I like more than anything to feel useful and to feel capable. I know how to write essays and I know how to play sports but growing up I never learned how to use knives and shovels.
Here, at the lecheria, I wanted to do the work that the other workers were doing, but I didn’t know exactly how, and if I could, or if they would let me. I wasn’t sure quite what I was doing there and they weren’t quite sure what I was doing there. “Hi, I am Spencer, can I work with you?” I show up one day. “Si, si quiere.” Victor and Roger hang onto the back of the pick-up, speeding by with machetes strapped onto their belts: “Mejor que el se queda con Carlos. Este trabajo es feo. El es un turista,” they joke. The stench of the carrot, papaya, and pina cascara compost is strong and thick. “Can I load the wheelbarrow with pina?” “Mejor si se queda adentro para no se moja.”
They seemed to not let me do something because they didn’t think I was strong enough or capable enough or thought that I was “above” this work. Usually, a combination. Slowly, though, day after day, misunderstanding and distrust faded. The obstacles didn’t appear to be about class (and gender), about not being used to manual labor or not knowing how to use certain tools, so much as they also revealed culture. And these obstacles didn’t always turn out to be obstacles.
One day, after I had gotten accustomed to the satisfaction of echar pina to the 38 cows, (after asking repeatedly, I need to build muscle, I say), Victor and I got into an argument. There were four buckets available to fill. Victor said, “I’ll fill the buckets and then you bring them to the feeders.” And I said, “Yes, but I can walk there and back faster than you can fill the buckets, so wouldn’t it be better if we both fill our own buckets and carry them to the feeders?” Victor looked confused, and said, “Que? You don’t like carrying the buckets? Okay, you fill the buckets and I will carry them.” I paused. Clearly, shoveling was the more difficult task, but I knew that he could fill them much faster, and again protested: “But it’s faster if we each do both. Llenar y echar. Igual.” And he said smiling, “Why is quickness the most important?”
The shovel has become my arm now. I don’t notice its iron weight or the strain of pushing a flat nose into dense, wet matter. I shovel, foot forward lunging, one hand driving the blade, bicep clenched back twisting abs back arms shoulders engaged. The diving, rising, twisting has become one motion, one sweep, like my movements are automatic, continuous, easy. Kuch, the blade splices a papaya in two, black seeds spilling out orange flesh raw. I turn the shovel over to deposit the fruit slosh into a quickly filling wheelbarrow and row the shovel back across my body. I switch sides and hands to even myself out. It is no longer awkward. My body feels strong and full. I know that angles work best, and that the edges are looser, and sometimes I can slide the shovel along the bottom, along the slick wooden boards to slip into the pile and lift an orange mountain. This I did not know I could do before.
We are off on the far mountain today. I watch for a few minutes as Victor and the boss hack away at the hillside, clearing brush to make pasture. Are they going to give me a machete too? Christian is amarando wire to the hose. I eye an extra machete in the truck and ask if I can join. Quincho grins and yells to Victor, “El dice que quiere chopear.” Victor sharpens the blade. “Be careful not to swing through to hit your foot,” the boss says. I raise the machete high and swing it down hard, slicing through the thick shrub stem. “Ooooh,” Victor says, “Suave. Cuidado. Here, here is a smaller one.” I smile but insist that I want to use the bigger one. “Mas facil,” Victor exhorts. “No, pero yo quiero esta. I can manage it.” The boss hovers by my side. “You can hold the shrub with one hand like this,” he says, “That way you don’t have to use so much force.” “Vea, like this,” Victor says. I check myself in my I-can-do-it-myself mindset, and try out their tips. “Like this?” I confirm.
Three abreast, we are slashing away the brush like bandits. I am grinning like an idiot as the knife slashes through the wooden knob at the base in an elegant, angled strong stroke. I wack the ground and the roots multiple times to finish it off, to feel like I am a kid out loose, unleashing my pent-up energy. It is this balance of composed strength and unruly energy that I crave, seek out, and am slowly fed here. My raw blisters have closed and hardened. “Mira,” the boss says to Victor. “Look at Spencer’s hands.” He is smiling.