THURMONT – When Robert Black hired Simon Gonzalez and his two sons to pick fruit in his Thurmont orchard 15 years ago, he thought he was just getting hired help.
He didn’t know he was getting a second family.
Someone from the 15-member Gonzalez family has been working in Black’s orchards from May to November every year since that first year.
In that time, Black has learned to speak a decent, if heavily accented, Spanish, full of hybridized slang that makes his workers laugh. He knows their birthdays, has traveled to their hometown of Hidalgo and can rattle off fees for wiring money to Mexico.
It is a dramatic change from their first year, when Black and the Gonzalezes could barely communicate.
“All I could say was good morning and good night, nothing else,” said Black.
So the whole group piled into the car once a week during that first fall and headed to local schools for language classes. Black took Spanish, while the Gonzalezes worked on their English.
One of the brothers bought an electronic translator, which came in handy at first. Black got himself a bilingual English-Spanish medical reference book.
The medical book has helped some: Black still insists on referring to the heart not by the correct word, “corazon,” but as a “bomba de sangre” or “blood pump.” Such mangled expressions — he said a fat acquaintance was “grande de la panza,” or big in the gut — delight the Gonzalezes, who laugh at his slangy efforts.
Black now understands what a good tortilla is. And sometimes he’ll sit and watch Spanish-language soap operas on cable with the Gonzalezes at the camp.
But it’s more than just cultural curiosity. Black appears to take a genuine interest.
He knows their birthdays and the names of their girlfriends. He knows how much it costs them to call home and has even done some research on how to get them better deals.
A few years ago, he and his wife visited the Gonzalezes in Mexico. He remembers the food first and then the hospitality.
“They eat better than we do,” said Black. “They squeeze their own oranges for juice and they grind their own corn for tortillas.
“But I got to tell you, people don’t know how good they got it here until they go out of the country,” he added.
But Black talks about his second family with pride.
“You should see them with a machete,” he said. “I mean modern technology has nothing on the way they work with those things.”