshields flashing the names of the routes’ final destinations: PLANT CITY, FLORIDA; NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE; WILSON, NORTH CAROLINA. In choreographed harmony, the buses turned into their designated lanes. Bags were loaded, and passengers climbed on board.
“Bienvenidos, damas y caballeros,” the redheaded bus driver intoned, welcoming us as he pulled swiftly out of the berth. Looking back in the direction of an enormous neon TORNADO sign, I saw that the entire station below it was empty, save the silver-haired woman in her blue company shirt, waving goodbye. Once the buses arrived, the whole maneuver took less than fifteen minutes, and every one of the hundreds of passengers waiting there had disappeared.
More than seventy-five Tornado buses crisscross Mexico and the United States each day, providing service to more than three hundred communities in both countries. That makes the family-run bus company the largest of dozens that cater primarily to Latino passengers, but if you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. Notwithstanding the buses’ flashy yellow exteriors, the Tornado flies under the radar by design. In larger cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Raleigh, the company operates out of independent terminals tucked away in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Most destinations, though, aren’t cities—they’re small U.S. towns, spread out across the Midwest and South.
To serve these far-flung locales, the Tornado functions differently than competitors like Greyhound. As I observed, at large transfer points like Houston, no outbound bus leaves until every connection has arrived, since being on time is less important to passengers than leaving no one behind. Then, there’s the nature of the routes themselves. Before a bus disembarks, a tag team of drivers is handed a printout of the day’s passengers and their destinations. From that list, they construct an itinerary, connecting the dots of one rural community to another in a map that exists only in their own heads.
On the overnight trip from Houston to Atlanta, the bus was full, and we made few stops. The plush seats were comfortable enough, but the A/C wasn’t working properly—it operated either at full blast or not at all, and the driver elected the former. Those lucky enough to have blankets wrapped themselves in them. Those without put on extra clothes. Everyone, myself included, seemed to toss and turn, vacillating between sleep and wakefulness.
In Atlanta, we stopped at a strip-mall terminal in a neighborhood in which all the business signs were in Spanish or Chinese. A white-aproned cook was waiting outside the bus door, calling out the names of everything on the menu. Hungry, I found a seat at one of the taquería’s orange Formica tables that shuddered with the spin cycles of washers from the laundromat next door. “Do you mind if I sit here?” a woman asked, in Spanish, after all the other tables had been occupied. Claudia was in her mid-thirties, about my age, with her hair tied back neatly in a ponytail. We sat across from each other, picking up chunks of carne guisada with homemade tortillas while we talked. She told me she was from Puebla, Mexico, and was traveling to Wilson, North Carolina, to work at a hotel. Beyond that, the conversation stalled, as if she thought she’d revealed too much already. Instead, I talked about myself. Claudia listened incredulously as I told her about my trip and Mount Olive and the pickle boycott. She said she’d never heard of the town, less than an hour from her destination, so I typed the name into Google Maps and handed her my phone. “Monte Olivo,” she said in Spanish, peering in recognition at the red pin. “Why didn’t you say so?”
From Houston all the way to Monte Olivo, my best efforts at striking up conversation met the same fate of wariness and miscommunication. Making matters worse, after Atlanta we drove in a hard rain. The slick road conditions and near-total lack of visibility only heightened the passengers’ restlessness and uncertainty. Even though I knew it was only temporary, I found riding the Tornado a profoundly lonely experience. For many of those around me, the journey was more permanent, one after which they would emerge into a future of perpetual outsider status, in communities where they would likely be subject to wage theft, housing discrimination, dirty looks for speaking their own language, and racial profiling by police regardless of whether they were documented or not. If they weren’t, they could be uprooted again at a moment’s notice.
Yet for all the unspoken tension aboard the Tornado, I also witnessed countless human-scale examples of the all-for-one ethos implied by the buses in Houston that waited for everyone to arrive before departing. At the McAllen station, an elderly mother and her grown daughter from South Texas took a young Guatemalan father and his nine-year-old daughter, wearing a purple Disney princess shirt, under their maternal charge. The father carried a manila envelope from a refugee agency bearing the Sharpie-marker message I DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH—PLEASE HELP ME. Although language wouldn’t be an issue aboard the Tornado, the soft-spoken father with a badly chipped front tooth clearly needed the help the women provided in reading his ticket and finding the right bus. Much later, the redheaded bus driver played the role of social worker, gently assisting an elderly passenger with her cell phone to help her direct her son to the North Carolina truck stop parking lot he was having trouble finding.
At last, thirty hours after leaving Houston and six hours behind schedule, I was dropped off at midnight outside a Food Lion grocery store in Mount Olive. By that point, Claudia was the only other passenger left on the bus. She had been periodically checking in with me, relying on the Google Maps on my phone to approximate what time she might arrive, so she could alert her ride. “You gabachos work magic with your phones,” she said, using a Spanish word for Anglo that is usually derogative, but seemed a term of endearment under the circumstances. I waved goodbye and climbed down into what by then had slowed to a drizzle. As I walked with my phone to navigate to my hotel a half mile away, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like for Claudia as she stepped out alone, even later in the night and without this technological orientation, into a starless, pitch-black Carolina del Norte.
Before I arrived in Mount Olive, I was perplexed by an apparent paradox I’d noticed in my pre-trip research. The town was home to the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, located just blocks from a languishing downtown, and a Butterball turkey plant a few miles outside the city limits that the company claims is the world’s largest. These two factories alone employ more than fifteen hundred Latino workers, yet just three percent of the town’s population of forty-seven hundred people are Latino. How could this be? As I spent several days visiting the numerous eastern North Carolina communities where the Tornado stopped, the answer became clear: New arrivals weren’t living in towns like Mount Olive, but in the rugged, rural spaces outside them.
Crossing the border into North Carolina, the Tornado left the homogenous landscape of the interstate behind in favor of narrow two-lane highways bordered by tobacco and vegetable farms, and what Latino residents referred to as parqueaderos—trailer parks in unincorporated areas, often platted in the middle of fields rendered fallow by years of tobacco overproduction. Land there was cheap, and undocumented residents—barred from obtaining driver’s licenses under a 2006 North Carolina law—could live close to the fields or factories where they worked. In some places, entire communities had sprung up around parqueaderos, where you could find everything you might need within walking distance, often at a Mexican grocery store with colorful piñatas hanging from the rafters, glass bottles of Mexican Cokes, and ninety-nine-cent packets of still-warm tortillas in giant plastic containers.
One such grocery was La Palmita (“The Little Palm”) Mexican Store in unincorporated Dudley, a few miles north of Mount Olive. That’s where I met the woman who sold the first Tornado bus ticket in North Carolina. When Angelita Morrisroe opened the store in 1996 in a white wood-frame building decorated with red and green stripes (the colors of the Mexican flag), this section of U.S. Highway 117 offered little but scrubby regrowth forest. No other Mexican grocery existed within an hour’s drive, and the nearest Piggly Wiggly didn’t even sell tortillas yet.
Besides selling Mexican staples, Morrisroe installed a pool table and a handful of phone booths—a vital link to home in a pre-cellular and even pre-phone-card age. Those services brought in crowds of recent immigrants, who, as they gathered around the pool table, exchanged vital intelligence about where—and where not—to find work and how to navigate an unfamiliar cultural landscape. “It was the perfect time to do this, just when all the Latinos started to arrive,” said Morrisroe, now a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother in tinted eyeglasses, whose delicate four-foot-something frame belied a lifetime of physical labor. “The store was full every day. People came to chat, to hang out, to find out what was going on.”
Morrisroe invited me across the street to her modest prefab home, where she prepared sugary-sweet coffee while recounting her nearly three decades living in North Carolina. Although it had its own exceptional twists and turns, her migrant journey—from backbreaking fieldwork to a dangerous-but-better-paying job in meat processing to successful entrepreneurship and community rootedness in North Carolina—was in many ways emblematic of the experiences of dozens of immigrants I met during my time in and around Mount Olive.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Morrisroe’s story is hinted at by her last name. Born Angelita Delgadillo, Morrisroe grew up on an isolated ranchito outside the sprawling metropolis of Guadalajara. She left school at the age of six and worked for many years as a domestic servant before moving in her early twenties into the city, where she found a job at an assisted living facility that catered to American expats. That’s where she met Richard Morrisroe, a U.S. citizen left paraplegic by polio, who had come to Mexico, where health care was much less expensive, to make the most of his modest disability benefit. Delgadillo and Morrisroe, twenty years her senior, fell in love, married, had a son, and lived happily together in Mexico until Richard fell, breaking several bones, and received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The family relocated to San Antonio in search of more-sophisticated treatments. During their last months together, Richard asked Angelita to stay in Texas so that their son, Ernesto, might receive a better education. A week before he died, Angelita received her green card in the mail. “Now I can die in peace,” Richard said, not anticipating that it would be just the beginning of a labyrinthine process—complicated by Angelita’s lack of funds and knowledge of the application system—that wouldn’t end until she received her U.S. citizenship some twenty years later in North Carolina.
In San Antonio, the cost of living was high. Morrisroe worked three jobs and seldom was at home; as a teenager, Ernesto fell into drugs and gangs. By that time, she was also supporting her son Sergio, eleven years younger than his brother, whose father she’d met in San Antonio—a relationship that didn’t last. She’d been living in San Antonio for fourteen years with little to show for it when, in 1990, a friend put her in touch with a labor contractor representing a grower in North Carolina. The contractor promised plenty of work harvesting camote—sweet potatoes. She jumped at the chance for a fresh start for herself and her family.
Morrisroe’s journey from Mexico to rural North Carolina was typical of the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants who arrived across the South beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, drawn to the promise of ample employment, affordable housing, good schools, and safe communities. Between 1990 and 2016, the Latino population in North Carolina increased more than twelvefold, from seventy-five thousand to nine hundred thirty-two thousand. Much of that growth was fueled by NAFTA, which passed in 1993—the same year the Tornado Bus Company was founded. Free trade decimated the Mexican countryside, where communal ejido fields couldn’t compete with subsidized U.S. corn, and a depression that began in 1994 led to rapid inflation and sky-high unemployment. Simultaneously, NAFTA accelerated the movement of manufacturing and agribusiness to lower-wage, nonunion states across the South. Many of these new jobs, like field work and meat processing, were unappealing to American workers. To fill them, companies turned to labor contractors who recruited workers like Morrisroe across Mexico and in traditional immigrant gateway communities in California and Texas.
“It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Morrisroe said, sitting across from me at a rectangular wooden kitchen table that was long enough to seat her large extended family. “I’m not a big person to be lifting bushels of sweet potatoes, but what was I going to do?” Still, it wasn’t the nature of the work that bothered Morrisroe most. It was the $10 weekly checks after the contractor deducted inflated costs for housing, transportation, and food. Eventually, Morrisroe left the crowded migrant camp where she’d been living with her sons. She pieced together work in a tobacco packing shed, a hotel, and the cucumber fields by day, and the eviscerating line at the Butterball plant at night. The night shift was particularly difficult, as supervisors pitted Latinos and African Americans against one another to overcome the workers’ opposition to sped-up—and dangerous—line speeds. “My goal was always to open my own business,” Morrisroe said. “The truth is that the state of North Carolina hasn’t totally left the era of slavery behind.” Now, she continued, “I don’t have money, but I have my freedom. I’m not a slave to an awful supervisor.”
After six years in North Carolina, Morrisroe used her entire savings to open La Palmita, living inside the store with her sons until they could afford to rent a trailer. When a Tornado agent came to North Carolina looking to start the company’s first route in the state, La Palmita was the first place he stopped, since it was an established gathering place for new immigrants. Soon, Morrisroe was selling tickets from the store’s register, and new passengers were arriving weekly. For many, their introduction to North Carolina was a sociable, savvy, Spanish-speaking shopkeeper with the funny name of Angelita Morrisroe.
Morrisroe invited me for lunch at a Mexican restaurant down the road, which she had also started after La Palmita’s success. The walk took us past a squat brick building that turned out to be the North Carolina regional office of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Just as the Tornado agent had sought out La Palmita, so too had FLOC organizers, who came to North Carolina hoping to replicate the success of an earlier boycott of the Campbell Soup Company in their home base of Toledo, Ohio. “I told them, ‘Everyone comes here,’” Morrisroe said, the wind tousling her hair. “‘We can organize the community, and you won’t have to go to the fields all the time.’” Soon, Morrisroe was pitching in as a volunteer organizer, traveling to the cucumber fields where she once worked to recruit union members, and setting up a raffle for a new VCR at La Palmita to bring in residents initially reluctant to speak with the young Anglo organizer running the campaign.
The Mt. Olive pickle boycott lasted five years. At last, in 2005, it proved successful: FLOC signed a landmark contract with the powerful North Carolina Growers Association. For Morrisroe, the union contract was the culmination of her own struggles in North Carolina, a hand extended backward so that new arrivals wouldn’t have to endure quite as much. “Before, if you didn’t finish a contract, or if you complained to your boss, or you got sick, or if there was an emergency, you were blacklisted,” she said, looking out into the distance as though picturing the cucumber and sweet potato fields that lie on either side of the highway, just beyond a stand of tall pines. “It’s benefited people greatly, even if it still hasn’t been everything we might want.”
The next day, I drove a rental car to the Tornado stop at the Friendly Mart convenience store in picturesque Faison, twelve miles south of Dudley on the same highway, and began walking west down Main Street. In classic small-town fashion, nearly all the businesses, save a few chains on the strip on the highway coming into town, could be found there in the space of two blocks of century-old brick buildings in varying states of repair. My walk on the first block alone took me past four different Latin American grocery stores, each containing its own taquería, as well as a Latino-owned hair salon and tax preparation service, before leading me inside El Sol restaurant, where I stopped for lunch. Noticing that the entire staff of four women in hairnets was glued to a television showing live coverage, via satellite, of the newly reelected Honduran president giving a speech in response to widespread protests alleging electoral fraud, I decided to order the “Honduran Plate”—fried eggs accompanied by fried bananas and thick slices of avocado and salty white queso fresco cheese.
Thirty-eight percent of Faison residents are Latino. Many of them work in the enormous packing sheds the Tornado passes on the outskirts of town next to the Dollar General and the Pizza Inn. In Dudley, I’d seen how Latino immigration had fueled the growth of a new community where none had existed before. In Faison, a town of nine hundred and sixty-one residents (as of 2016), I found an example of one whose roots went back many generations but that had been in steep decline until new arrivals helped bring it back to life.
Continuing down Main Street after lunch, I noticed a scaffolding next to an exposed brick wall. Work was underway on a mural of a sun rising over rolling green fields. I stepped inside the newly remodeled building and was met by a woman in jeans and a beige t-shirt with an identical logo to the one on the wall outside. Bethany Ceccarelli, the thirty-one-year-old co-owner (with her husband, Steven) of Farm Fresh Produce, invited me into a cubicle-filled office space decorated with botanical drawings and neat stacks of packing boxes with labels for different vegetables. I noticed that most of the cubicles were empty; Ceccarelli explained that her husband and half the staff were at an international produce trade show in Berlin, Germany.
Ceccarelli, who sported stylish horn-rimmed glasses, had spent a large portion of her childhood in Faison and graduated from the local high school. Then, she left for college, intending to never move back—until she met Steven, a transplanted French-Canadian who had started in the produce business at age eighteen. They moved back to her home in the heart of North Carolina’s produce industry, where the company they started carved out a niche by earning a certification, known as GRASP, that shows a commitment to a living wage and suitable working conditions for its employees. The certification was in keeping with the young couple’s progressive values. It also allowed them to reach markets their competitors couldn’t—in Europe, for instance, where consumer demand for ethically sourced food is stronger than in the United States.
Scrolling through her phone to share pictures of her two young children, Ceccarelli explained that she’d harbored doubts about coming home. “I was hesitant because I was scared of my kids having a closed mind,” she said. But moving back, she noticed changes that made her feel more comfortable. Latino residents were moving into houses on both sides of Main Street, rather than being segregated on the south side. New Latino-owned businesses—especially restaurants like El Sol—were revitalizing the downtown. “A lot of people open up their minds through their bellies,” she said. “They see that the food is good, and they develop that relationship with the person that’s working behind the counter or taking their order. It’s not something that’s on the TV, or in the fields even—it’s right next to you.”
Ceccarelli conceded that racism remains intractable in some quarters. “There’s still a percentage of the population here in Faison that looks at [Latino immigrants] as a necessary thing, but they would still, in their heads, say ‘make them go back,’ or whatever.” Still, she said, seeing Main Street alive again is a powerful argument for many residents about the benefits of immigration. “A lot of empty places are filling again. Without that, Faison is going to slowly die.”
When she got a phone call from a prospective buyer, Ceccarelli introduced me to a young woman, Nedi Otero, working in one of the cubicles. Otero, twenty-six, was a head shorter than her boss, with a quiet but unyielding confidence. She spoke to me in English with an accent that was more North Carolina than central Mexico—her family immigrated from the state of Hidalgo when she was one. Like many immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, sometimes called Generation 1.5, Otero initially faced the challenge of the language barrier, and later of pervasive discrimination in the Faison school system. “I was bullied a lot in middle school,” Otero said, running a hand through her ponytail. “There was a whole lot of tension—people calling you wetback, telling you to go back to Mexico. It got to the point where I told my mom that I wanted to move schools. I didn’t feel safe.” Otero did eventually transfer for her senior year, and her experience after that was more positive. In early adulthood, she has already surpassed the earning power of her parents as an administrative assistant at Farm Fresh, where her bilingualism is viewed as an asset rather than an obstacle.
While Otero has seen improvements in her own life, she worries that the election of Donald Trump has set back race relations in Faison by decades. “Once Trump was elected—nothing against it—it gave everyone permission to be like, ‘Go back to Mexico,’” she told me. At church, she is a mentor to a group of high school girls. They report being bullied just like she had been. “I tell them, ‘Brush it off. At the end of the day, Trump is president, and we can’t do anything about it, but nobody has the right to get bullied. You’re here, you were born here, you don’t need to go anywhere. This is the only thing you know.’”
At nine A.M. on a Monday, I was the only passenger waiting in the parking lot outside the Food Lion in Mount Olive. When the return bus still hadn’t arrived an hour later, I called the number printed on my ticket. I was on hold when the bus finally arrived—just not at the Food Lion, where I’d been dropped off. I spotted the yellow bus a block down the road at the Maya Bistro Restaurant and took off at a sprint. It turned out the driver had stopped there for breakfast. I’m not sure if he had forgotten about me, or if he would have come later. In any case, I was the only passenger to board in Mount Olive, but dozens more would get on in the smaller, neighboring communities like Dudley and Faison.
“Buenos días,” the driver greeted me, sounding groggily uninterested. He was the same youthful-looking redhead who had dropped me off at the Food Lion on my earlier trip. Later in the day, as I sat with the driver, who was by that point joined by his partner, at the lunch counter of the San Luis Potosí Mexican Grill, I would learn the reason for his weariness. The two drivers worked twenty-three days straight, alternating driving and sleeping in a coffin-sized, blue-carpeted sleeping berth at the back of the bus, next to the restroom. After that, they returned to their homes in Mexico for seven days off before starting the process over again.
As the driver navigated us to the highway, the images outside the window captured the mashup of Southern rural life and immigrant identity that had become a central part of eastern North Carolina’s landscape and character: a welcome sign with the slogan WE VALUE HOMETOWN TRADITION; a parqueadero where Latino kids were out riding bikes on a dirt road; a brand-new subdivision advertising “protective covenants,” historically used to perpetuate segregation; iglesias pentecostales in dilapidated trailers and white-spired Original Free Will Baptist churches. I didn’t see the pickle factory or the Butterball plant, but there was ample evidence of both in the form of fields of cucumbers being picked by all-Latino crews of workers, and windowless metal buildings with their telltale industrial fans taller than human beings.
The bus grew crowded. At the South Carolina state line, I counted thirty passengers, whereas we had been only four at the same juncture on the trip to Mount Olive. Soon thereafter, a series of billboards advertised a Mexico-themed tourist trap called South of the Border, where visitors could climb to the top of a Space Needle–like structure in the shape of a giant sombrero and a water tower was painted with the initials S.O.B. The mustachioed bandito mascot smiling from the signs made the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo look like a model of cultural sensitivity. A quick Google search revealed that the bizarro outpost was started in the 1950s by a beer wholesaler taking advantage of his property’s location adjacent to a North Carolina dry county. At the time, he’d employed two Mexican workers and the all-white clientele took to calling them Pedro and Pancho—and later both Pedro—as a joke. It stuck, and for decades every employee, most of them Latino or African American, was referred to, interchangeably, as Pedro, also the name of the mascot.
Turning off my phone, I looked around and felt glad everyone else around me seemed to be sleeping.
Then, somewhere west of Columbia, a man in front of me with slicked-back hair and a silver chain around his neck turned around in his seat. “¿Qué haces aquí?” he asked. So far as I could tell, there was no hint of malice, just genuine curiosity: What was I doing here?
If I found it hard not to take the man’s question as an accusation, it was at least in part because I had spent the past half hour eavesdropping on his conversation with the passenger on the other side of the aisle, a soft-spoken, bearded man who had boarded one stop after me in North Carolina. I’d started to pay attention once it became clear that what had begun as an ordinary exchange of pleasantries had quickly progressed to something more soul-baring. I hadn’t made out everything, but from what I’d understood, I knew the two men shared strikingly similar biographies: Both came to the United States as undocumented workers as teenagers. Both raised families here. Now, both were returning, alone, to countries neither had seen for two decades.
I explained that I was a writer from Texas. My interlocutor, who introduced himself as Luis Vásquez, told me that he had worked for twenty years as a roofer and plumber in Columbia, but that he was from Honduras. Perhaps because he felt he no longer had anything to lose—there is no checkpoint for travelers heading south—he was far less guarded than anyone I’d met on the outbound trip. In a whirlwind couple of minutes, he’d already friended me on Facebook, expounded on his views of religion (he was a born-again Christian), and launched into his own life story. For twenty years, Vásquez said, he had worked from before dawn until after dark, seven days a week. He ran his hands over the deep creases of his face, as though measuring the depth of the lines he found there. “So much work makes you get old too fast,” he told me, before asking me my age. I told him I was thirty-seven, which turned out to be three years younger than he was. “We’re almost the same age, and people would say that I could be your father,” he responded. “¿Verdad?” I nodded my head, acknowledging that it was probably true.
“I just got tired,” Vásquez said, when I asked why he had decided to leave now. But there was also another reason. When he departed Honduras, he had left behind a pregnant girlfriend. His daughter was nineteen now. They had met only through WhatsApp chats. In South Carolina, he had had a relationship with another woman, with whom he also had a daughter, now nine years old. For Vásquez, riding the Tornado was both a separation and a reunion.
He showed me a shaky cell phone video, taken by a neighbor, of land in Honduras he’d purchased with the money he’d managed to save. He told me he planned to build a house there, maybe even a church. He would grow coffee, just like his parents had. “Only I’m not going to work for someone else, the way they did their whole lives. I’m only going to work for myself.”
I didn’t learn more about Pablo López Colmenares, the man across the aisle, until many hours later. He had remained largely quiet during my conversation with the more gregarious Vásquez, and later fell asleep. Then, sometime around two a.m., we stopped at a Pilot truck stop in Moss Point, Mississippi. We got off, and the bus momentarily disappeared to refuel. López Colmenares and I stood together in the parking lot, keeping an eye out for the bus’s return. Meanwhile, he told me that his daughter had recently graduated from high school and was beginning her first semester at the University of Mount Olive. She had earned a track scholarship, he told me proudly. Now that she was fully independent, he planned to return to his hometown in a remote village in Oaxaca.
While we waited, other cross-border buses kept arriving—some of them belonging to Tornado, others to Turimex, one of its main competitors. Once our bus reappeared, I counted five lined up in a row. One was heading in the opposite direction, with WILSON, NORTH CAROLINA flashing in golden lights. Two others were larger double-decker models, both headed to Florida. I estimated, conservatively, that we were some two hundred fifty passengers temporarily marooned together in the middle of the night at this unlikely American crossroads.
In returning home, López Colmenares is part of a larger trend. Since 2009, more immigrants from Mexico have been leaving the United States than arriving. (Immigration from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, however, where the murder rate is among the highest in the world, continues to increase; many of the immigrants are teenagers and families who immediately turn themselves in to Border Patrol and apply for refugee status.) The causes of this net outmigration to Mexico are not completely understood. Tightened border security undoubtedly plays a role, as does a declining birth rate and modestly improving economy in Mexico. The trend may also reflect the ripple effects of an anti-immigrant backlash that has been building at the state and local levels since well before the election of Donald Trump, who capitalized on it but is by no means at its leading edge. In 2006, the same year that North Carolina barred undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses, sheriff’s offices across the state began implementing so-called 287 (g) agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement granting local law enforcement the power to check the immigration status of people they stopped. More recently, North Carolina passed legislation to outlaw “sanctuary cities” and to allow growers to refuse to deduct union dues from members’ paychecks—a measure specifically targeted at FLOC, the state’s only farmworker union.
Nearly every immigrant I spoke with in North Carolina had a personal story to tell about police harassment and racial profiling, especially in the form of retenes—checkpoints, purportedly to screen for DUIs, that are often set up outside parqueaderos, Latino flea markets, and Spanish-language churches, particularly on Sunday afternoons. The fine for driving without a license can run up to $500. López Colmenares had been stopped and fined multiple times for not having a license that it was impossible for him, as an undocumented immigrant, to get.
Still, when the Pew Research Center recently surveyed immigrants who had returned from the United States to Mexico about why they had left, the number-one reason given—by a huge margin—was family reunification. As we caught sight of the bus moving back in our direction, López Colmenares told me that his parents in Oaxaca were in their late sixties and in declining health. “I’m the oldest of ten brothers and sisters,” he said. “We all moved to the United States. Someone has to take that responsibility. I thought it should be me.”
The driver motioned for us to climb back on board. Before we did, though, I asked López Colmenares if that was the main reason he’d decided to leave. He looked me in the eye and smiled mischievously. I wasn’t sure if he was joking, or if in joking he was telling a different sort of truth, or if perhaps it is simply impossible to distill just one answer from all the experiences one amasses over the course of twenty years.
“Estoy saliendo porque ustedes nos reclaman,” he said, as the Tornado driver swung open the door to let us in. Roughly translated, it meant, I’m leaving because that’s what you all want us to do.
A block away from the Tornado bus station in downtown Monterrey, Nuevo León, fifteen men sat on rows of benches in a tile-floored open-air patio. The small sign read CASA DE LOS MIGRANTES (House of the Migrants). It was March, seven months after my initial trip aboard the Tornado. I’d traveled to Mexico’s third-largest city, just a few hours by bus from my home in McAllen, to meet with workers waiting to obtain their H-2A agricultural guest-worker visas from the American consulate. The application process, which includes fingerprinting and an interview, takes three days. Meanwhile, the workers watched soccer on a staticky TV overhead and checked their phones every few minutes for news.
Felipe Montán, a forty-nine-year-old native of Veracruz, was among those in limbo. Youthful-looking for his age, he had a neatly trimmed moustache and dark, expressive eyes. This year, Montán estimated he was one of thirty men from his village of two thousand residents who planned to work on H-2A visas—fewer than the number from his hometown living undocumented in the United States, but more than in past years. “I’m just waiting for them to bring me the visa and my passport, and then I’ll leave,” he said, one hand curled over the handle of a new hiking backpack. When I asked him where he was going, I was taken aback by his answer: just outside Mount Olive, where he would work in the sweet potato and tobacco fields.
“It’s a big industry,” union organizer Leticia Zavala had told me earlier in the day at the FLOC union office, a few doors down from the boarding house. A frizzy-haired mother of three with a bubbly personality, Zavala had traveled to Monterrey from North Carolina earlier in the week, accompanied by Angelita Morrisroe, who had invited me to join them. To illustrate the scope of Monterrey’s visa-industrial complex, the two women had led me on a tour of the surrounding neighborhood. Everywhere we went, groups of fifteen or twenty male workers crowded the sidewalks, many dragging rolling suitcases behind them. The reason was immediately apparent: The neighborhood not only housed the American consulate—until recently, the only source of H-2A visas in the country—but also dozens of recruiting offices that contracted with American growers to find workers across Mexico. At one such office, a red-white-and-blue inflatable balloon danced maniacally above an electric blower, the word visas printed on it vertically in huge letters.
During the first year of the Trump administration, American growers’ requests for H-2A guest workers surged as they increasingly struggled to find enough migrant workers already in the United States to pick crops. But while the guest worker program offers the stability of legal status, it’s rife with abuses. This is especially true since contracts are tied to a single grower, which can stifle complaints, as workers fear being blacklisted for the following year. In North Carolina, FLOC has documented rampant wage theft—last year, the union won a settlement of more than $300,000 from a single Christmas tree grower—and widespread lack of access to health care, especially among tobacco workers, for whom chronic nicotine exposure can lead to a host of illnesses.
On the other side of the border, FLOC’s Monterrey office combats fraud and bribery in the visa application process. In 2006, a year after the contract was signed ending the Mt. Olive pickle boycott, FLOC won a lawsuit making it illegal for workers to be charged for their recruiting. “Before then, [obtaining a visa] cost about $2,000,” Zavala said. The money that went toward visa fees, bus tickets, and recruiter bribes was deducted from their paychecks, creating a system akin to indentured servitude. “They were essentially working the first few weeks for free. There was a whole system that was—and still is, in a lot of cases—filled with corruption.”
FLOC’s efforts to enforce the court decision met with violent resistance in Monterrey, where recruiters profited richly under the previous system, along with their powerful allies in the police departments and drug cartels. The FLOC office was repeatedly vandalized. Then, in the spring of 2007, twenty-nine-year-old union organizer Santiago Rafael Cruz was murdered, his bruised and bound body left in the union office. Today, two large photos of the young organizer hang just inside the entrance—one a smiling portrait, the other depicting him intently talking with a group of farmworkers in the field—and the office is named in his honor. His murder, which the union considers a political assassination, was never solved. At the time of his death, Cruz had been documenting so-called “express kidnappings” of guest workers who are held until they surrender what money they carry, along with their passports and visas, which are then sold. “We think that’s why he was killed,” Zavala said.
At the Casa de los Migrantes, workers who wish to stay in one of the seventy-eight bunks are required to show the receipt for their visa application before they can pass through the boarding house’s wrought-iron gate, a security measure intended to reduce the likelihood of such kidnappings. For Felipe Montán, the risks of the migration process are outweighed by the trip’s benefits. “We’ve been able to build a house and pay for our daughter’s university education. That’s important to us,” he said. Nonetheless, as he approached his fiftieth birthday, Montán was looking ahead to a time when he might stay at home year-round, working at the small carpentry taller, or workshop, that he owns. “If everything goes well, I’m only going to work two more years. That’s my goal,” he said, his eyes gleaming.
He glanced down at the time on his phone, and then slung the backpack over his shoulders. “Every year at this time, I’m filled with sadness,” he told me, moments before he disappeared out the gate. “I’m happy to have the work, but I love my family. I count the days until I come back.”
Later in the afternoon, Zavala and Morrisroe walked with me a few blocks to the downtown Plaza de las Américas, where workers congregate while they wait for buses to pick them up on the busy Avenida Constitución. By the time we arrived, Montán was already gone, but hundreds of other workers were still there. Almost exclusively men, many sat along the length of a brick wall that bisected the park as vendors hawked fruit cups sprinkled with chile and leather passport protectors for a hundred pesos apiece. When I inquired about the destinations of a large group of workers leaning against the base of a bronze statue of Atlas, the world hoisted upon his back, everyone gave the same answer: Carolina del Norte.
Santiago and Andrés Trejo Rojo were two of the men waiting. Twenty-five and twenty-one, respectively, they’d been making the trip since their teens and didn’t yet have any family obligations back home. Wearing stylish baseball caps, they evinced the carefree jocularity of youth, cracking up when I asked, not knowing that they were brothers, if they knew each other before the trip. We exchanged phone numbers before they boarded the Tornado for another season half a continent from home.
More than forty-eight hours later, I was reading a bedtime story to my kids at home in McAllen when I received a text from Santiago. Hoy llegué a Norte Carolina, it read. Today, I arrived in North Carolina.
Enjoy this Southern Journey? Subscribe to the Oxford American.