VILLA JUAREZ, Mexico — They sure do have tomatoes here in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Elongated red ones. Round green ones. Cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, grape tomatoes.
Vast fields of tomatoes, lining the roads out of the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan, miles and miles of mesh tenting shielding the plants from the sun.
Last year, Sinaloa exported 950,000 tons of vegetables, mostly tomatoes and mostly to California and other parts of the United States, worth nearly $1 billion. Half the tomatoes eaten in the United States this time of year are from Sinaloa. The tomato is the symbol on the Sinaloa license plate.
But while a short list of landowners make millions, the planting, weeding, pruning and picking of the vegetables fall to armies of workers from Mexico’s poorest states — Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas — who have little opportunity for schooling or other forms of legal employment.
So they are here in these fields, recruited by enganchadores — or “hooks” — who round them up in their home villages, and working in conditions that vary from producer to producer but that many critics say amount to indentured servitude.
Felipa Reyes, 40, from the violent state of Veracruz, has been toiling in the fields of Sinaloa for seven years. “You have to do the work they want, or you don’t earn anything,” she said. Complain? “And I’d end up with nothing.”
Carmen Hernandez Ramos is 52 and looks 80. She has been sticking tiny tomato plants into the earth, then harvesting the fruit months later, for 15 years, but still earns the same daily wage as Reyes: $10. Originally from a small village in Oaxaca, the mother of six works back-wrenching nine-hour days. “If we work, we have security,” she said, waving her thick-knuckled hands. “If we don’t, we have nothing.”
The two women live in tin-roofed adobe shacks set behind chain-link fences.
Conditions, the women said, have changed little over the years. They have electricity but no running water; some floors are tiled, others are dirt.