Ana Ruiz, my housekeeper and property manager, worked for five years in the agave fields of tequila producer Jose Cuervo. Along with 25 other workers from her village, El Conde, an hour away from Guadalajara, she was picked up at 5:30 AM, Monday through Saturday, and packed into the back of a truck.
"We were dropped off at 6 AM and picked up at 5 PM," Ana said. "All of us were paid 150 pesos ($13) per day. I worked for Jose Cuervo from 1999 to 2004 and never got a raise." Sauza, owner of adjoining fields and the only other big local employer, paid its workers the same, she said. Like most of the others, she felt she had no choice but to stay. "I was 28 years old, my husband left me the year before, and I had two children to raise," she said.
Every day, 5'2" Ana strapped on a 20-liter tank of chemicals and walked the rows of agaves, fumigating and fertilizing the plants. "Jose Cuervo's rows look straight and tidy," she said. "Not like the Sauza fields, so messy with weeds. That's because they don't use chemicals. And Jose Cuervo now uses a small plane for spraying. Less work for the field hands, but people worry about how much more they inhale." (Note to self: Switch to Sauza brand tequila.)
During those years, Ana thought about cleaning houses in Phoenix. A friend had a crew and a van, and Ana had her standing offer of a job. But she couldn't bear the thought of leaving her kids in El Conde. "I wanted to do better by them, though," she said. " I dropped out of school at 15 and gave birth to Karina at 16, to Enrique at 18. It's been hard physical work for me ever since. I want so much more for the two of them."
So Ana left her kids with her parents in El Conde and moved to San Pancho, where her in-laws lived and she heard there was work. After a stint as a housekeeper at the local hotel, she found me by day and a restaurant by night. She washed dishes the first year at Café del Mar. The second, she washed dishes and trained as a sous-chef. The third, she prepared salads and vegetables at sister restaurant Mar Plata. And the fourth, 2009, she returned to Café del Mar, this time as head chef.
"I learned the menu fairly quickly," Ana said. "Now I'm starting to innovate, which I really like a lot." She feels proud of herself. "My kids say they feel proud of me, too," she admitted.
I imagine my days as Ana's boss are numbered -- surely she won't need a second job much longer. And oh how I'll miss her. Nice, though, to have been part of this local-girl-makes-good story.
This article was first posted on the San Pancho Writers blog.