Editor’s note: The following essay was featured on the first episode of Así Fue, a podcast in which journalists discuss the intersection between their personal history and their work. The work is a collaboration of palabra, a project of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Voices of Monterey Bay.
By Olga Rosales Salinas
I bought my first international flight using AOL dial-up and a prepaid debit card. I traveled from San Jose International Airport to Vancouver, Canada for a 10-hour layover on my way to London’s Heathrow Airport. My plan was to travel and find work eventually. The trip was partly impulsive behavior and partly a response to grief. I had lost my dad in a car accident two years prior.
My mother supported this journey one hundred percent.
She was a few years younger than me when she immigrated to America from Mexico, at only 17. As we walked through the airport, she told me her own story. She said that she had taken hard work in canning factories, and that she had felt grateful to have gotten to stay in the country legally. She had done it for her family, her 11 brothers and sisters, and her six daughters.
It was the happiest I’d seen her since losing my dad.
I listened to her story, ready to begin my own. But even with her advice, I wasn’t ready for the culture shock, the dollar exchange or the thing an airport bar patron said to me on my way from Canada to London: “Everywhere you go, there you are.”
To say I was ill-prepared to land at an airport as big as Heathrow is an understatement. I had no idea how to use the transit system, and I had no map of where I was going nor a place to stay. All I had was the name of a friend who said he’d meet me at a certain terminal at a certain time. I had two prepaid calling cards tucked in between the pages of my passport and one thousand dollars in my pocket, cash.
I was no longer in Watsonville, Calif. And surprisingly, because of the dollar exchange, I needed a job almost immediately.
For the next few weeks, I scoured the want ads in the back of my copy of a Time Out magazine. After just a few weeks and a deposit on rent, I was out of money.
Luckily, I eventually found work as a nanny, taking care of the 8-month-old boy and 3-year-old daughter of an upper class English family. My first week on the job I learned what a 12-hour workday was, how to cook for a family of four — and that the help doesn’t eat with the family.
In my off time, I learned how to drink like a bloke, or so they said. And, yes, how to use the tube.
I also met people from all seven continents. On the tube, I saw women wearing hijab going between stations. One of my local watering holes was next to Stamford Hill, home to 30,000 Hasidic Jews. I was mesmerized and intrigued by the people of London and the vastness of a world I didn’t know.
I played down my hometown’s agricultural industry, generating berries, apple juice and lettuce. And when someone asked, I told people I was from San Francisco; it was recognizable, it was bigger, it was beautiful and it was close enough not to feel like a lie.
Working for a family with wealth I’d never seen before wasn’t easy. I was taught how to set a British table and that tableware itself is an art. I learned to make a shepherd’s pie and use just the right amount of pesto. I discovered that biscuits aren’t cookies; they’re life and life with tea, and that tea is a way of life.
I don’t know when I adopted a British accent, but I know the exact moment I realized I really wasn’t far from home at all. It was mid-winter just above freezing. It was drizzling recognizable snowflakes on the only winter coat I’d ever owned. I had the baby in the stroller and the toddler following closely next to me. We were at the local market, buying the week’s groceries, when I recognized a bright yellow label with bold green letters in the produce aisle. It read: Driscoll’s Strawberries, Watsonville, CA.
Well, that can’t be right, I thought to myself. I continued down the aisle to find other Watsonville-made products: Jolly Green Giant canned beans and Smuckers strawberry jam. But how? I imagined my father’s hands, stained with soil and grit. I imagined my mother’s hairnet and her time at the canning factory. I thought of how far these strawberries had traveled. I put the bundle of berries in my basket and ate them as we walked home.
They didn’t taste like I remembered them. These strawberries tasted as foreign as I felt. They tasted like exploitation, like capitalism and a poverty line. At once, the world expanded and collapsed like an accordion at a quinceañera, bopping between realities and notes. I missed it — my town, my father, even through my anger at his death. I missed it all.
The toddler stopped me in mid-inner dialogue. Olga, can you share your strawberries? I hadn’t looked down at her since we’d started walking. But as I looked at her fluorescent skin, bright blonde hair and blue eyes, I realized how privileged this child was, how extraordinarily different her life would be than my own. I got on my knees in the sludge and handed her the fruit and a hug. I hoped that she liked the berry, even though she might never know the place where it grew or the hands that planted it.
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