One hundred miles from his Central Avenue bakery, Manolo Betancur pulls into the parking lot of a Latino grocery store in Sparta, a little mountain town where Christmas grows all year.
He’s been traveling from Charlotte to the North Carolina hills weekly for nearly a decade, delivering fresh bread to the migrant workers who harvest Fraser firs and make wreaths you see in Walmart or Publix.
“If it weren’t for all of these immigrants, this industry wouldn’t exist,” Manolo says. “There’s not enough hands.”
He opens the back hatch and starts to unload long, plastic containers of pastries, bread, and donuts. Inside the store, customers can purchase everything from wallets to bananas to cowboy boots to a kids’ drum set for $39.99. The owner, Rosalba Caro, is standing in front of shelves lined with small statues of the Virgin Mary.
She smiles and waves. She’s known Manolo since he dropped in one day in 2009 and asked her to try his food. She liked it and ordered some, then more, and now it’s 10 years later. That’s how Manolo developed all of his connections in Latino stores in North Carolina and Virginia — one bread offering at a time.
He has a map in his office at Manolo’s Bakery in east Charlotte, routes outlined in different colors. It’s a Tuesday, so we’re on the blue route.
Rosalba is eager for today’s delivery. She’s already sold most of the 1,000 pieces Manolo dropped off on Friday.
This is Sparta’s busiest season. North Carolina ranks second in the United States for number of Christmas trees harvested each year. We’ll soon be number one, probably.
Oregon, long the nation’s leader, has seen its production drop more than 25 percent since 2012, from 6.5 million trees to 4.7 million. North Carolina remained steady, though — 4 million trees in 2017 compared to 4.3 million in 2012.
Fraser firs take seven to eight years to grow, and some struggling farms stopped planting after the 2008 financial collapse. That means in 2019 the tree-growing business is only beginning to emerge from the downturn.
Technically, Sparta is a town of about 1,800 near the Virginia line in the northwestern corner of the state. But in some ways it’s mostly a community of bedrooms built to support Bottomley Evergreens, a massive operation that says it’s the “largest supplier of Christmas greenery in the eastern United States.”
The Bottomley family started the business in 1990, and now they farm more than 6,000 acres of Christmas trees, along with 2,250 acres of pumpkins.
It’s safe to say that if you’ve celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas anywhere on the east coast, you’ve come across something grown here. Even safer to say that the people who grew it were migrant workers from Mexico and Central America.
They’ll spend their winters at home, then come here anytime between February (tree-planting) and June (cabbage production), then stay through late November or early December.
They work six straight days and spend Sundays in town doing laundry, shopping for food for the week, and wiring their paychecks home. One worker says he makes about $700 a week, but after taxes and wire fees he sees only about $450 of it.
They’ll often wait at the store if they know Manolo’s coming. Bread makes an easy meal for busy hands. Most days, they’re in the fields or warehouses before 6 a.m., and by the time they get back to the bunkhouse after sundown they have little energy to fight a dozen other people for microwave time.
“Sometimes there is people who deliver food for them, but most often they have to wait and they have to find someone to cook,” Rosalba says, through a translation from Manolo. “And they’re hungry, so bread is the thing that’s going to fill their bellies.”
Manolo’s bread is one of the top-selling items at the store, alongside tortillas, chilis, and, “la cervezaaaa,” Rosalba says, holding her palm out and laughing.
From her post behind the counter, Rosalba sees and hears everything. She knows which farm owners in the area treat migrants with care and dignity, and which don’t. But she’ll never name them, certainly not in a small town.
That’s how the community moves here — people from two worlds, separated by a language and homeland but not much more really, relying on each other but passing in each other’s shadows.
At the checkout counter is a jar wrapped in a picture of a young Guatemalan named Arturo. He came down with a skin infection a few weeks ago. Rosalba says that instead of going to the doctor he self-prescribed medicine. Whatever it was, he had an awful reaction, she says, and he died on October 12. The jar is a collection to help pay for his remains to be sent home to Guatemala.
Manolo glides through the worlds holding out bread. He’s a Colombia-born U.S. citizen and a small-business owner with two kids who were born in Charlotte. He’s 43 with a retreating hairline; he jokes that it comes with the territory when you spend your life advocating for immigrants.
He’s a respected community leader in the city: Panthers owner David Tepper visited Manolo’s Bakery last week specifically to ask for his opinion on a potential Major League Soccer team headquarters and practice facility at the old Eastland Mall site, a few miles down Central. Manolo met the billionaire wearing one of the T-shirts he sells in his shop: “Made in America by Immigrant Hands.”
He can flow from conversations with Tepper to conversations with his bakery workers to conversations with farmworkers and Rosalba in a single day, easy. As respected as he is in the city, Manolo has almost celebrity status among immigrants in rural North Carolina. Wherever we go on our trip — from the store to the farm to a restaurant in town — an immigrant greets him by name.
Maybe his bread is just that good. But more likely it’s about what the bread represents. To people whose lives are constantly uprooted, the bread brings the comfort of home.
Growing up in Colombia in the 1980s, Manolo’s entertainment mostly came from Hollywood. He remembers cartoons like “Tom & Jerry” and shows like “MacGyver.” As a teenager he loved “Top Gun,” and dreamed of being a fighter pilot like Tom Cruise’s character Maverick.
He failed an eye test to join the Colombian Air Force, though, so he enrolled in the naval academy.
He became an officer in the Navy and spent five years fighting insurgents and guerillas in an endless drug war, until 1999, when he realized he didn’t want to spend his life that way.
“War doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “I like to fight with my words and knowledge.”
He moved to Miami in 2000, got a student visa, and enrolled at King University in east Tennessee. He learned English there and joined an AmeriCorps program.
Through Americorps, he landed a role to help provide health care to Christmas tree farmworkers in southwestern Virginia. He considered opening a bakery in the Hillsville, Virginia area. But his in-laws at the time, the Martinez family, already had a few bakeries in Charlotte, and they were close to retiring. Manolo moved here in 2005 and took over the Las Delicias bakeries business.
The early years were challenging. He and his wife, Zhenia, had their first child, a boy, and needed extra money. Manolo started each day at the bakery at 3 or 4 a.m., then worked until the evening, then moonlighted as a driver for people who needed rides. The company he worked for was a precursor to rideshare apps. Essentially, if you had too much to drink you could request a lift home, or you could ask for two drivers to get your car home, too. Manolo has a heap of stories from his driving days, including one rich man who told him he’d saved his marriage by picking him up each Saturday night.
But there were less enjoyable rides, too.
Once, he picked up a drunk man at Park Road Shopping Center who asked him, “Are you an immigrant?”
“Yes, I am,” Manolo remembers responding.
“I don’t like immigrants,” the man shot back.
“Well, why’d you call me, man? You are the one who’s drunk. I don’t need you. You need me.”
A man named Zapato greets Manolo at Rosalba’s grocery. Translated, his name means “shoe.”
“A guy just started calling me Zapato and other people started calling me Zapato, and that’s it,” he says. “We all have nicknames here. One person’s called Peach. Banana. Plantain. I don’t even know their real names.”
Zapato’s real name is Gustavo Carranzo. He’s worked for Bottomley for 27 years and has arguably the most important job on the farm: He’s the main crew head, meaning he oversees the migrant workers. He has dirt caked into his jeans and boots. We follow him through town and up a hill to the main Bottomley facility.
Nathan Arledge, a pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church who makes regular outreach trips to immigrant communities, joins us on the trip.
Driving in, it looks like a modern industrial complex, save for the front-loaders dropping piles of evergreen remnants into a mulching machine. On one side of a parking lot are long buildings to house workers. They’re divided so that about 40 to 50 people live in each unit, one bunkbed next to the other next to the other, with lockers in the middle.
In room 2C, towels are draped over the bedposts. A small kitchen commons area outside the room has countertops covered in half-eaten bags of chips and hot sauce and coffee pots.
The people who work here, and the people who support the people who work here, tell us repeatedly that the Bottomleys are the best Christmas tree farm employers in the region. The housing facilities are excellent, one man says, compared to other farms.
You don’t have to pay more than passing attention to the news to know that immigration is among the country’s most inflammatory political issues. Regardless of your stance, it’s proven over and over through history that poverty leads to violence leads to migration. In recent years, programs to invest U.S. dollars in poor countries in Central and South America have been criticized, despite some success in places like Honduras.
Standing in Sparta, a question looms: If suddenly those countries were all safe and wealthy, where exactly would the U.S.’s farmworkers come from?
Bottomley Farms didn’t respond to interview requests. But in a 2011 Bloomberg News article, the farm’s founder, Blan Bottomley, said, “If it weren’t for the Hispanic people, I couldn’t farm, couldn’t do nothing.”
Bottomley has farms in Virginia and Oregon. Earlier this decade, a series of lawsuits in Oregon resulted in the company being forced to pay more than $300,000 in penalties — the suits claimed that they sold wreaths and trees produced by workers who weren’t paid the Oregon’s minimum wage or overtime wages.
At the Sparta facility in room 2C, a video camera watches over the room in the corner. The closest bed to the camera belongs to a man named Wilfrido “Willie” Moya. He climbs down from the top bunk and slides into slippers.
Willie is 50, far older than the dozens of other migrant workers in the barracks-style room. For four straight years, he’s left his lime and lemon farm work in Mexico to work here.
“It’s all hard,” he says, before chuckling. “But we work hard.”
Across the parking lot is the wreath-making warehouse. It’s a sprawling complex with dozens of long tables piled high with evergreen branches.
The people work at stations marked with tape. One, W-226, is the station of a Guatemalan who says his name is Clemencio. He’s been here since just after 5 a.m., and he’s made 150 wreaths. That averages out to one wreath every three minutes, if he hasn’t taken breaks.
Many “how to make a wreath” videos online are between eight and 20 minutes long. On this late-October afternoon, I watch Clemencio make one — hand-twisting and clipping each branch, securing it with a wire, and putting a red bow on the final product — in less than 90 seconds. He’ll make $1.40 for each wreath he makes, he says.
Zapato tells us that the day before our trip, the people in this warehouse made 30,000 wreaths. Many of them were set to head to the fields for the tree harvest beginning on November 5.
They’ll cut them, load them, and ship them off.
Then, around the time people in the United States are putting up lights in December, the migrants who grew and harvested the decorations are back home, celebrating around plastic trees in countries where the climate is too hot to grow real ones.
“We would love to have a tree like the ones that you guys have here,” says Willie, the man from 2C.
Starting in February, the workers will return to plant trees that will be in homes eight years from now.
But Zapato says lately he’s been surprised by who doesn’t come back. Some of the best workers elect to stay in their home countries in February. He says the number of high-level employees has dropped in recent years, especially when it comes to young and emerging managers.
“People are tired,” he says. “They go to Mexico and they don’t come back.”
Why? I ask.
“No papers,” he says. “And racists.”
We stop for lunch at a restaurant run by Cuban immigrants in Sparta, and I ask Manolo what he thought of the scene at the warehouses.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” he says. “I almost broke down.”
He pauses and looks out the window of the restaurant, which is surrounded by forest and a fast-rushing Little River. “Look at their hands,” he says.
He’s done plenty of reflecting in recent years. He and Zhenia divorced, and he assumed sole ownership of her family’s business and renamed it Manolo’s Bakery. He remarried last year to a woman from Colombia. She’s not a U.S. citizen and her work visa expires this month. She has to return to Colombia next week, and will start the immigration process from the first step.
The bakery is in the red this year for the first time in its history, Manolo says. The biggest setback, he believes, has been the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Charlotte. His regular customers are simply staying home.
The ICE raids directly cost him $10,000 in May.
That’s when one of his longtime employees, Ricardo, pulled into the Manolo’s parking lot for his shift, same as he’s done for nine years. He locked the car door and turned around and saw four cars driven by ICE agents.
Ricardo is from El Salvador and brought his family here 14 years ago after his daughter was assaulted by a gang. With no criminal record, Ricardo says that the officers told him they’d been looking for someone else. But because he didn’t have papers, they detained him.
He went to a facility in south Charlotte, then was in Atlanta by that evening.
Ricardo didn’t have contact with his family — he has four kids and a wife — or anyone at work. Manolo, though, called his immigration lawyer, who found out where Ricardo was.
Ricardo believed he was moments away from being deported to a country that’s only gotten more dangerous in his 14 years here. The homicide rate in El Salvador in 2017 was 61 per 100,000 people, second-worst worldwide among countries not at war.
But then Manolo showed up and paid $10,000 to bail out his $13-an-hour baker.
“I learned I wasn’t alone,” Ricardo says of the moment he was released. He now is back at work and awaiting his date in immigration court.
Two weeks later, Manolo showed up to work to see that his industrial mixer had given out. There went another few thousand. That came on top of a $34,000 replacement oven around this time last year. And in October, the state labor board fined him $7,400 for unpaid workers compensation payments.
On any day you see him at the bakery, though, you’d hardly know he’s struggling. He greets most customers by first name. East Charlotte and Latino leaders are regular customers. On a morning last week, one man was filling out paperwork to run for state legislature while sitting at a table next to Sil Ganzo, the executive director of ourBridge, which offers after-school programs to recently arrived immigrant children.
And the food, from churros to cheese bread, is always fresh and good. Manolo isn’t shy about that.
“I can beat anybody’s donuts,” he says.
In recent months, he’s traveled to the eastern part of the state, where migrants work in the pork and seafood industries. He’d like to set up a distribution hub in Fayetteville and another in the mountains, to sell to the small towns on either side of the state. When I tell him that many of those towns are shrinking, that betting his future on them may not be the most profitable financial decision, he shakes his head.
“That’s my freaking problem, man,” he says. “Because I’m not thinking about business. I’m not thinking about money. I’m always thinking about people, man.”
We hop back in the car for one more delivery, to a smaller store near a smaller Bottomley warehouse on the other side of Alleghany County.
The sun comes out for the first time all day, and the road winds around a sprawling field, slanted skyward, with Christmas trees up and down the slope. On top of the hill is a big house.
“See, I’m in the wrong business, man,” Manolo says.
I wonder what he thinks about buying Christmas trees and decorations — especially those from the big stores that sell high-volume goods made by high-volume workers.
Would he feel wrong about buying trees from big farms whose owners have houses on the hill, or would he feel like he’s supporting the careful hands that got dirty making them?
Manolo answers in his native language — baking language.
“At my bakery, the most unique cake is passionfruit cake,” he says. “It’s sweet and sour.”
Later, he brings up an answer Willie gave when we asked the 50-year-old on the top bunk if he had anything he’d like to add.
“Just to remember, when you see a tree,” Willie said, “a Mexican worked with it.”
This story was updated on November 12, 2019.