The Hours of Sunshine

By Ilka Oliva-Corado on May 13, 2022

Photo: David Bacon

Cayetana turns on the stove and begins to heat the food that she will put in the containers for her lunch, it is four o’clock in the morning. She fills five and a half liter plastic bottles with water, the ones she will drink during her day’s work. In her lunch box he puts a package of warm tortillas that she wrapped in aluminum foil and tied in two plastic bags. She checks to see if everything is there: the bowl of rice, the scrambled eggs, the fried beans and the tortillas. She puts on his knee pads, double pants, double sweater, chumpa and his Caterpillar boots. In her backpack she carries her gloves, the handkerchief with which she will cover her face and her hat.

She leaves the apartment she shares with eight other people, all undocumented like her. At the corner of the building a co-worker picks her up and charges her twenty dollars for the ride. She prefers to pay the freight and not take the train or the bus because she loses more time and what she needs are more hours of work because she wants to adjust to build her house in her native village of La Palmilla, Usumatlán, Zacapa, Guatemala. That is why she works from Monday to Sunday.

She has been cutting radishes for twenty-two years, on her knees all day, receiving the hours of sunshine on hher hunched back. No matter how much she washes her hands and applies cream, her fingertips are cracked and the dirt from the furrows yellows her fingernails. Any city person would think that her fingernails are neglected and dirty, not that she has been working long days in the fields.

Every four hours she puts sunscreen on her face, puts on her scarf and hat, but the mist from the hot earth penetrates everything, the stains on her face have become permanent. She suffers from severe pain in his knees and back, plus the daily sunstroke that is part of the daily grind of the workday.  She is barely thirty-nine years old, but she looks like a woman twenty years older. She has not been able to take care of her toothaches because going to a dentist is very expensive, she prefers not to disrupt the remittances and that her four children in her country of origin finish college.  To alleviate the pain momentarily, she sucks on absorbent cotton with alcohol, chews on cloves and rinses with salt water.

She has already managed to recover the deeds to the land of her parents’ house, which they pawned so that a lender would give them the money to pay the coyote so that she could emigrate, and they also took care of the four children. From Zacapa they send her in parcels the ointments to alleviate the pain in her knees and back, going to a clinic is impossible, it is too much money and she does not have it.

Cayetana dreams of the day of her return, of having her own house and business, because the last thing she wants is to go back to working as a day laborer on the melon, sweet chili, watermelon, tobacco, grape and loroco farms, as she has done since she was a child. She hopes that her return will be different and that she will have the strength to work ten more years in the United States and save enough to never again set foot in a furrow in her life other than the plot of land she plans to buy to spend the last years of her life in the vega, enjoying the grandeur of the Sierra de las Minas.

These are her midday delusions when the scorching California sun withers the leaves of the radish furrows and the steam of the earth burns on the soles of her feet.  But Cayetana refuses to stop dreaming, dreaming, because if she gives in to reality for a second she will be lost, she plays at imagining the papaya sticks, the corn furrows, the shade of the guayacan trees, the hands of her parents, the hugs of her children, she thinks of the waters of the Motagua River, the taste of the rice quesadillas and the plot of land in the valley, her house with a corridor and a hammock, the pitchfork with the water pitcher next to the kitchen. Cayetana travels in time, because for her it is better to dream and dream than to pay attention to the pain in her back and knees and the burning of her fingertips, the toothache and the emptiness she feels in her heart for not having seen her children grow up.

Author’s blog:, translation, Resumen Latinoamericano – English