CIRS Blog about Rural California

"Her skin became red and itchy. Her eyes burned. Her hair started falling out. Her family had the same symptoms ... [others] were dying, " California Watch reports. This sounds like a tragic nightmare, but it was a reality for Sonia Lopez, a farmworker who lives in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley area.

She and thousands of other farmworkers in this area have been unknowingly drinking nitrate-contaminated water, which has led to these severe symptoms.

These and other farmworkers have been neglected and allowed to suffer on their own. The state government needs to intervene and offer them some relief.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California is responsible for about 15 percent of the United States' fresh produce.

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Every year at Thanksgiving I am reminded of the people who grow and harvest our food. I am constantly immersed in research on the food system and the people who work in it but thinking about the food on my table and how it got there is especially poignant at feast time. In California we are blessed with abundant year round locally grown nuts, meats, grains, fruits and vegetables. The farmers and hired workers who labor to produce this food that feeds our nation do so under challenging conditions.

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Farmers’ congressional allies are pressuring the Obama administration to ease up on some immigration work-site enforcement, underscoring a conflict at the heart of a broad-based immigration bill.

This week, spurred by complaints from farmers in California’s Central Valley, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein publicly urged the Department of Homeland Security to “redirect” immigration enforcement efforts toward “serious violent crimes” instead of “legitimate agricultural employers and their workers.”

“The reality is that the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are foreign-born and unauthorized, which is well-known,” Feinstein wrote Tuesday, adding that she’s “afraid that this aggressive worksite enforcement strategy will deprive the agricultural sector of most of its workforce.”

Worksite monitoring has definitely heated up.

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Washington apple grower Evans Fruit in June 2010 for allowing a ranch manager to sexually harass female workers, and obtained a temporary restraining order to protect class members and potential witnesses from retaliation. After 12 days of testimony, a federal jury in 2013 found no sexually hostile work environment at Evans.

The case against Evans, which employs 1,200 to 1,300 seasonal farm workers, began with a complaint by three women who alleged that they were constructively discharged after supervisors subjected them to "ongoing sexual comments, propositioning, and physical groping." Evans and the ranch manager denied the allegations. A federal judge in April 2013 dismissed a September 2011 EEOC suit against Evans that alleged Evans retaliated against 10 farm workers who attended a meeting at a public library where EEOC representatives explained sexual harassment and the remedies.

PBS's Frontline aired an associated documentary, Rape in the Fields, in June 2013 that profiled the women and the ranch manager in the Evans case.

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Below is an excerpt from Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Seth M. Holmes. Holmes, an anthropologist and physician, documented the journey of Mexican migrant farmworkers as they travel between Southern Mexico, California's Central Valley and Washington, in search of work. 

One: Introduction --"Worth risking your life?"

The road from San Miguel

It is early April and our group is leaving the Triqui village of San Miguel in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, each of us wearing dark-colored, long-sleeved clothes and carrying a small, dark-colored backpack with one change of clothes, a plastic bag with coyote fur and pine soap made by a Triqui healer for protection and called a suerte [luck], along with many totopos [smoked handmade tortillas] and dried beans to eat. I was instructed by Macario to bring these things. Each of us carries between $1,000 and $2,000 to pay for the buss ride to the border, for food at the border, for rides on either side of the border, and some for the coyote [border-crossing guide].

Our journey begins with a two-hour trip in a Volkswagen van from San Miguel to the nearby mestizo town of Tlaxiaco. After buying our bus tickets, we walk around the town's market, buying food to share with each other on the bus. Joaquin chooses mangoes, Macario oranges and peanuts, and I miniature bananas. Macario buys a slingshot to use against rattlesnakes in the desert and asks if I want to carry one, but I don't have much experience with slingshots. When we return to the bus, the two nuns from San Miguel are waiting to wish us well as we board. The younger nun explains to me that they go there every weekend to pray for the border crossers.

The bus ride in itself is exhausting. The bus is packed with people, mostly men, all headed to the border except a half dozen who plan to go to Baja California to harvest tomatoes. We ride from 3:00 P.M. on Saturday until our arrival in Altar at 4:00 P.M. on Monday, a total of forty-nine hours. We pass through five army checkpoints between the state of Oaxaca and the border. Two checkpoints all have signs that say in Spanish, "Permanent Campaign Against Narcotraffic." Before each checkpoint, the bus driver or his assistant announces loudly that all the bus riders should say that they are going to Baja California to work so that the stop would not take too much time with the questions about crossing the border into the United States. Each time, the driver tells me to say that I was just hitchhiking to the next tourist town-Mazatlan Hermosillo, Guadalajara, depending on where we are at the time. Before each checkpoint, the bus becomes quiet, and people seem nervous about the possibility of being interrogated or sent back south. Two or three soldiers aboard the bus each time in green army fatigues and ask a few seemingly random people for identification and search a few bags while other soldiers look through the windows with rifles over their shoulders.

Interestingly, there are three army soldiers riding the bus with us, going to their base in northern Mexico. They, as wells as everyone else, play along with the story. The oldest of the soldiers, seated next to me, is convinced I am the coyote leading my friends to a job in the United States. He explains to me that these military checkpoints are paid for by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in order to stop drug smuggling across the border and to stop undocumented immigration to the United States. He tells me to take the driver's assistant to "El Norte" for free since he is so nice to everyone on the bus. The driver's assistant -- who collects fares from the passengers, enforces the schedule at the food stops, and makes sure everyone makes it back on board after meals -- simply smiles in response. I reply that I am not a coyote. The soldier laughs and asks in Spanish, "Then why are you taking all these guys?"

For more information on "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies" or to buy the book, please visit Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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