COVID-19, other threats continue to hit California farmworkers

Farmworker Caravan delivers nonperishable foods and household essentials to Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo Counties, where local organizations distribute the items to more than 500 farmworker families once a month.
A vehicle is decorated with a sign that says, "If you eat today, thank a farmworker."
Two vehicles that were part of the Farmworker Caravan are decorated with messages of gratitude for agricultural workers in Hollister, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2021. (Irene Casado Sanchez/Peninsula Press)

COVID-19, heat, drought, wildfires, housing shortages – all of California’s major problems converge for one essential but vulnerable community: the farmworkers. Despite progress in immunization efforts and the implementation of local initiatives to protect them from extreme working conditions, “los campesinos” — as they are known in Spanish — still need help.

“Most of these farmworker families that were affected last year by COVID-19 were disproportionately sick and forced to be home, to recover,” said Angela Di Novella, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Monterey. “It has created a kind of a snowball effect of being affected continuously because they had to stay home, and they couldn’t work. They are still catching up on all the expenses that they had last year.”

To relieve this burden, the Farmworker Caravan, a grassroots effort to provide farmworkers with basic commodities, met on Oct. 2 in the parking lot adjacent to Emma Prusch Farm Park, in San Jose. With roosters crowing in the background and a few chickens ambling among cars, dozens of volunteers showed up to support this initiative, which was launched for the first time in May 2020.

“I thought, well, everybody is sitting at home and eating and where does that food come from,” said Darlene Tenes, the main organizer for the Farmworker Caravan. “The farmworkers continued to work every single day during a pandemic to provide food to put on our plates, and nobody was thinking about them. To me, they are the most essential workers you can have. There is not a single American across the U.S. who does not benefit from a farmworker.”

As essential laborers, farmworkers kept working when most of the population was told to stay at home, and the pandemic has hit them hard.

According to a report that looked at coronavirus outbreaks among farmworkers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, 13% of the 1,091 Salina Valley agricultural laborers enrolled in the study tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between mid-July and November 2020. One in five possessed antibodies, proving that at one point they had been infected. Considering that only 5% of all Californians tested positive in the same period, the farmers were testing positive at more than double the state rate.

California has one of the lowest coronavirus rates in the country now, but the pandemic is still present on farmlands where climate change and poverty also present a challenge. What began as an initiative to thank farmworkers for their labor during the health crisis has become a recurrent support channel.

Donations of nonperishable foods, such as pinto beans, rice, pasta, cooking oil, bottled water, or canned meats, and household essentials, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, shower gel or anti-bacterial wipes, are delivered by the caravans’ volunteers to Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo Counties, where local organizations distribute them to more than 500 farmworker families once a month.

“We are not solving the problem,” says Larry Edson, a member of Habitat for Humanity and a Farmworker Caravan volunteer. “These folks have no way to create generational wealth. And it’s all about creating generational wealth so that people can pass on to their kids a little bit better life. The farmworkers are living day to day, working through injuries and illness and everything else just to put food on the table.”

Most farmworkers are paid the minimum wage in California: $14 per hour. For Rafael Marquez, a volunteer and the son of Mexican migrant farmworkers, there is no doubt that pay is part of the problem. “I can’t see farmworkers making a lot of headway in the money department.”

Marquez lists “pay and then housing” as two of the systemic issues faced by agricultural workers: “They live in shacks or even out in tents, or they are crowded into one little room.”

If the pandemic has worsened existing systemic problems, extreme climatic conditions are aggravating farmworkers daily life even further.

A framed painting by the artist Alfonso E. Salazar, titled Love from the fields sits next to a bag of food and other goods in Hollister, Calif. on Oct. 2, 2021. The painting, which was created for a “Farmworker Caravan” event, depicts a female laborer carrying a basket of vegetables and wearing a modern hoody. (Irene Casado Sanchez/Peninsula Press)

Rising extreme temperatures and spreading wildfires expose agricultural workers to illnesses.

“Breathing fine particles in the air […] can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing,” warns the California Department of Industrial Relations about wildfires smoke.

Despite such risks, farmworkers must continue to work.

“Even during the wildfires last year, when [authorities] were telling all of us to stay inside and we couldn’t even breathe outside, the farmworkers were working in smoke all day long,” said Tenes. “They can’t complain, because if they do, they get sent back to their country, they can’t work and they can’t provide for their family.”

The precarious labor conditions of California’s farmworkers, 75% of them undocumented immigrants according to the Center for Farmworker Families, passes from generation to generation.

“When I was a kid, I used to do work in the cotton fields in Imperial Valley. And, you had to do a certain amount of rows before you could get water… And those cotton fields were very hot, and they were like half a mile long,” says Marquez. The son of immigrant farmworkers, Marquez, recalled that over 30 people working on those fields used the same cup to drink water.

“It was usually a can with wire strung around it for a handle,” he said. “At least, farmworkers got toilets out in the fields, and they got water.”

But much remains to be done to protect agricultural workers. In the meantime, farmworker caravans will continue to operate in the fields of California.

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