Day Laborers (Javier Valdez Cárdenas, RÍODOCE)

This Malayerba column was first published in RíoDoce on 9 March 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Day Laborers
By Javier Valdez Cárdenas (RíoDoce)

The teacher taught his classes with reluctance. Tired of the transactions with the secretary – of asking, going, and coming for two months back pay. Tired and bad-tempered. One of the townspeople knew that the teacher was in need and approached him: I will pay you four months of salary, but occasionally just let me loose with the kids.

He looked at him a moment and his look instantly revealed all: he had poppies flowering, bulbs swollen. He needed to begin scoring them, collecting the harvest of opium sap. The teacher looked at him and then looked again. He didn’t blink: between the eyelashes, piercing, bloodshot eyes. And what with his need for money, overwhelmed by it all, he accepted.

It wasn’t just a couple of days. It was the whole week. The children in the furrows: short, skinny, small-handed and still delicate, they were just what the red carpet of poppies, bulbs, and the sticky substance needed. Bulkier types, with clumsy hands, brusque movements, bigger people, they would have ruined the heavenly harvest that seemed swelled by profit, the sure sell.

The teacher took advantage of the opportunity to take a breather. He took care of the school’s administrative business, since he was also its director, janitor, teacher and even the parent-student counsellor. He renewed his attempt to get paid, now without the pressure of empty pockets, his lips no longer tight around his mouth.

The children arrived, put down their bags then went to work. Into small cylindrical containers, they collected the slow, dense fluid that came from buttons on the plant. One, two, three marks. Several trips to the same furrow: squeezing that natural toy with the care of a vascular surgeon, that beautiful part of the poppy, and cutting, cutting, cutting until it bled.

The harvest ended and classes resumed. That man, in the three-peaked hat with the commanding voice, he let the little ones go and thanked the teacher. Whenever, he replied. The weekend came swiftly and the children asked if they could go to the nearest town, out on the junction with the state highway.

Among the shops, restaurants, homemade bread stalls, pharmacies, convenience stores, and hardware stores they ran, looked, inquired, wanted: this thing, that, another. An older boy approached a man eating eggs with machaca, drinking coffee. Hey, mister, don’t you want to sell me something. Like what, asked the adult. Something, whatever.

Intrigued, the man put down his fork and pushed his cup away. Let’s see, let’s see what’s up. What have you brought with you? The child put his hand in the right pocket of his pants. He pulled out a fist of notes: dollars and more dollars, jumping out, banded together, lively. What’s that about kid, he asked, taken a back. I just got out of work. He insisted: are you sure you don’t have a gun to sell me.

Journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas is the founding editor of RíoDoce, an online news outlet based in Culiacán, Sinaloa. He is the author of various books, including Con la Granada en la Boca (Aguilar, 2014). This column was first published under the title, “Jornaleros,” and is available at

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.

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