For as long as I can remember, orange crates have been a part of my life. My dad worked harvesting oranges and mom worked in the packing house, where those golden globes rolled around on the belts on their way to being placed in wooden crates. At home, those same rugged crates became a dresser, tables, and even a sink, holding a washbasin and a pitcher with chipped enamel. One crate with a curtain was used to store pots and pans.
Each crate had its own label with a different illustration. Those labels were nearly the only decorations we had in the small room that was our living room, bedroom, and kitchen. I liked tracing the colorful designs with my finger–so many designs; I remember several were flowers–orange blossoms, of course–and poppies and orchids, but there was also a black cat and a caravel. The only downside was the splinters. I would get one in my hand from time to time. But as the saying goes, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
My parents travelled from Mexico to California pursuing their own El Dorado, the “golden” opportunity of the American dream. But the only gold they found were the oranges that hung among quaking leaves spanning acres and acres of green, fragrant trees. We earned just enough to get by, and when I was born the money was even tighter, but they managed to keep food on the table and I was able to go to school. I was barefoot and wore a patched shirt and hemmed pants–one of my dad’s old pairs. The sun had accentuated the color of my skin and the other kids laughed at me. I wanted to stop going to school, but my mom told me, “Study son, so you get a good job and don’t have to work as hard as your parents.” So, every day I went to battle sleep and boredom while the teacher carried on with her monotonous droning.
In the summer I went to work with my dad in the orange groves. That seemed more interesting to me than going to school. I earned fifteen cents for every crate I filled. I carried a huge canvas bag with a wide strap that hung on my body to keep my hands free and climbed so high up a narrow ladder that I could imagine I was a bird. We all wore wide-brimmed straw hats to protect ourselves from the sun and carried a handkerchief to wipe the sweat that surfaced like salty dew on our foreheads. Cutting the oranges filled the air with the pungent smell from the juice because they had to be cut right at the fruit without leaving any stem. One time we took a photo next to oranges we had picked. That was a grand occasion for me. I stood next to my dad, puffing out my chest and throwing back my shoulders in hopes of appearing as strong as him, and strained a smile for the camera. At the end of the day, my dad used to set me on top of his shoulders and walk home laughing and singing.
My mom was demure. She used to come home from the packing house, tired and pallid, to prepare the tortillas and reheat the beans; and every night, taking shelter in a cloak of faith, she recited the rosary in front of a painting of the Virgin of Zapopan.
I was eight years old when my sister Ermenegilda was born. But she only lived a year and a half. They say she got sick from bad milk given to her when she was weaned from my mother. I don’t know, but I remember that she was sick only a day, and the next day she died.
Our lives would have continued on the same as always, but an unexpected blow came. The owner of the company sold part of the land for a housing development, and consequently he was planning on letting some employees go. All the families that lived off the oranges were affected, but there was nothing we could do about it. My mom prayed more and became even more pallid, and my dad stopped singing. He walked with his head down, dejected, and no longer lifted me up onto his shoulders.
“Oh, if I were a carpenter, I could get a job building those houses,” he said. Ultimately, he decided to go to Los Angeles where he had a cousin to see if he could find a job. My mom knew how to sew and maybe she could work in a factory. Since we didn’t have the money for him to buy a train ticket, my dad decided to sneak onto the train at dawn. Once he made it to Los Angeles, he would surely get a well-paying job. Then, he would send us our tickets so that we could move as well.
It was very foggy the morning he left. He told us that we should not go with him to say goodbye at the train to avoid attracting attention. He dropped a piece of bread into his shirt pocket and put on a hat. After kissing my mom and me, he left, walking quickly and disappearing into the fog.
My mom and I sat there together in the dark, shivering from the cold and nerves and anxiously listening for the first train whistle. After we finally heard the train leave, my mom said, “Well, he’s gone. May God be with him.”
That night we could not sleep. For the very first time I got up early to get ready for school.
At around ten in the morning I was contacted and told me to go home. I was grateful for the opportunity to leave class but had a strange feeling in my stomach and was covered in cold sweat as I ran. When I arrived panting and out of breath, I saw several neighbors at my house, my mom crying incessantly.
“He’s dead, he’s dead,” she screamed amidst the sobs. I leaned in close and hugged her while the room and people’s faces whirled around me. She latched onto me like a castaway onto a piece of wood, but continued crying.
I saw my dad’s broken body lying there. His face was black and blue and his hair was matted with dried blood. I couldn’t believe that this man, so strong and happy, was dead. The story goes that he had tried to cross from one train car roof to another and he couldn’t see very well because of the fog. Or perhaps he slipped because it was so humid. The point is that he fell shortly after jumping onto the train. A neighbor on his way to work found my dad on the side of the road, already dead.
His coworkers from the orange groves started a collection and with the few pennies they could give they mustered up enough to buy our train tickets. After the funeral, my mom packed two pieces of luggage with the few valuables we owned and we went to Los Angeles. It was a defining and transformational moment in our lives, especially because we went alone, without my dad. As the train picked up speed, I blew a final goodbye to the orange trees.
My dad’s cousin helped us when we arrived. My mom got a job sewing in an overalls factory, and I started selling newspapers after school. I would have stopped going to school altogether so I could work more hours, but my mom insisted that I finish high school.
That was many years ago, and the orange groves of my childhood are long gone. In the place where their scented branches once stood tall are now houses, streets, shops, and the constant bustle of the city. My mom retired on a small pension, and I work in a state office. I now have a family of my own and earn enough to support them. We have furniture instead of crates, and my mom has a rocking chair where she sits down to rest. Those wooden crates aren’t around anymore either, and the labels that adorned them are now collected as novelty items.
But when I see the orange pyramids at the market, there are times when I see those crates of yesteryear and my dad is standing behind them, sweaty and smiling with his arms stretched out to me to lift me up onto his shoulders.
The short story “Naranjas” was first published in the journal Revista Chicano-Riqueña and then republished in the collection Cuentos Hispanos de los Estados Unidos by Arte Público Press.
Ángela McEwan-Alvarado (1934-2015) was born in Los Angeles and has lived in other parts of the United States as well as Nicaragua and Mexico. She has held various professional jobs, including court interpreter in Los Angeles, translator, and actress, appearing in the feature film Nebraska. "Oranges" (originally published as "Naranjas") appears to be her only published fiction piece.
Erin Riddle translates literary and academic texts from Spanish and German into English. Her translation "From the Other Side," a short story by Costa Rican author Marianela Valverde Varela, was published in BlazeVOX. She earned an MA in Comparative Literature and a PhD in Translation Studies from Binghamton University and lives in New York state. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.