7 Jose Ruiz Dionicio

  • Jose Ruiz Dionicio in his trailer. Westside, Fresno County

  • To the east of Interstate 5, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a landscape devoted, single-mindedly it seems, to food production.

    As you drive, ten thousand almond trees flash by, row after row. Then ten thousand pistachio trees, pomegranates, peaches. Two hundred acres of tomatoes, two hundred acres of onions. I had watched it through the car window for years before I learned that there were people living in that landscape, their homes tucked between the quiet fields. There are not many—that desolate feeling is real—but they are there. Along the dusty roads are concrete barracks for farm workers. Nestled within the dense, deep green of orchards are vinyl-sided houses for the people who guard the trees. Once, driving on top of an embankment containing the California Aqueduct, I looked down into the almond trees and saw a ranch owner’s opulent personal villa; I was told that within the walls was a private winery.

    And on the side of a dirt track there is this trailer: installed wherever a certain herd of one-thousand-plus sheep are grazing; reparked each time the animals move. It is home to Jose Ruiz Dionico, who came to the San Joaquin Valley from his village in Peru in 2009 on a four-year contract. Having herded sheep in the Andes he was recruited to do similar work here, though herding with trucks and trailers is new to him. In Peru his work entailed taking the animals by foot to mountain pastures and being alone with them for weeks, even months, at a time.

    “Here,” he told me, “the sheep are in the city.” What to Californians seems like an empty space is to him a nearly urban environment. He loves the fact that he can go into town any day of the week, that there are other employees of his company living in trailers not far away.

    Of course he would prefer that the people nearby be instead his wife and five children, who are in Peru. But the work is here, not there. And so for the next year and a half he will live in this trailer, where the official OSHA workplace poster is taped to the ceiling above his bed. I asked him what it’s like at night here, and he replied that it’s like anywhere: when it gets dark it’s time for bed, when it gets light it’s time for work. But after a pause he went on to say that the first night here it was shocking. Now, though, he is used to it. At this point, he said, it feels like home.

  • California Aqueduct. Westside, Fresno County

  • Potatoes. Westside, Fresno County

  • Jose Ruiz Dionicio's trailer. Westside, Fresno County

  • Sheep. Westside, Fresno County