Battle on the Barrens

As the blueberry-raking season comes to a close, migrant farmers celebrate with a clash of nations on the soccer field.

By Richard W. Thackeray Jr.
Photographed by Séan Alonzo Harris

[V]ictor Flores understands the challenges that enter the mind of any soccer team captain awaiting the kick-off to a championship game. Can his keeper continue fending off shots as he did in lifting his team to a semi-final victory? Will his most prolific forward rebound from an injury that forced him from the field late in the previous night’s game? Does his entire squad have the stamina to come back, one day after an exhausting 5-3 victory, and match up against a fully rested team defending its championship?

Flores takes a grounded approach to these questions, as his teammates are amateurs with more than competitive soccer on their minds. This is no typical tournament. Flores’ teammates are Mexican migrant farm workers. They’re now running through passing drills just hours after raking the last of the 2012 blueberry crop.

Today is Thursday, August 30, 2012 — the last day of the blueberry harvest for Jasper Wyman & Son, Inc., in Cherryfield and Deblois. The Mexican team is set to square off against the defending champions — a team whose roster is filled with migrant farm workers hailing from Honduras — for the final game of the Wyman’s Cup.

“My guys are rakers today,” Flores says. “Tomorrow, they move on. It might be broccoli or squash or apples. But that’s their work. That’s how they make money. It’s not worth it to get hurt out here. But last night, my guys played hard, and tonight we will do the same.”

Tomorrow, players on the Mexican and Honduran teams will disperse with their families. Some will travel up Route 1 to pick broccoli and potatoes in Aroostook County, while others will turn south to join the harvest of an early apple crop in Pennsylvania.

They play on a soccer field forged into the middle of a migrant housing compound that is separated from the blueberry fields only by the two lanes of Route 193. The entire landscape is framed by Tunk Mountain to the southwest and the 19 tri-point turbines of the Bull Mountain wind farm to the west, with blueberry barrens filling out the entirety of the space between. The compound is some 10 miles north of Cherryfield, in the small town of Deblois, which claims a mere 59 year-round residents according to the last U.S. Census. But with a nearly 500-acre expanse of wild blueberry fields at its heart, Deblois attracts another 350 to 400 part-time residents every summer to command the harvest.

An influx of seasonal residents passes unnoticed in some places, but it’s hard not to see the change in Washington County when, all of a sudden, 80 percent of the visitors speak Spanish as their primary language. From mid-July to August 1, hundreds of migrant farm workers stream northward after harvesting other crops in Louisiana, Florida, and North Carolina. They claim temporary homes in the blue-painted cabins erected on the east side of Route 193. They rake or drive harvesters during the days, and they play soccer in the evenings. Despite being isolated at the Wyman’s compound, nearly ten miles from the nearest town center, seasonal workers from Mexico, Honduras, and other Central American points are increasingly finding themselves and their cultures integrated into the fabric of Down East life. That phenomenon is nowhere more noticeable than at the close of the blueberry harvest, when the region comes together for the Wyman’s Cup soccer tournament.

“It’s one of the first things anyone asks about when they get here,” says Jeff Ostberg, Wyman’s migrant housing supervisor at the Cherryfield & Deblois wild blueberry compound — “The C&D,” as it’s known to everybody in the area. “First thing they want to know is how the berries are, and the next thing they want to know is when the soccer games are going to be.”

Steve Kinghorn, middle school social studies and language teacher at Ella Lewis School, in Steuben, is unofficially credited as the tournament’s founder. Kinghorn worked as Wyman’s director of migrant housing from 1999 through 2006. Kinghorn discovered that his job was as much about serving the people at the C&D as it was about carpentry and plumbing. “My job was, basically, to help them with anything they needed to make their lives easier at the compound — to give them something to do when they weren’t out raking on the barrens,” Kinghorn says.

Kinghorn saw an easy way to serve that function after he noticed “a large group of guys who spent every second kicking a ball around from the moment they got off the barrens.” Kinghorn was no stranger to soccer. Before accepting the Wyman’s job, he coached three seasons with the boys’ varsity at Narraguagus High School, in Harrington, where he had lettered in the sport before graduating in 1971. Taking his cue, he created two makeshift goals in the center of the Wyman’s housing complex. “Next thing I knew, they were out there playing games every night,” he says. The following spring, Wyman’s graded and seeded the field and erected two regulation-size goals at either end. “And that’s all it took.”

[A]s the 2000 blueberry harvest moved toward a close, Kinghorn was approached by John Look, a former varsity starter at Narraguagus High, looking for an opportunity to “kick the ball around.” Look had spent several summers raking blueberries as a teenager, so he was intrigued when Kinghorn urged him to gather a team and “come on up to the C&D and play against the Mexican rakers.”

The Mexican team “demolished us that first year, 8-0 or something like that,” Kinghorn recalls. “You would have thought it was the Olympics or the World Cup. There were about five hundred people surrounding the field. There were chants of ‘U-S-A!’ and ‘Mex-i-co!’, mariachi music, and the smell of Mexican food in the air. It was really something.”

In the years that followed, Look took over the task of organizing the U.S. team. “Typically, I would find out (the schedule) just a few days before the game, so I usually could get six to ten confirmed players before the games and hope for a few guys to show up on game day,” Look says. “It’s never enough time to have any real practices, so we usually ended up getting beaten in the end.” He notes one more difficulty when facing the opposition: “These are not ragtag teams. From young adults to guys my dad’s age . . . they’re all really, really good.”

Kinghorn offers a former coach’s perspective on the style of play: “The Mexicans pass a lot more. They’re much better at setting up their triangles and moving the ball around,” he says. “Most American players, it’s ‘forward, forward, forward.’ But the Mexicans — they’re not just blueberry rakers. These guys can play soccer.”

Adonis Hernandez made sure he was on hand to watch the previous night’s U.S. vs. Mexico game. Originally hailing from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, Hernandez lives year-round in Milbridge and was tapped two years ago when it was time to organize a third team — one exclusively composed of blueberry harvesters from Honduras. And in each of those two years, it was Hernandez and his Honduran teammates hoisting the Wyman’s Cup after the final horn.

“It feels good to win,” Hernandez says, noting that his team has looked good in four pre-tournament practices this year. “It’s most of the same people, with a couple of new ones, but they all understand how to play together.”

Peter Joyce, of Harrington, arrived at the C&D soccer field shortly after 5 p.m. on Wednesday to paint the lines of the field. Joyce and fellow high school referee Don Beal have refereed every Wyman’s Cup game since the mid-2000s (except for the two in 2010, during which Joyce’s Army National Guard unit was deployed to Afghanistan). Joyce has refereed high school soccer throughout the Downeast Athletic Conference for years. As a child, he also raked berries for Wyman’s.

“It’s really quite an amazing sight — to be out there, in a soccer game, in the middle of the barrens,” Joyce says. “What you see is the amazing support that the migrant workers provide to each other. It’s a celebration and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”

[M]igrant farm work is a complicated topic. To some, the workers are victims of circumstance, forced to travel thousands of miles from their homes to perform the backbreaking work necessary to provide food for those unwilling to perform the work themselves. To others, they are invaders who seize employment opportunities from American citizens and threaten the traditional fabric of American cultural landscape. But take away migrant farm labor, and Maine’s commercial agriculture businesses argue that they would be unable to harvest their staple crops for lack of workers. Whatever one thinks of the practice, it’s impossible to dispute that the cultures of Mexico, Honduras, and other Latin American countries have become sewn into the social fabric of several Down East towns.

Drive up Route 193 through Deblois on any late-summer day and the strains of accordion-driven norteño music are ubiquitous, blaring from the cabs of a dozen or more pickup trucks scattered among the rows of blueberry bushes. North Mexican folk music also blasts from the trunk-speakers of cars parked along the edge of the soccer field, providing a soundtrack to the pre-game warm-ups on Wednesday and Thursday nights. “It’s our culture. The music . . . the more we hear the music, the more we work and the harder we work,” says Flores, a native of the small central Mexican town of San Luis who first came to Maine in 1999, following the lead of a friend who heard about the many seasonal work opportunities along the coast. He now lives year-round in Harrington, working construction during the winter months.

Last night, Flores’ Mexican squad competed against a collection of American players, pulled together during a two-week, word-of-mouth campaign sparked once Wyman’s announced the end date for the blueberry harvest. The American players gathered from points throughout Washington County, either having heard about the Wyman’s Cup games from old high school friends or through one of the recreational adult leagues scattered throughout eastern Maine.

Midway through the first half, Andrew Polley netted a goal for Team U.S., cutting Mexico’s lead to 2-1. Team U.S. would knot the score at 3-3 on two goals from Princeton resident and Scarborough native Mark Berry. But late second half pressure from the Mexican front line eventually proved too strong for the Americans. At the final horn, Mexico stood on top, five goals to three.

Whenever a tournament game ends, the focus shifts from the field to two take-out Mexican food trucks and tents erected just behind the field’s sidelines. Players from the teams mix with spectators for a party that carries late into the night. Flores’ parents own and operate one of the trucks from mid-July through the end of the harvest, before returning to their winter home in Arcadia, Florida. The Vazquez family owns the second truck, which is open for take-out from April through the end of October just off Route 1, in Milbridge — that is, except for the month-long blueberry harvest when they are open full-time in the middle of the C&D.

Juana Vazquez, a 2007 graduate of Narraguagus High School, explains that even the idea of her father’s restaurant and food truck business grew out of the blueberry barrens: “My father worked riding the harvesters one year, when one of the people who Dad knew told him that he should make food instead of raking, because there was no one selling food up here.” Years later, the two businesses are nearly permanent fixtures at the C&D, preparing meals nonstop throughout the heart of the summer — for the rakers, and anyone else willing to make the sixteen-mile trek from Milbridge in search of fresh sopes, guaraches, or gorditas.

Cherryfield resident Patricia Rossi has come to see the distinctions between the foreign-born rakers and everyone else living and working within her community begin to fade. Rossi’s two sons, Silas and Saben, played soccer at Narraguagus High School and were among the first area players asked to participate in the Wyman’s Cup tournament. Her sons have since left the area, but Rossi returns to the C&D compound every summer for the tournament.

“It really is a cultural event,” Rossi says. “It’s as much about the people and the food as it is about the soccer and the money you can earn raking.”

Rossi no longer rakes berries on the barrens, instead alternating her workdays between her landscaping business and the steadier pace of shifts at the Washington County Jail, in Machias. “I miss it, really . . . being here, raking. Every summer I get that feeling. You get out there at 5 a.m., hear all of the people speaking Spanish, and you hear that music . . . it’s a really special feeling that’s hard to describe.”

When she glanced around the sidelines at last night’s U.S. vs. Mexico game, Rossi observed many of those same people who raked side by side with her on the barrens for many years. “Raking is a part of what it means to be from here. It really is a rite of passage for our kids, and it’s something that we all have a share in.”

[A]s the Mexican and Honduran teams take the field on this Thursday night, the perimeter of the soccer field again begins to fill with a few hundred spectators. Many are fellow migrant workers who, hours before, raked side by side with the players out dribbling before them. Others are full-time area residents for whom the Wyman’s Cup is the highlight of the waning days of summer.

The action is fast, with the fresh Honduran players controlling the ball for most of the ninety minutes of regulation play. As with the harvest itself, the pace reaches its greatest intensity in the waning moments. Team Mexico strains to close a two-goal deficit, but cannot break through Team Honduras’s formidable defense. The sun is setting over the barrens as the referee’s horn signals the end of injury time, and Team Honduras holds the field as 2012 Wyman’s Cup Champion.

Sara Beechler emerges from the sideline and ambles to the center of the soccer field. The great-granddaughter of Jasper Wyman and one of five controlling directors of her family’s blueberry empire congratulates each of the victorious Hondurans and presents them with the championship trophy.

One of those hoisting the trophy is San Pedro Sula native Orlando Sorto. Sorto’s header soared past the keeper and into the top corner of the Mexican goal to give Team Honduras the 3-1 lead that would provide the final margin of victory. The next day he would spend travelling to the apple orchards of south-central Pennsylvania. But for now, he is a soccer champion.

Richard W. Thackeray Jr. is a Rockland-based attorney and writer whose articles have appeared in the National Law Journal.