On a summer day in June it was hot and dry almost everywhere in California. Nearly eight thousand miles away, it was hot and rainy across much of Laos, the landlocked nation in Southeast Asia that Americans learned about when the U.S. Air Force bombed it in the 1960s and 1970s. A 52-year-old Hmong immigrant from Laos who calls herself Tia, and who was working on a marijuana farm, rested in the sun. “Tia is my Hmong name,” she told me. “I haven’t taken an American name yet.” She’s not in a hurry to do so, not after living in the U.S. since 1976, when she was twelve years old and arrived with an older sister. Their parents came in 1980. Approximately one hundred thousand Hmong fled from their homeland at the end of the Vietnam War, which had spilled over into Laos in a big, bloody way. Most of the Hmong settled in California where they have found a place for themselves and preserved much of their culture and customs.
“The Hmong joined forces with the C.I.A. to fight the communists and when the communists won the war we feared for our lives,” Tia explained. “The C.I.A. helped us come here.” She added, “Hmong grow opium in the mountains of Laos. Now we grow marijuana in California.” Indeed, in Siskiyou and Trinity, Hmong have joined the wave of native Californians and immigrants from all over the world who are cultivating cannabis, the number one agricultural crop in the Golden State. No wonder it’s called “the Green Rush.”
Tia was a part-time hired hand on a large plantation where field workers drilled 981 holes with an auger, filled them with good soil, and then planted 981 baby marijuana trees that would grow to be eight to ten feet tall and yield three to four pounds. The harvested weed might sell for $1,000 a pound. Young, white men with shovels did the digging and the planting. They took regular breaks to smoke what they said was pure THC, but that didn’t seem to impede their work.
Tia and two other Hmong women didn't smoke any of the marijuana, though it was free to anyone who wanted it. “I don’t smoke anything, not any kind of cigarette or tobacco,” she said. “But I use marijuana as medicine. I put the leaves in hot water, make a tea, and then apply to my body; it’s good for aches and pains.”
The Hmong women were steady, reliable workers. No one, including Mr. T., the tall lank foreman—who walked around with a clipboard—told them what to do. Tia had worked on farms before, though not with marijuana. “It’s good to learn new things,” she said. “My kids don’t want to work hard. They’re lazy. They sit around and do nothing.”
Tia used a long-handled hoe to chop the hard, sunbaked soil and to make saucers around the plants. Then she added water with a hose. She illustrated the proper way to irrigate; gently and slowly. “We make it look nice,” she said. Indeed, she did. When she finished hoeing it looked like a work of art. “The way I do it, the water lasts longer,” she explained. “You don’t have to irrigate so often.”
The foreman was happy to have the Hmong as part of the team. “There’s a shortage of skilled labor,” he said. “Not everyone knows how to treat marijuana. These women know what they’re doing.”
The three Hmong women covered almost every inch of their bodies in colorful hats, shirts and pants for protection against the sun. They worked eight to twelve hours a day, sometimes until 12:30 a.m. when it was much cooler, though they had to use headlamps to see what they were doing. During the week-long planting, the white men—all of them native Californians in their thirties, many with wives and children—worked around the clock. By the end of the week they were exhausted. But the crop had to get into the field or there would be no crop at all. It was already late in the season, and the heat had stressed the plants and the people. In a way, the Hmong were lifesavers who arrived in the nick of time.
Tia was paid $15 an hour in cash and she was happy to have it. “We’re here to help friends,” she explained. “We heard about the work from a friend of a friend, and we came down from Sacramento.”
Tia and her friends pitched a tent where they slept at night; they cooked their meals on a portable gas stove. An electric cooker provided them with all the white rice they could eat. There was no shower, but there was a refrigerator, hot and cold running water and a portable toilet. Tia carried a three-legged stool around the field; when she was tired she took a breather.
Tia doesn’t want to return to the mountains of Laos. “It’s very poor country,” she said. “Not like here. Women grow rice and vegetables and men hunt in the jungle. Boys go into the army to be soldiers. Here, we have freedom.”
Still, she had complaints about her life in California. “I marry wrong man,” she told me. “I married 30 years. Husband not want me to leave the house or have a job, only stay home and cook and clean. He jealous all the time. I practically prisoner.” She walked away from that husband and remarried. Now, she seems to be happier with her second husband.
Tia didn’t have the promise of work later in the season, but she hoped to come back for the harvest in the fall. “I’m an old lady,” she said and smiled. “Not good for very much. But can work all day. I like to come back here to see the plants all big and grown up.” Her own children didn’t give her a great deal of satisfaction. But the 981 plants in the ground offered high hopes and the promise of rich rewards.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War. He shares story credit for the feature film, Homegrown.)