The machines inside a dairy barn beat persistently, like a metronome. Each beat sounds like a snare drum, and it doesn’t stop until the day is over. It gets stuck in your head. It drove me crazy growing up on our dairy in Wendell, Idaho, especially the day my father had the 17-year-old me milk an entire shift with Tomas Santa Maria.
Built like a barrel with arms and legs, Tomas bounced when he walked and worked with incessant joy. That day he moved perfectly in time with the mechanical thump. It seemed to remind him how fast he needed to move, and, like the machines, he never slowed down.
I did. That was the only time I milked an entire shift and it was exhausting. I usually watered pasture and fed calves, but I’m glad I did it. Tomas was one of five Peruvian men who worked on the dairy, and he showed me there could be joy in work.
So when I called home one day from college in Missoula, Montana, and my father told me the news, it stung more than I thought it would.
“Tomas is quitting and going home to Peru.”
It was a weird thing to process. Especially from 400 miles away. That’s because I knew Tomas. I knew his brother Alberto, his son Henry, and the Rojas brothers, Max and Wily.
I have friends who spent a lot of time around their aunts and uncles as kids. Mine live in California, so I saw them once or twice a decade. These five Peruvians, who ranged in age from their early 30s to their late 50s, were always around, and they gave me a different form of extended family. They weren’t at Christmas or around the Thanksgiving table, but they were everywhere else—at the grocery store, around town, in the stands at my basketball games, and, of course, on the dairy.
Wendell is in Gooding County, the land of gigantic dairies. I grew up on a small one. My father has about 400 cows—some neighbors count theirs by the thousands. I was the youngest of five kids by seven years. None of the others stuck around, so by the time I was 12, I was the only blood-related employee left.
I fed our calves most afternoons after school. I would come home, change into bleach-stained work clothes, and head to the barn. Max and Wily would be on tractors somewhere outside. Inside the barn would be one of the milkers.
For about 10 minutes, I would dip plastic bottles into buckets of milk and talk to whichever milker was there.
Alberto and I talked about sports (I won $2 from him on a bet on the 2001 World Series), and he always asked if I had a girlfriend (the answer was always no). Henry asked when my next basketball game was, even in the summer. Tomas filled the barn with a booming hello whenever he saw me, and, one cold winter day, he taught me a new language.
“It’s alalaw today!” he said, the last syllable rhyming with cow.
“Alalaw! Means cold!”
The word comes from Quechua, a language native to Peru. All the guys knew it, to some extent. Primarily they spoke Spanish, but they occasionally mixed in some Quechua when talking to each other. Tomas was eager to teach me. Whenever I saw him that winter I said it was alalaw outside. He always agreed—until I told him it was alalaw on a hot summer day.
These five Peruvians were always around, and they gave me a different form of extended family.
“No no no,” he said. “Today is achachaw! Means hot.” My Quechua vocabulary doubled.
From then on, we always talked about the weather. He always grinned; a proud teacher. He took such joy in sharing that with me, and I am forever grateful that he did.
After high school, I was happy to leave but was also happy to come back and work on break. I needed money, and I got to see my Peruvian extended family. All five were always there. I took it for granted. I don’t anymore.
About a year before Tomas left, his wife was struck and killed by lightning in Peru. When it happened, he was getting ready for work, and, despite the tragedy, he worked anyway. I asked my dad about it a year later.
“It was incredible. He just carried on, you know, like Tomas,” he said. “Dum de dum de dum.”
Shortly after Tomas’ wife died, Alberto left, too. He had moved to a different town with his family about an hour’s drive away. The commute was too long, so he took a job hauling cows for someone else. His nephew Sandro replaced him and still works there, as do Henry and the Rojas brothers. I haven’t been back in more than a year, but I know who I’ll see when I return.
Tomas’ departure was hard to swallow, but it made sense. He hadn’t returned to Peru in years. He has another son and a grandchild there. It was time, I suppose. When I think of him now, I imagine him walking the streets, bouncing with every step, booming hellos to old friends, perhaps in Quechua. Never skipping a beat.
I called him before he left. His English was never very good, and language barriers are tougher on the phone. He thanked me, though I’m not really sure why. I was mostly calling to thank him.