Nicolasa Ríos is pulled from her son’s coffin as the hearse that would carry his body arrived. “Please leave me alone, let me go with him. I’m going crazy,’” Ríos yelled uncontrollably as family members attempted to calm her. January 2005. Photo by Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee.
We had spent weeks looking for the migrant forest workers. Now that we’d found them, in a small, dreary town in Oregon, I was stunned by the stories they were telling. One watched a coworker die, crushed beneath the wheels of a trailer. Another was struck by a falling tree and could barely walk. Others told of being cheated out of wages, exposed to toxic herbicides, and working without safety gear or health insurance.
Their tales were gripping, but they came with a catch. None of the men would let us use his name in an article, much less allow himself to be photographed by my colleague and photojournalist Hector Amezcua. The risks were too high. As one explained: “You say something, you lose your job.”
Newspapers are filled with articles these days about immigration, much of them about people who are in this country illegally. Look closely, however, at the coverage and an important voice—and an essential image—is often missing: the people getting their hands dirty doing the jobs some say Americans won’t do—the migrant workers. For them, visibility often carries a steep price: Not only might it cost them their job, many fear speaking out could lead to deportation, too. It is far safer, most believe, to live and work in the shadows—even if it means toiling under dangerous conditions or earning less than the legal wage. For the rare migrant worker who might want to speak about his or her life, language presents another problem. In California, many of the migrant workers speak only Spanish, while most journalists “Ellos hablan español muy poquito.” (They speak very little Spanish.)
As journalists working for The Sacramento Bee, Hector and I wanted to let readers know about the abuse of Latino forest workers. But we wanted our reporting to be credible to have maximum impact, and to do this meant that we needed the men to tell us their stories on the record and for attribution. We wanted to name names, take pictures, and bring the pineros—the men of the pines—out of the shadows. That was our goal. Accomplishing it, though, would take us a year and involve travel across the western United States, Mexico and Guatemala.
Looking back, what helped us the most is something in short supply in journalism these days—time. This was not a story that could be finished in one week—or even in six. To find these workers, then to earn their trust, meant that we’d inevitably encounter dead ends, knock on doors that never opened, and make calls that were never returned. Often, in the course of our reporting, we’d come home empty-handed and frustrated. At times, we wondered whether this story could be told.
We worried, too, that our project editor, Amy Pyle, would lose faith and want to move on to something new. But she never did. Like us, she was tantalized by the stories we were hearing—by the chance to connect the dots between injured workers, abusive contractors, and the private and public landowners—including the U.S. Forest Service—who hired the contractors and the crews. So we kept digging, knowing this was not a story that was going to fall into our laptops. And we became road warriors—chasing down leads in small towns from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to California’s San Joaquin Valley. We slept in cheap hotels, worked out of a car, and didn’t see much of our families.
Our Reporting Journey
But our persistence paid off. On one trip, when we heard that two Latino tree-planters had just died in a van accident on the Oregon coast, we jumped in our cars and began driving. By that afternoon we were 200 miles down the road, talking to the family of one of the victims. Within a week, Hector was photographing the young man’s funeral in Mexico. We were creating our own luck. The on-the-record stories and the pictures were starting to come.
On another Oregon trip, we met a pinero named Santiago who had just retired after decades in the woods. The life of a Latino forest worker, he said, was a life of misery. Men were hurt often. They drank water out of muddy creeks. They were shuttled to work in rickety, overcrowded vans—and not paid for travel time. Like others, though, Santiago did not want to be quoted by name. There might be trouble. Contractors were a rough bunch. But something about Santiago made us look him up again.
Not only were his stories more colorful and detailed, but when we asked again if he would speak for attribution, this time Santiago Calzada said yes. “Go ahead,” he said. “Use it. Maybe it will help.”
That experience taught us a critical lesson. Legwork is crucial. But persistence pays dividends. Some of our best material grew out of similar follow-up visits with other workers. The more you see someone, the more they trust you. Along the way, we were learning other lessons about what worked—and what didn’t. One thing that didn’t was using the Web. Pineros don’t have Web pages. They don’t blog. They are ghost workers. You have to go find them.
Some of our biggest breakthroughs came south of the border where we tracked down several former forest workers; now that they’d returned to their home countries, they were more than happy to talk about work in the United States. No longer did they fear for their jobs, and they were not exactly pleased about how they’d been treated. One day we sat in a dusty backyard in central Mexico and listened to Vicente Vera Martínez tell how he had to give a contractor the title to his car—just to get a job. The job was on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas. It was like being a prisoner or a slave, Vera Martínez told us. “The only thing missing was the whip.”
Actually, those weren’t exactly his words. Those were, “Solo les faltaba un latigo,” but Hector’s language skills—born in Mexico and fluent in Spanish—gave us entry to this man’s life and those of many others who worked in the shadows. Hector comes from a family of farm workers, and when he was young he worked in the fields and learned the value of hard work. That background not only helped us to earn the trust of the pineros, but also helped to convince many of them to let Hector take their photographs to use in the newspaper.
After our reporting trip to Mexico and Guatemala, and after gathering mountains of additional information through Freedom of Information Act requests and interviewing other pineros in the United States, we knew we had almost enough material to pull a project together. Just one thing eluded us: a day in the field with a special kind of pinero—those who labor legally in the United States as guest workers. By law, such workers can toil for one employer, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and retaliation for speaking out.
We arranged to meet a crew in Idaho, but just hours before we arrived someone got nervous. The crew split. Hector was furious—ready to climb walls. It was looking like another wasted trip. But this time the problem proved to be an opportunity, thanks to some old-fashioned reporting. Ducking into a phone booth in a tiny mountain town, I began making call after call until I finally reached a source I had spoken to months earlier who asked if we were anywhere near Darby, Montana. A crew of guest workers was in the area. Darby was 60 miles away. We were there in 40 minutes. That afternoon, we found the guest workers. The next day, we met more.
Unlike the men that fled, these guys were happy to see us. They were hungry. Payroll deductions were whittling away their wages. And the work, they said, was dangerous—way too dangerous. To our surprise, they invited us out to the job site on the Bitterroot National Forest where they were thinning trees. The contractor who had hired them was back in Idaho, so that would not be a problem. With only a few weeks left in the season, they said we could use their names and take their pictures. After all, they would be back in Mexico and Central America by the time our stories were published—and most did not plan to return to work for the contractor.
No sooner did we arrive than one worker was hurt—gashed below the eye by a falling tree. As a crew leader drove him to a hospital, 40 miles away, we searched the van for a first-aid kit. There was none. The next day, another worker was so famished, he dangled a hook in a pond behind a gas station and caught a small trout. His friend helped him eat it—bones and all.
Once again, we had manufactured our own luck—through hard work, preparation (never throw away a phone number since you never know when you might need it) and something more intangible: chemistry. Hector and I worked well together. At the start of the project, we barely knew each other. Near the finish, after all the miles, motels and meals on the run, we were partners. I made sure Hector got all the time he needed for photographs. And he never lost interest in the reporting side. Hector’s contribution was so significant, in fact, that he shared a byline on the project—and this was unprecedented at The Sacramento Bee.
The three-day series “The Pineros: Men of the Pines,” published in November 2005, was filled with workers’ accounts—all but one for attribution. In that case, though we did not identify the worker, we corroborated his story through public records and other sources. By the time the newspaper stories were being written, we had more material than we had the space to tell them. And even though almost all of the information we’d gathered early from workers who’d requested anonymity remained unused, the experiences they talked with us about were invaluable in motivating us to range more widely in our reporting, and they served as signposts to suggest where the trail might lead.
The series was particularly dramatic on the Web—with galleries of photographs that had not appeared in print.1 Actual U.S. Forest Service documents could be read there, and we offered audio snippets from the interviews we’d done with the workers that we had recorded in digital format in the field.
Days after the series was published, U.S. Forest Service announced major reforms to its contracting procedures to eliminate the abuses we reported. In March 2006, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing out of which grew legislation, now pending in Congress, to provide more substantial legal protection for guest workers. In April, the Overseas Press Club gave the project its first-ever award for best Web coverage of international affairs.
Still, we weren’t done. Wanting to keep a focus on these issues, we wrote 17 follow-up stories. This summer, we were on the road again, pursuing another issue we’d heard about—pineros who were fighting fires. Once again, we had no guarantee that we’d find them.
One day, rolling down Interstate 5 and worried about our prospects with this new story, I turned to Hector and said, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you. There’s every possibility this trip will turn up nothing.”
Hector listened for a moment, leaned his head back and laughed. “That’s never happened to us, huh!” he said. Then he added: “Stuff is not just going to happen. It’s not going to land in our lap.”
Tom Knudson is a reporter at The Sacramento Bee, whose paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Public Service Reporting for Knudson’s work on “The Sierra in Peril.” The series “The Pineros: Men of the Pines” received the Nieman Foundation’s Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers in 2006.