Of machetes and solidarity
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Beyond my sleep-stealing babies, I have been thinking about fatigue and solidarity related to other events, both long-term and current.
I am tired. The kids woke up at 3:40 AM; we think one of them was hungry. But then they were both up, so we were all up. It’s the second time this week.
I wonder if it is the time change? The recent full moon? The fact that the youngest is 2 years and 3 months old and is just not the same as he was as a (peacefully sleeping, easy-bedtime) baby?
When I start talking with other moms, it sounds like we’re all in a similar boat - everyone is exhausted, short-tempered. This always happens when I start sharing what’s going on with me – I find out other people are going through it too. It feels good to have solidarity, and also to exercise the ole’ sociological imagination about what might be causing all of us to feel similarly.
But beyond my sleep-stealing babies, I have been thinking about fatigue and solidarity related to other events, both long-term and current. And it has to do with how I gave up Amazon for Lent.
As we wait to hear the results from the Amazon workers’ union vote in Alabama this week, I remember the banana workers I met near the Panama border on the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica.
I was tired. The howler monkeys had woken me up at 3:40 AM; maybe they were hungry. Whatever the reason, they had been traipsing through the trees above the basic wooden cabins built with funds from the United Nations at this, our rural agro-ecoturism home for a week on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Emilia Cruz Cambronera of El Yüe, an incredible acro-ecoturism project near Puerto Viejo. Here she explains craft projects made with recycled materials that El Yüe was teaching local women to make.
It had been a big day. We had already visited a permaculture farm and learned about the strategy of planting cacao with banana with timber trees in order to diversify income sources, lower the workload, increase resiliency in the crops, and guard against various kinds of crises.
We had eaten lunch in the “cafeteria-style restaurant” on the corner while keeping an eye on our two vehicles, one of which I had been driving for a week-and-a-half now, sharing the road with inquisitive, smart, and funny study abroad students hoping to learn something about building a more just and sustainable world. Now, bellies at least somewhat satisfied by the fried rice and chicken in tomato sauce from the buffet line, we were heading down to the Panama border to meet with one of the last remaining banana workers’ unions in the country with a collective bargaining agreement with the transnational company that employed them (in this case United Brands, Chiquita).
The SITRACHIRI union faced an uphill climb in its efforts to secure safety and benefits for its workers in Costa Rica near the Panamanian border.
I fumbled with my notebook and pen, getting ready to take notes at the meeting and interpret from Spanish into English for the students as the leaders spoke with us. The heat was sticky and tropical in the early afternoon, and the union office was small and stuffy across the highway from the packing plant where workers in boots and aprons were slicing bananas from their bunches and floating them over to the place where they were weighed and their stems sealed before getting put in boxes that would reach the supermarket in the US just in time for the bananas to turn from green to yellow.
Banana growing is all very calculated, but I didn’t feel calculated that day. I felt worn out, foggy-brained. It was the second half of our second week in the field, and I had forgotten to drink coffee after our lunch in the little town of Bribri. The idea of simultaneously translating from Spanish to English for two hours in that heat, post-meal, was almost too much to bear, despite the intensely interesting topic: what it was like for these workers to produce the bananas that have become such a staple in US supermarkets, that are the reason for the name “banana republics” in Latin America.
My hands were not obeying my brain, and my pen fell to the floor. I tried to edge around the desk-part of the old classroom chair I was sitting in, but one of the union leaders got to it first, picked up my pen and handed it back to me with a kind and lively smile: “Your machete,” he said.
I was stunned. And honored. The machete is of course the tool that everyone in Central America cannot do without. Even wealthy urbanites have a machete in the garage, but in rural areas the machete is like an extension of the arm, always kept at the hip and used to peel fruit, to hack away brambles in the path, to pick up items that are out of reach (as long as you don’t mind a little slit cut into whatever you’re vying for), and to Get. Shit. Done.
Especially so in a banana plantation. To see a banana worker harvest a large bunch of bananas, or expertly trim away the weakest “hijo” (new stem poking out of the ground) to make way for the strongest (this expert gets paid extra, by the way), or remove fungus-infected leaves, is to witness a ballet.
Check out the clean cut on this banana plant. Thanks, machete.
To have my pen called a machete reminded me that my pen has power, and the ability to brush aside danger, connect me to things I need, make a living, and you know, get shit done.
As my eyes met the union leader’s and my hand grasped my pen, I smiled, too. I would get through the language interpreting that day, and even be energized by it.The pen would help me focus, as well as make a record in my notebook of what I learned, even as my brain was skimming and skipping over each sentence in order to move on to the next.
These days I don’t have time to write by hand, but I do have time for this keyboard. I’m hoping that writing to you, dear reader, and talking with you on social media about parenting, culture, migratory birds, and making the world a better place, will help me cut through the brambles like a machete and get some shit done that’s good for everyone.
I'll tell you more later about giving up Amazon for Lent. For now I hope that the lessons in solidarity that we learn from other moms, other workers, other voters, other students, other neighbors, etc. etc (who are all our friends - we're in this together) can give us more strength and encouragement to face an afternoon without coffee, and more difficult things than that.
PS: Our go-to grocery store, ALDI, has recently lowered the amount that they pay for bananas, which has upset workers like the ones I talk about here in Latin America. I see that the price to consumers is still the same ($0.44/lb).