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Field work

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It's a humid Sunday afternoon, made all the more so by rain that comes and goes just long enough to leave steam rising off I-40. I'm heading east toward Wilmington, but exiting at Faison, past fields of strawberries, tobacco, peanuts, sweet potatoes and cucumbers, to the home where Mary Lou stands stirring rice in a frying pan. The rice is for the men and women who pick the crops in those fields. There's a pot of beans, too--and a dozen loaves of Wonder Bread lined up on the counter.

She's cooking for a modest fiesta tonight to follow a farmworkers' mass hosted by the North Carolina chapter of FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee). They say the goal of their continuing boycott of Mount Olive Pickles is to bring farmworkers, growers and food-processing corporations to a recognition of their mutual interdependence and need for dignity.

We drive down a narrow, deeply rutted dirt road cutting its way through a towering cornfield. A hand-lettered sign directs us to Misa Campo Veracruz, little more than a clearing facing a wall of corn, described as one of the best camps in the area. Is the persistent odor, I wonder, coming from a septic tank or a pig farm?

Here, in a handful of prefab trailers and cinderblock buildings, up to 30 migrant farmworkers take up crowded residence during North Carolina's harvest season. There are presently three families here, some with children 13 and under; the rest are men. Some will finish their work here and move on to Florida, Michigan, Ohio or Wisconsin. There's no schooling for kids on that kind of schedule.

A tapestry of the Virgin Mary is nailed to the trunk of a dead tree. A white cloth transforms a folding table into an altar, and a clothesline of dangling jeans and T-shirts forms the apse. Alabare, alabare, alabare, they sing, praising God. For the next hour, the Catholic Mass fills these workers' souls; then, music and arroz con pollo fills their bellies.

Tomorrow morning they'll wake up at 5:30 to pick the crops that wind up on kitchen tables throughout the Triangle and across the country.

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