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The Tortilla Incident: In the Footsteps of Bethune

In the first week at the Osztrovics tobacco farm in southwestern Ontario, I froze the Mexican’s leftovers. The tortillas were iced up around the edges, and the chicken looked liked it had a layer of cake frosting on top.

Officially, my title was Teacher/Labourer, and it was the summer when I got a job with Frontier College, a literacy organization that sent young people to farms all over Canada to work alongside off-shore workers in the daytime while the evenings were spent tutoring them English.

So after orientation in Toronto, we were all sent to our respective farms, to perform our duties as elite members of a program that went way back to the first teacher/labourer, Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who was immortalized in China for being a friend and private doctor to Chairman Mao Zedong himself. I, on the other hand, just wanted a nice tan and a good workout. It was like a free membership to Goodlife, except I was paid, albeit minimum wage.

When I was shown the living quarters in the barn, with the shared kitchen, and then left alone to settle in, one of the first things I did was to check out the fridge. I noticed that the temperature was turned down a few notches from factory setting.

I am not sure why but the thought came to me that because of the summer heat, bacteria colonies were, no doubt, already beginning to eat away at the food. Was that a colony of E. coli I saw there crawling about on the meat? Or was it just ground-up peppercorn? Hard to tell without poking around underneath the Saran Wrap, which of course was out of the question. The temperature would have to be changed, so click, click, click went the temperature knob. It was a choice that Norman Bethune himself would have approved of.

As the fridge purred to life, I remember the smugness wrapping around me, knowing that I had surely saved the Mexicans from an outbreak of food poisoning. In my mind, I was the crusader in the name of Dr. Bethune and all the hygienic standards he stood for.

I first met Pedro, one of the offshore workers, departing to the fields on the back of pick-up truck. He reminded me of a character the actor Danny Trejo would play, the quintessential Mexican outlaw with a weathered pock-marked face, usually the last one standing in a hail of bullets. Except, when Pedro smiled, it wasn’t a mouthful of gold fillings that I expected. Rather, two tiny front teeth poked out from under his upper lips, reminding me of a child’s first set of front teeth just growing in. In short, he had a great smile, and besides, he was no desperado. I later learned he was a family man with four children.

When the guys got back from sowing tobacco all day, the other Mexican named Lazarro, always with a straw hat, opened the fridge to get his supper and took out his now iced-up dish of unrecognizable tortillas. Even I with as much culinary expertise as a spatula knew that tortillas were not meant to look like ice floes.

I wanted to explain but all that came out were stammers of lo siento, lo siento, lo siento, only one of a handful of phrases I knew. If my Spanish were any better, I would have told them that during orientation, I was made to believe, or rather, it was suggested in a round-about way, that food handling standards were different down south, compared to us up here with our advanced standards of food handling and sanitation. Of course, I didn’t think about the outhouse out back by the barn and the resident swarms of black flies that would crawl up my butt hole if I didn’t squeeze my sphincter muscles at moments of vulnerability.

On the field, workers sat on a planter towed by a tractor. The ride back and forth in the open field under the blue summer sky looked fun, but in the end, I never had the dexterity to be able to grab individual seedlings with my left hand, transfer them to my right, and then place them in the cups on a conveyor belt that went round and round. Instead of rows of planted tobacco, I ended up with most of the plants with the root-ends sticking up out of the ground.

So, I was demoted and ended up having to plant by hand all the ones I missed and even the ones the Mexicans missed; not that they missed many, but there were some bad sections when I thought they were intentionally missing four or five in a row to avenge for the frozen tortilla incident.

After one week of following behind the tractor in the fields, I couldn’t even stand up straight. My muscles shook like jelly when I got back to the barn for lunch. And in the evenings, I just collapsed in bed until the horn of the farmer’s truck woke me up early the next morning. And as I crawled up the tailgate, I noticed I was always the last one in.

I, Pedro, and Lazarro hard at studying English.

Pedro taught me some more Spanish and how to play dominos. In the evenings, after dinner, Pedro played dominos with Lazarro, the other Mexican whose food I inadvertently destroyed the first day he arrived on the Osztrovics Farm. From that day on, and for the rest of the summer, Lazarro and I always maintained a cool distance: that business of the hunk of frozen tortillas forever a wall between us. But not with Pedro. He became my domino coach for the whole season, from planting time to harvesting. Whenever I put down the wrong tile, Pedro clicked his tongue at me. With Pedro in my corner, I finally won my first match against Lazarro. Pedro gave me a congratulatory slap on my back and grinned at Lazarro with his two baby teeth, the same grin that would have, no doubt, disarmed a hundred Machetes, played by no other than Danny Trejos himself.

I always wanted to learn the words to the song Cielito Lindo, so I asked Pedro and Lazarro to write out the lyrics for me. Then, we all bellowed out the song though the evening together while Tippy, the three-legged German Shepherd, howled at the moon.

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