It was hot. There was no end to the amount of work they did. The hours were from sunrise to sunset. They were in a foreign land far from their home. Escaping was not a realistic option. If they made an attempt they risked being severely punished. The work involved pain. Each time they picked the soft fiber from the plant the chance that they might prick themselves was present. Also, their overseers who acted as surrogate parents mistreated them to the extent they were thought of as equal to animals. But, they were human beings. And this was not a job, but a life sentence. There were no employers and employees, but only masters and slaves who picked cotton.
The reality of their plight set in for me when I visited the Hacienda San Jose yesterday. I traveled the corridors of the catacombs where the dead were hidden. I entered the slave room where they were tortured. I also walked the grounds where the master walked overlooking the plantation. I drank at his bar. I even walked into the church that is situated next to the property.
I imagined that his numerous artifacts from around the world — his chest, rugs, tables — represented the vast social network he was a part of. Like Facebook, we feel connected to people even if we don’t see them daily. Their photos are reminders that they exist somewhere on this planet. I also imagine that no matter how far this plantation was from Spain, which is where he originated, he felt connected to a vast network of colleagues, and acquaintances, albeit evil and cruel to their counterparts of darker hue. His chest that was gifted to him from a friend in Nicaragua serves to support this idea. His was not an isolated existence, although it must have been for his slaves who were torn from their families, and forced into a strange world. This plantation reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in D’Jango.
His operation was illegal. He hid slaves under his plantation so as not to arouse suspicion that he was trafficking slaves. Were he found out to be doing so he would have been taxed heavily. The enterprise was difficult too because his slaves wanted to rebel and escape his tyranny. As it was explained to me, just as it occurred in the movie D’Jango, the slave-master finally got his comeuppance in the end when the slaves murdered him on the steps of the plantation.
Have you ever picked cotton? Probably not. The process is laborious and requires that people in a low economic stratum do it to survive. In America, the work of picking cotton was done by slaves who most of whom came from western Africa and suffered horrendous fates. Though cotton picking in and of itself is a harmless, yet labor intensive process, the history of slavery in the Americas has marred the ideas of the act. Instead of thinking about happy workers contributing to a larger economy and enjoying the fruit of their labor, we think of savage beatings, rape, amputation of limbs, and lashes by whips that were sadly all part of slave’s lives.
Today, I picked cotton. The act of doing so did not conjure images of torture, but the stories I heard while visiting the nearby Hacienda did. The soft fiber hides the hard reality that the slaves endured and many succumbed to at this plantation.