Having lived my entire life within a 1 hour drive of Watsonville I was not completely naive of the migrant farm worker’s plight. My early years were spent growing up in a comfortable lower middle class neighborhood on the edge of east San Jose amongst the beautiful orchards of The Valley of Heart’s Delight.
Only slightly understanding the underlying darkness…why did my friend’s cousins need to work at such a young age? César Chávez was a local hero; I remember my family participating in the Grape Boycott of the late 60’s because “people should be treated fairly.” Growing older and driving past the migrant camps and shanty towns in my journeys around the agricultural areas of the central coast, my understanding grew. We see many Americans’ views of undocumented workers…fear and hatred. You do not need to extrapolate much to imagine struggles of undocumented workers.
Arriving in Watsonville, remembrance and I were greeted by our fellow Kossacks, BentLiberal, catilinus, citisven, Navajo, Norm and Meteor Blades. We were soon joined by Dr. Ann Lopez, our gentle and passionate guide. She quickly made the final arrangements with the families and decided how to dole out the food, clothes and money we had brought. Dr. Ann has worked for over a decade helping the migrant workers of the area. Currently a professor as San Jose City College teaching Environmental Science, she mentioned at one point she may retire this year to do this work full time.
We began our journey by climbing through a hole cut in the fence. We dashed exposed across the field for the cover of the river and I thought how similar, in a small way, it was to the journey the migrants made across the border.
Soon I was greeted with the first smack to the face, in the middle of the field was a memorial.
I had hoped it was for a pet, but later the reality set in as we learned it was for a migrant worker who was killed by one of the local gangs. We were told by Dr. Ann that the river was the first stop for many who had crossed the border. Others stay there because it affords them the chance to send more of their money home by not paying rent, while others are alcoholics or drug addicts who are not allowed to stay at The Red Cross.
We were greeted at the river by the smiling faces of four migrant workers. The two men continued to work on the bicycles as one of the women began to sort through the clothes we brought. Unable to speak Spanish it was hard to keep up with all the information being thrown at me. Noticing a grocery cart full of kid’s toys we needed to ask…why? Then came the next smack to the face, the sweet-faced women was a grandmother and they were used when her grandchildren came to visit. It is hard to imagine bringing my little one to visit her grandmother at the river. Can you?
Next we went to visit the first family of the day. The family of five lived in a small but very clean apartment. They were most generous offering us chairs, organic fruit and much information. The two young daughters stood proudly behind their mom as she told her stories. We learned about the advantages of working at the year-round mushroom factory compared to the seasonal work of the fruit pickers.
The father worked his first 8 years picking fruit before he got a job at the mushroom factory where he has worked for the last 8 years. Most work for $5 an hour, he had worked his way up to $8 an hour. He works inside with the dust of fertilizers and mushrooms without a respirator. Dr. Ann reminds us she has never met a farm worker over 49, as cancer after years of exposure to pesticides takes its toll. Does this father after working so hard, only have a few years before he falls victim to cancer?
He tells us the mushrooms are grown in vats two-stories tall with narrow catwalks. The people who work the higher racks do so with no fall protection. If they slip and fall they get rewarded by being laid-off with no medical coverage.
Their generosity did not stop there as I found out when I left the headlights on and was left with a dead battery. The father tracked down jumper cables and came to the rescue.
The next house on the tour was more ominous. It was literally dark as we waited for the mother to retrieve a light bulb from a back room so we could have light in the front room. As we listened to her story the darkness of domestic violence lingered. This is a subject, which I am not willing to delve into here, but was well discussed in catilinus and remembrance’s diaries.
This visit was a smack in the face from the beginning after being told of the $1400 a month rent, a pregnant mother who works in the strawberry fields bent over most of the day, while inhaling the fumes of the pesticides used on the fields. Invisible as she is used and abused by her employer, landlord and husband with no recourse as an undocumented worker, I cannot begin to imagine how she can payoff the trip across the border. What used to cost $900 per person before NAFTA now cost $15,000.
The last “house” on the tour is actually a shed converted into a house. The view of the fields that it sits amongst is beautiful until you consider the pesticides sprayed in the fields have made the water undrinkable. As you wash your fruit before you feed it to your child, imagine living in house where these fumes waft through your house daily. You too can live here for only $900 a month.
There was some hope at this house as we learned of the daughter who made it to college. The professional pictures hanging on the wall with pride of their beautiful daughter from her Quinceañera. The younger daughter with her new braces that she got with the help of Dr. Ann. The family is hoping soon to move to a house. Again like earlier at the river as we left we were offered a puppy.
These people and families are the other 1%, at the other end of the spectrum. Undocumented but not unhuman, although they are treated as such. Trapped and invisible, used as pawns by their employers, landlords, the rival gangs who roam the streets. They have occupied my mind and heart since last Sunday and hope they occupy your mind the next time you’re buying fruits and vegetables.
As we left the river earlier in the day we came upon an older gentlemen who was going to visit the people at the river. He once struggled with alcohol and had lived at the river himself. He returns now to help others with their addictions. He and we all smiled as Dr. Ann explained the evils of the Coca-Cola Corporation and how he could vote with his pocketbook…, which we all should consider when buying fruits, and vegetables — buy local, buy organic.
Previous diaries in this series: catilinus: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. BentLiberal: Diary with video. remembrance: A ray of hope. citisven: The Watsonville Files.
More reading: Diary series by Jill Richardson of the families left behind. Stories of her's and Dr. Ann's visits to the family members of migrant farm workers south of the border.
If you would like to improve the conditions of Binational families, please read The Farmworker's Journey by Dr. Ann Lopez. And donate to The Center For Farm Worker Families, a non-profit organization.
"It takes a community to put an end to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault." Please donate to Women's Crisis Support Defensa de Majura or a DV shelter in your area.
Another ray of hope...
"Agricultural Justice Project "Food Justice Certified". In addition to workers justice, includes growers rights to fair price, transparency in the wholesale process, etc. Hope it catches on nationally." ~ the fan man.