Riding the Tornado

Documenting migrant worker’s cross-country journey.

  • “Once Trump was elected — nothing against it — it gave everyone permission to be like, ‘Go back to Mexico,’”
    Photo by Flicker/Phil Roeder
  • In 2005 the Farm Labor Organization Committee signed a landmark contract with the powerful North Carolina Growers Association. The union contract was a hand extended backward so that new arrivals wouldn’t have to endure quite as much.
    Photo by Flicker/Bob Nichols for US Dept. of Agriculture
  • Since 2009, more immigrants from Mexico have been leaving the United States than arriving. The trend may also reflect the ripple effects of an anti-immigrant backlash that has been building at the state and local levels.
    Photo by Flicker/Jonathan Mcintosh

No one else seemed worried, so I tried not to be either. After a few more hours of waiting, a silver-haired woman appeared from inside the station, a cordless microphone tracing the shape of her jaw as if she were a TV game show host. “Atención, pasajeros,” she began, her voice amplified by a loudspeaker. Rapid-fire instructions followed, only in Spanish, and the haphazard arrangement of travelers quickly fell into order: passengers on one side of a waist-high fence in a sidewalk waiting area, their bags opposite them on the blacktop, straddling the painted yellow lines outlining the vacant berths.

Unable to keep up with the pace of the instructions in spite of my undergraduate Spanish degree, I felt anxiety creep in: What if I got on the wrong bus, or missed mine entirely? Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Where are you going?” the silver-haired woman asked, in English, doubtlessly noticing I was the only Anglo in the crowd. Without waiting for my reply, she took the ticket from my hand and noted my destination. “Over here, please,” she said, pointing me to the correct line. “Have a good trip.”

I was traveling aboard the Tornado, a cross-border bus line whose slogan, written at the top of my ticket, is Uniendo Familias en México y Estados Unidos — Uniting Families in Mexico and the United States. The trip had taken shape somewhat impulsively. In the summer of 2016, I worked on an oral history project documenting the stories of migrant farmworkers who launched a since-forgotten strike 50 years ago in the cantaloupe fields near my home in the border town of McAllen, Texas. That project led me to research more-recent farmworker movements, one of the most successful of which was a five-year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Around the same time, I moved to a new house close to the bus station. I began noticing the large number of bright yellow Tornado buses driving through my neighborhood. Tattooed on their flanks were the company’s orange cyclone logo and an all-caps litany of destinations: FLORIDA, TENNESSEE, GEORGIA, ARKANSAS, LOUISIANA, LAS CAROLINAS.

Then, the election happened. Out of a flailing desire to do something, anything, to push back against the dehumanization and scapegoating of immigrants that ran so contrary to my lived experience in a part of the country that’s 90 percent Latino, I visited the Tornado website. The departure and arrival drop-down menus were organized by city, listed alphabetically without regard for country. I was astonished by what I found. Scrolling down, even the U.S. cities were places I’d never heard of, like Loxley, Alabama, and Slidell, Louisiana, and Faison, North Carolina. One of the places was Mount Olive, site of the famed farmworker victory. An idea took shape: to take the oral history project I’d begun in South Texas on the road, experiencing the same trip as migrants themselves while also documenting the prior events, both in their own lives and globally, that compelled them to embark on the journey. I bought a ticket to Mount Olive.

Before I left, I considered myself well equipped for the task. Besides being (usually) proficient in Spanish, I am also a seasoned bus passenger, having shuttled cross-country between divorced parents on Greyhounds in my teens and later, in my twenties, road-tripped by bus across Mexico and South America. But nothing in those previous journeys had prepared me for what I would experience riding the Tornado.

The trip to Houston from McAllen had taken seven hours. That included a ten-minute stop at the Border Patrol interstate checkpoint sixty miles north of the border, where a pair of olive-uniformed twentysomething Anglo agents boarded the bus to inspect our documents. Most of the other passengers arriving in Houston had come from points far more distant. The buses pulling in while I waited hailed from across Mexico — from the interior states near Mexico City, to the Pacific and Gulf Coasts, all the way to the Guatemalan border. Their passengers had traveled for days already and most likely were delayed for hours at the international bridge, where they would have de-boarded for their first, more intensive round of inspections.

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