I have never understood why Don Tomas made such an impression on me, but he did. I often think about his, his physical characteristics and wonder what happened to him.
The dark, wrinkled hands and face caught my attention as I looked up to see who was handing me a piece of pan dulce (sweet bread), a marranito (gingerbread pig). I was shy about taking the piece of bread from the old man. In all my seven years of life, I had never seen a man who was so dark and so wrinkled.
I looked at my mom as she said, "Agarra el pan, mija. Don Tomas lo trajo para ti. (Take the bread, my daughter. Mr. Tomas brought it for you.)" I took the bread but I kept watching Don Tomas as he climbed on the truck that was taking about fifteen of us to the cotton fields.
I couldn't understand why this man was so dark and why his skin was so wrinkled. He wore a straw cowboy hat, a beige shirt with a blue jean jacket and pants. Then I noticed that he was wearing large knee pads. I could hardly wait to get to the cotton fields so that I could ask Mom some questions.
I munched on my pan dulce as I stared at Don Tomas. He smiled at me, which made his skin wrinkle even more. I refused to smile at him because I wasn't quite sure if I could trust this old man. I didn't understand why this viejito (little old man) was paying so much attention to me. I began to munch on my marranito as we traveled to the cotton fields early in the morning.
We picked up our cotton bags and belongings was we arrived at the fields and began climbing off the truck. I looked at the hundreds of rows of cotton and began to feel tired as I saw how long the rows were. Mom gave me my hat so I could protect my face from the sun.
I felt silly in my cotton picking clothes. Mom would make me wear a long-sleeved light pink shirt and red pants with socks and tennis shoes. She always told me that I needed to protect my skin from the dangers of the hot sun.
I felt guilty for wishing that I were old enough so that I could be at school with my older sisters. I did not want to be at the cotton fields with all the old cotton pickers. They kept telling my mother how cute I looked and asking how young I was. My mom would tell them that I was only seven years old, but she could not afford a baby sitter. Even though I was seven, I knew I was going to have to help my mom pick cotton and I was not happy about it. Cotton picking was hard work, even at the age of seven.
As I followed my mom to the opposite end of the field, away from the truck, I complained about how long the cotton rows were. I told my mom that it would take us all day to pick just one row of cotton. Mom said that we would pick two rows at a time really fast so that we could get a lot of cotton into our sacks. This meant more money to buy food on the weekend.
We finally reached the end of the rows of cotton and everyone began select which cotton rows they wanted to pick. As I stood there contemplating the long, hot day, I could see that everyone was already beginning to pick. I refused to wear the oversized gloves that Mom gave me because it was hard to pick cotton with them. Mom gave me a stern look and told me to start picking. The gloves were
supposed to protect my hands from the sun and the harsh cotton plant branches.
I looked at Don Tomas who miraculously stood beside me as he said "Com on Paulita, the day will be over before you know it." I blushed a deep red when I realized that Don Tomas had heard me complaining to my mom.
Don Tomas dropped down to his knees and began to pick cotton very quickly. I stood there at the end of our rows and watched his fast fingers picking cotton and dropping it into his cotton sack. I had never seen anyone pick cotton so fast, Mom forced me to look away as she called me to start picking.
I began to pick cotton and asked Mom, "Why does he kneel down to pick cotton?
"His back hurts," was my mom's response.
I felt sorry for Don Tomas Tomas because he seemed so old and so alone.
I continued picking slowly and asked Mom, "Why is he by himself? Doesn't he have a family?"
My patient mom answered, "I don't know, but he probably has a wife and older children. Picking cotton is hard work and maybe he does not want to bring his wife and children."
I looked at Mom with my big, brown eyes and asked, "Why don't they come help him; he's all by himself! If they pick cotton together, they will take more money and he won't be alone."
Mom told me, "He chooses to come by himself. Now you start picking so that we can fill our cotton sacks!"
I sighed as I looked at our empty cotton sacks. It wasn't long before I asked my next question. "Why does the old man wear those things on his knees?"
Mom continued picking as she answered. "Since he picks cotton his knees, the pads protect his knees from pain. They are called rodilleras. (kneepads)"
"Well, why can't he pick cotton standing up like the rest of us?"
"i told you that his back hurts. He is an older gentleman and he has picked cotton for a long time. His back hurts too much if he bends all day to pick cotton and the kneepads help."
"Will we have to wear kneepads if we pick cotton for a long time?" I asked.
My mom answered, "Mijita, you will not be in the cotton fields all your life, if you get an education. If I had an education, I could have an easier job. Someday, if both of us go to school, we will be able to get good jobs and we will not have to worry about rodilleras."
By this time, Don Tomas was way ahead of us. He moved quickly even though he picked cotton while on his knees.
I looked at my small burlap sack and told Mom that I had already filled it and wanted her to put my cotton into her cotton sack. Mom told me to just leave the burlap sack beside her.
"But what will I do with the cotton that I pick?" I asked her.
"Walk all the way up to where Don Tomas is and start picking there. Just make motoncitos (little bunches) and I will pick them up as I pick and travel toward you."
This sounded different to me so I began walking away from my mom and closer to Don Tomas. As I approached him, I stopped and stared.
Don Tomas winked at me and smiled as he said, "Come on little one; you and your mom will fill up a big cotton sack that will weigh many pounds before you know it."
I lowered my covered head and continued to pick. Don Tomas was ahead of me in seconds. I watched him as I removed my hat and wiped my forehead. It was no later than 9:00 AM, but I could already tell that it was going to be a blistering hot day. I continued to pick cotton and tried to imitate the quickness of Don Tomas. Mom smiled and shook her head as she looked at me. It was on my knees picking cotton like Don Tomas.
I lifted my head to look at my mom and told her, "My back hurts and kneeling makes me feel better."
Kneeling while I picked cotton made me feel grown up. I picked for a while longer and asked mom if I could go get some water.
My mom told me to go ahead and gave me a jar so that I could bring some water back with me. All I can remember is the excitement about getting out of picking cotton for as long as I could. I was hot and tired.
I began to walk toward the truck and realized I would have to pass by Don Tomas. I was shy about doing that.
Sure enough, as I walked by Don Tomas he asked "Para donde vas, Paulita?"
I told him I was going to get some water. Don Tomas never looked up as he talked and picked cotton.
It took me a while to get to the water truck, but that was the whole point. The water gave me an excuse to get away from the cotton fields. I was exhausted and the long, hot day loomed ahead of me. I climbed the truck and removed the lid from the drinking keg, knowing there would be a huge piece of ice in the water. I could hardly wait to drink the cold water. I drank slowly and prepared a jar of water for my mother.
I enjoyed my walk back toward my mother and felt shame because everyone was picking cotton faster than my mom and she had been left far behind. This made me sad as I lifted the jar of water to her. I folded my arms in front of my chest and looked down at the ground out of respect for my mother. When she lowered the jar from her mouth, she asked that I take some water to Don Tomas. As I turned toward Don tomas, who was way ahead of us, my mom asked that I show him respect.
I approached Don tomas shyly and told him that my mom has asked me to bring him some water.
His brown eyes, almost hidden in his wrinkled brown ace, showed a twinkle as a smile spread across his face. "Me le das las gracias a tu mama. (Give my thanks to your mom for me.)"
Don Tomas kept smiling as I crossed my arms across my chest and lowered my eyes toward the ground. As I waited for Don Tomas to drink the water, I guessed that he must be at least 60 years old. I felt sorry that he had to pick cotton even though he had a bad back.
"Ten, Paulita, (Here, Paulita,)" said Don Tomas. "Deja agua en el jarro para que tomes mas agua mas tarde. (Leave water in the jar so that you can drink water later.) El dia va ser bien caliente y tenemos que trabajar. (The day will be very hot and we have to work.)"
I went back to my mo and decided that I was going to pick cotton and work hard just like Don Tomas so that my mom would not have to work in the cotton fields when she was 60 years old.
Throughout the years, I continued picking cotton and so did Don Tomas. He continued to being me pan dulce at least once a week. I brought him water whenever I could and shared Mom's delicious tacos with him. In our own quiet way, Don Tomas and I became special friends. I respected his tolerance for picking cotton with a bad back and his elderly age. I sensed that Don Tomas and I were kindred spirits. One day after many years of picking cotton together, Don Tomas just stopped coming to work. I missed his friendship. Most importantly, I never forgot that I needed to get an education so that my mom and I could stay out of the cotton fields.
Discussion and Writing Prompts:
1. Do you think that Don Tomas pays special attention to Paulita? Why or why
not? Support your answer in a well developed essay.
2. Using a Venn Diagram, compare and contrast Paulita and Don Tomas. How
were they different and how were they alike? Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the two characters.
3. Illustrate the likenesses and differences between Paulita and Don Tomas by
using a Venn diagram. Draw the two characters and list the characteristics of
4. What did Paulita think would change her mother's lives and hers? What
would keep them out of the cotton fields and poverty? Explain your answer
using data regarding people in poverty.
5. Illustrate the encounters between Paulita and Don Tomas. Write a sentence
or two below each picture showing their conversations. What did the dialog
between the characters tell you about each one?