The guys on the crew called him “El Bullo” but I can’t remember what his real name was. He was a Jarocho, a native of Veracruz, and, true to the stereotype Mexicans have of Jarochos, El Bullo had a gift for music. I can still remember the song he’d sing between bites of his taco at lunch. With his palm to his chest like an opera singer and his other hand holding a taco and held out wide to acknowledge the applause, El Bullo would begin his corrido slowly in a deep voice: “One woman, two men, and three gunshots rang out!” he’d sing. I can’t remember the rest of the song, but it never stayed the same anyway; Bullo would sing it some days so that different people died, and sometimes the woman was pregnant and one of the men was the real father of the infant, and sometimes it was the other guy, and sometimes all three bullets missed their marks entirely and only innocent bystanders were killed. Bullo had a good voice and a great sense of humor. He was a fine story teller, an amiable personality, and he had a nimble mind. But he was a lousy worker. Just thinking about Bullo reminds me how, as an employer, sometimes the best thing I can do for someone is fire them.
I was in charge of the harvest crew for Riverside Farms back then. We had two hundred workers and we farmed in Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz, and Monterey Counties. The people who worked for us were great, but it’s the human condition that you can’t gather 200 people together without having issues. One problem started with a call from the foreman. “I need you to talk to ‘El Bullo,’” he said. “He won’t hoe weeds.”
At Riverside Farms we worked under contract with Teamsters Local 890. There were rules. I went over them once more with El Bullo. “You know the deal,” I said. “You have to show up for work on time. You can’t drink or get high on the job. You can’t fight at work, or wear gang colors, or bring a firearm to the work site, or conceal guns in your car. And you have to do your job.”
El Bullo nodded.
“We’re not playing games here,” I told him, “but this is like beisbol; three strikes and you’re out.”
One Monday I came to work and my message machine was choked with messages from the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department. The cops alleged that my crew had violated noise restrictions on Saturday, and they insisted that I contact them promptly. “This is impossible,” I thought. “I didn’t even have a crew working in San Benito County last Saturday.” Alas; the Sheriff’s Department was on to something. The weeding crew I’d had on the Sargeant Ranch, down in the very corner of Santa Clara County alongside the Pajaro River, had created a ruckus. El Bullo had showed up to work that Saturday driving a borrowed beat box bug, a Bochito, a Volkswagon Beetle, that had had it’s rear seats stripped out to make room for an immense sound system with independent tweeters and subwoofers that could be placed on the roof of the vehicle and aimed. As Bullo hoed his long row he got further away from his tunes so he kept turning up the volume. Sound carries in the country. By noon, as El Bullo was reaching the end of his row, home owners a mile away along School Road in San Benito County, across the river and up the mountain from the farm field, were calling the Sheriff’s Department and screaming. The Sheriff had to respond when one resident threatened to open fire on the bug with a scoped 30-06.
Then one day I got a call from Federico, the foreman, complaining that El Bullo wouldn’t do anything. I headed out to the field.
El Bullo was visible from half a mile off. He was a great big, round guy anyway, but he was sporting a preposterous white, cartoon-like straw sombrero that had to be at three and a half feet wide with a cone-like crown that stuck up into the sky like a witch’s hat. He looked like Pancho Villa’s sidekick.
“What’s with the hat?” I asked, “And how come Federico is so unhappy?”
“It’s hot today,” El Bullo replied, “and my sombrero keeps me cool. Plus, this is the hat the pistoleros wore during the Revolución. Federico needs a Mexican revolution; he’s muy cacique!”
A cacique is a tribal chief. Someone who is “muy cacique” throws their weight around and lords it over others. Federico wasn’t “muy cacique.”
“Look, Bullo,” I said. “We’ve been over this before. Federico is only doing what I’ve asked him to do. The problem is that you don’t want to work. You’re like a soccer ball; you only move down the field if someone’s kicking you.”
“If you fire me now, how am I going to eat?” Bullo asked. “I’ll have to go Santa Cruz and sing sad songs on the street corner. Maybe then you’ll throw me some pennies.”
“Come on, Bullo,” I said. “Let’s go.”
That was fifteen years ago. I’d almost forgotten about El Bullo. Until the other day. I was driving a produce truck southbound on 101 outside of San Jose. Traffic was at a crawl. On the northbound side of the freeway traffic was stopped dead and I saw an old, battered bus painted in peeling yellow hoisted up on a very large tow truck. Outlines of seven happy faced musical notes, chipped with age, danced down the side of the bus. In big letters I read the legend; “Los Canarios.” Still on the bus, decked out in stiff black cowboy hats, looking glumly out the windows and going strictly nowhere, were the seven “singing canaries.” Then I remembered El Bullo.
Two years after I fired Bullo I was at the side of a field on Betebel Road off of 101 south of Gilroy with the crew as they took their ten o’ clock break. An Econoline van came down the off ramp and stopped short. A big man got out wearing a stiff, white, cowboy hat. He put a hand over his heart, reached out wide with his other hand to gather the applause, and began to sing: “One beautiful woman, two ugly men, three pistol shots rang out!”
“El mero Bullo!” someone yelled out, and Bullo came forward laughing and started passing out handbills. He’d found enough to eat. In fact, he was fatter than ever.
“Is life treating you well?” I asked.
“The best,” Bullo answered. “I’ve got my own banda group. I sing and play the bajo sexto. We’re on our North American tour. Come check us out. We’re playing at El Rio Nilo in Gilroy tonight.” And he handed me a handbill. “Tell a friend!”
I had to smile. El Bullo was promoting his band and doing what he wanted to do. He was working, working hard, and I didn’t have to kick him down the field. Sometimes a story has a happy ending.
copyright 2011 Andy Griffin
photos by Andy Griffin. They are not part of the story, but they are autumnal and chosen by Andy’s editor for this piece. (that would be me, Julia)
This Weeks Farm Activities! San Marzanos, Pumpkins, and More! and a San Marzano Tomato UPICK this Saturday in Hollister! If you are planning on canning and picking your own tomatoes at our fields, this is your 2011 autumn chance. Join us!
Sat. 10/22 Piccino 11am-1pm this is our Tomato Emergency for the year! 5 boxes (20# each) of San Marzanos for $100.
San Marzano & Pumpkin Patch
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Sat 10-22 Hollister SAN MARZANO Tomato Upick