This article is part of ongoing reporting and production for a new episode of Colorado Experience called “Cultivating Change”. It is set to premiere Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — El brazo del diablo or “the devil’s arm”; el cortito or “the short one”; or just “back breaker” are all terms used to describe a short-handled hoe tool which is now illegal in Colorado but was once used to cultivate agricultural fields all around the state.
For Carmel “Chuck” Solano, he prefers the term “back breaker.” A recent steroid shot for his back keeps him moving and free to check out his small garden in the backyard of his Fort Collins home. But he said the pain will “start slowly coming back” a couple of months after the shot.
Solano is now 83 and still remembers the 10 years he worked in agriculture fields throughout Colorado, the Midwest and the Southwest United States. His family traveled wherever his father could find work and as the oldest of 10 children he started working at age 7.
“My dad handed me a hoe and said, ‘Okay buddy, let's go to work,’” Solano explained. “And I thought, ‘this is life.’”
Solano has worked many jobs in agriculture fields: picking cotton, cucumber, green beans, wheat and other crops. He said all were difficult, but the hardest according to Solano? Sugar beets.
“All you have to do — just stand up and bend over and touch your toes and then walk around like that all day, see how tired you get,” Solano said.
Chuck Solano displayed his family’s photos of working in agriculture fields as well as two tools used in sugar beet work – a short-handled hoe (left) and a sugar beet machete (right).
A sugar beet is a root vegetable that produces high-sucrose content in every plant that can be extracted to produce granulated sugar. An ideal sugar beet field has a plant about every ten inches. If the row becomes more crowded than that, it can affect the plants to where none of them grow large enough to be profitable.
Sugar beets became the main industry for Colorado from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, bringing in thousands of people, including waves of Mexicanos, Hispanos and Chicanos, to work the fields thinning the beet fields and in the factories processing the beets into sugar.
With sugar beets being a root vegetable, thoroughly thinning a beet field involves getting on the ground or close to it – which is why the short-handled hoe was a popular tool, and why children often worked in the fields, too.
“You have to pull some of the plants out and leave one standing. So sometimes little kids, as little as I'm going to say, 5, 6, maybe would be crawling on the hands and knees following,” Solano described. “And usually grandma, grandpa, somebody with a long-handled hoe, all they did was block and the little kid was pulling the plants and leaving one plant.”
As well as he remembers working in the fields, Solano also distinctly remembers dreaming of getting out of this work. Forced to quit school after 6th grade to help his family with income, he wondered how he could possibly move to a different career.
“I kept thinking, well, maybe a mechanic or a painter or something that didn't require a lot of formal education,” Solano said. “I'd think of that as a way in there, or I would just drift off to dreamland.”
Chuck Solano examines his small garden in his Fort Collins home of four decades.
Eventually, Solano did get out of agriculture work by enlisting in the United States Army, where he was able to self-educate and then earn a high school diploma by taking a General Educational Development test. He eventually became a barber in Fort Collins, got married and had kids. Now, he along with others in the community speak about the history of the short-handled hoe and work in the sugar beet fields.
“I want people to understand these folks helped the sugar beet industry flourish. They helped the economy in Fort Collins flourish,” said Betty Aragon-Mitotes, co-founder of Museo de las Tres Colonias and founder of Mujeres de Colores. “So we're part of the very fabric of Fort Collins.”
Aragon-Mitotes grew up in Fort Collins and is an active member of the community. She helped commission a statue built in Sugar Beet Park in the city called “The Hand that Feeds.” It features a short-handled hoe and a hand that is meant to represent any farm worker’s hand.
“The reason that I have the short hoe up there is because we want to make sure that people understand the sacrifice that people did working in the sugar beet fields,” Aragon-Mitotes said. “And then the hand represents our people's struggle. You know, this is what this is all about, is para mi familia. For my family, the struggle.”
‘The Hand that Feeds’ was installed in Sugar Beet Park in Fort Collins in 2021.
Workers across the country protested the short-handled hoe since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers took up the cause in the 1960s and 70s, when it became on the forefront of the fight for farm workers rights. California was the first state to ban it in 1975. Colorado made the tool illegal in 2021.
Aragon-Mitotes’ mission to lift up the Hispanic farm workers' stories and histories is an ongoing one. Her organization, Mujeres de Colores, is partnering with artist Armando Silva, the Fort Collins Mural Project and the Caballero familia of Los Tarascos restaurant to create a mural called “Para Mi Familia” to celebrate Hispanic/Mexican heritage. The mural reveal will be on Sept. 15 at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.