Saturday, April 10, 2021


By David Bacon and Anuradha Mittal
Americas Program, 4/9/21

POPLAR, CA - 2020 - Farmworkers pick persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Many workers wear facemasks or bandannas as a protection against spreading the coronavirus. Maria Madrigal is a picker in the crew.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. deported an average of 275,725 people per year, almost the same number of workers - 257,667 - brought by growers last year to labor in U.S. fields. Contract laborers on H2-A visas now make up is a tenth of the U.S.'s total agricultural workforce - an increase of more than 100,000 in just six years.

Deporting people while bringing in contract farm labor is not new.  In 1954, during the bracero program the U.S. deported 1,074,277 people in the infamous "Operation Wetback, and brought in 309,033 contract workers. " Two years later 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms.

Farmworkers already living in the U.S. were replaced by contract labor when they demanded higher wages.  Farmworker advocates accused the government of using deportations to create a labor shortage, and force workers and growers into the bracero program. Braceros were abused and cheated, they argued, and deported if they went on strike.

In response, civil rights and labor leaders of that era, including Cesar Chavez and Ernesto Galarza, pushed Congress to end the bracero program.

After ending the bracero program in 1964, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  A preference system for family immigration replaced the growers' cheap labor supply scheme. By no accident, the grape strike which began the farmworkers' union movement in Delano started the same year.

Today the Biden administration is seeking ways to undo the damage to immigrants and workers wrought by Trump's executive orders.  For farmworkers the worst of those orders came last April, when an infamous tweet suspended all the processing of family preference visas, effective ending the program won by the civil rights movement. At the same time Trump tried to cut the wages of today's braceros, the H2-A workers, and expand the program by making it even more grower-friendly.

In one positive move, Biden rescinded Trump's wage cut.  But a deeper choice remains.  

The H2-A program is even more abusive than the old bracero program.  An opaque system of private recruiters and contractors brings in workers, extorting bribes for visas.  Once in the U.S. these workers suffer wage theft and systematic labor violations.  During the pandemic their barracks and bunk beds have become centers for spreading infection, and several have died. When workers protest conditions and go on strike they are fired and sent back to Mexico, and blacklisted for future employment.

At the same time, farmworkers living in the U.S. have seen their wages stagnate.  It is not unusual to see workers living in cars and under trees at harvest time.  Legal cases document the replacement of resident farmworkers by H2-A workers. This is not legal, but only 26 out of over eleven thousand growers were temporarily suspended from the program last year for violations.  Already in states like Georgia and Washington more than a quarter of all farm jobs are now filled by growers bringing in contract labor, and the number is rising quickly.

Over 90 percent of all farmworkers living in the U.S. are immigrants, and half are undocumented. Yet there is no way for those without papers to gain legal status.  The largest agricultural employers have responded to demands for legalization with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.  It sets up the conditions for enormous growth in the H2-A program, and would likely lead to half the farm labor workforce in the U.S. laboring under H2-A visas within a few years. The bill will prohibit undocumented workers from working in agriculture, while implementing a restrictive and complex process in which some undocumented farmworkers could apply for legal status.

Instead of competing for domestic workers by raising wages, growers want H2-A workers whose wages stay only slightly above the legal minimum.  This system then places workers with H-2A visas into competition with a domestic labor force, depressing the wages of all farmworkers.

For farmworkers trying to organize and change conditions, the H2-A program creates enormous obstacles.  When H-2A workers themselves try to change exploitative conditions, employers can terminate their employment and end their legal visa status, in effect deporting them. Workers are then legally blacklisted, preventing their recruitment to work in future seasons.  Farmworkers living in the U.S., thinking about organizing or going on strike, have to consider the risk of being replaced.

Meanwhile, farmworkers who have visas or are citizens can't reunite their families here in the U.S.  A mother who wants to bring her married daughter or son from Mexico City or Manila must wait over two decades because the family preference system has been starved for visas.  Meanwhile the H2-A program grows exponentially.

The time has come to do what Chavez and Galarza advocated, and won, half a century ago.  The H2-A program must be ended.  Family reunification visas should be made available to the families that need them.  People brought by their families to the U.S. will need work, and growers can hire them and others by raising wages and bargaining with farmworker unions.  

Many people in Mexico need work in the U.S. as well.  Making permanent visas available that are not tied to work status, while prohibiting recruitment by employers and contractors, allows people to cross the border and settle here with families.  Growers needing their labor can pay higher wages to make farm labor jobs attractive.

High-wages and secure jobs for farmworkers can only come by discarding the old deportation/guestworker model, and instead supporting families with legalization, family-based visas, and unions and labor rights. 


OXNARD, CA  2009 - The family of Lino Reyes are Mixtec migrants from San Martin Peras in Oaxaca.  He and his wife work in the strawberry fields, and live in the garage of a house on the outskirts of town.

David Bacon is a California journalist covering farm labor and immigration.  His latest book is In the Fields of the North (University of California, 2017).

Anuradha Mittal is the executive director of the Oakland Institute.

This oped is based on a report on the H2-A program from the Oakland Institute, "DIGNITY OR EXPLOITATION - WHAT FUTURE FOR FARMWORKER FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES?"

Tuesday, March 9, 2021


By David Bacon
Jacobin, 3/9/20

Members of the Yakama Nation of Native Americans join farmworkers and other immigrants to celebrate May Day in 2017 and protest continued deportations and detentions. (Photo (c) David Bacon)  

The current guest worker system prioritizes agricultural growers' profits over immigrants' and workers' rights. Joe Biden should seek a different way: building an immigration system based on family reunification, community stability, and immigrant workers' rights to decent wages, health, and housing.

The intention of the US guest worker program for agriculture, called the H-2A program, couldn't have been stated more clearly than it was by agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue in a January 2020 speech to growers. He wanted, he said,

to separate immigration, which is people wanting to become citizens, [from] a temporary, legal guest-worker program . . . That's what agriculture needs, and that's what we want. It doesn't offend people who are anti-immigrant because they don't want more immigrant citizens here. We need people who can help US agriculture meet the production.

By separating the immigration of families, in which migrants become community members and eventually citizens, from the recruitment of migrants solely for their labor power, in which they work and then leave, Perdue was restating a goal of US immigration policy that has existed from its inception. In opposition to that goal, the civil rights movement among Mexican and Asian Americans proposed an alternative vision to guide our immigration policy, one that favored unifying families and strengthening immigrant communities, and forced Congress to enact a law in 1965 that enshrines that vision.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a high point, however. In the subsequent years, US agriculture's use of migration as a labor supply program has grown enormously, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Trump administration, however, made the H-2A program's growth a priority. While ending family-based migration through an emergency executive measure, it issued order after order making the H-2A guest worker program more attractive to agribusiness.

The Biden administration must decide not only which of those administrative orders it intends to revoke, but if it will pursue a different direction for US immigration policy in general.

Regulating Migrant Flows for Capital

The movement of people from country to country, displaced by war, insecurity, and neoliberal economic policies, is enormous and growing. The US government, like all others, develops its policy within that context. The US Congress and presidential administrations do not debate the means for ending this flow of people, despite the often-poisonous anti-migrant rhetoric. Nothing can stop this global movement, short of a radical reordering of the world's economy and politics. Instead, US political debate centers on how directly this flow should be used for its ability to create wealth for those who employ it, and over the legal status and rights of migrants themselves.

US industrial agriculture has its roots in slavery and the brutal kidnapping of Africans, whose labor developed the plantation economy, and the subsequent semi-slave sharecropping system in the South. For over a century, especially in the West and the Southwest, industrial agriculture has depended on a migrant workforce, formed from waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican, and, more recently, Central American migrants. Today, a growing percentage of farmworkers are indigenous people speaking languages other than Spanish, an indication that economic dislocation has reached far into the Mexican countryside's most remote parts.

Repeated waves of immigration raids and deportations are not intended to halt migration. Immigrant labor plays such a critical part in the economy that the price of stopping migration would be economic chaos. The intention of immigration policy since the Chinese Exclusion and Alien Land acts of the late 1800s is managing the flow of people and determining their status in the United States in the interest of employers.

The political fault lines that divide the US immigrant rights movement are determined by decisions to either support this general trend in policy and its political advocates in Washington, DC, or to oppose it and create a social movement for equality and rights based in migrants' own communities. Those fault lines were set in place thirty-five years ago, when the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act criminalized work for undocumented migrants and resurrected the contract labor programs that were ended in 1964 with the abolition of the Bracero Program. Current debates over immigration policy must choose between these alternatives, and this choice will govern the approach to immigration under a new Biden administration.

The largest US guest worker program, the recruitment of migrants by agribusiness through the H-2A work visa, has its historical roots in the earlier Bracero Program of the Cold War period, from 1942 to 1964. The exploitative conditions and vulnerability of migrants who came under that program are very close to those of the H-2A program today.

During the Bracero period, immigration enforcement by a growing US Border Patrol and government bureaucracy was used to create labor shortages, which then provided the rationale for vastly expanding the recruitment of contract labor: the braceros. Today, the impact of immigration enforcement is very similar. Raids and the use of employer sanctions (prohibiting the employment of people without legal immigration status) are directly used to require the substitution of an H-2A workforce for undocumented workers.

The H-2A program does not just provide a replacement for undocumented labor. It also impacts farmworkers already in the United States, both documented and undocumented. The program has been used repeatedly to replace workers with residence visas or who are US citizens. Legal protections against such replacement are ineffective, and enforcement of those protections by the Department of Labor is virtually absent.

Intensifying a Race to the Bottom

Some of the largest H-2A worker recruiters have enormous influence over immigration policy and its enforcement. With no limits on the number of visas issued annually, their recruitment has mushroomed from 10,000 workers in 1992 to more than 250,000 in 2020 - one-tenth of the US agricultural workforce.

A system in which workers with H-2A visas are put in competition with a domestic labor force depresses all farmworkers' wages. Even mild protections that should provide a wage floor are easily swept aside, as the Trump administration did by issuing executive orders effectively cutting H2-A wages in 2020. (Those orders were challenged in court, and later rescinded by Joe Biden upon taking office.) The growth of the H-2A program has exacerbated the existing housing crisis for rural workers and impacted their living conditions. While some states seek to limit grower access to government housing subsidies, other states encourage growers to use them to build more barracks for contract workers.

Guest workers are pressured to speed up their work, which then increases pressure on other farmworkers around them. When H-2A workers try to organize against exploitative conditions, the H-2A visa allows employers to terminate their employment and end their legal visa status - in effect deporting them. Workers can then be legally blacklisted, preventing their recruitment to work in future seasons.

Although farmworkers were officially declared "essential workers" during the COVID-19 pandemic, the declaration did not increase workers' rights, provide protection from the virus, nor result in a living wage. Instead, H-2A workers were particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus because of the structure of the program, in which they live in congregate housing and travel to and from work in close proximity. The power of the growers and contractors using this program was clearly demonstrated by their successful effort to maintain dangerous housing conditions in Washington State and the lack of regulation of housing conditions in California. The coronavirus crisis only added extreme health risks to a bedrock of the inequality and exclusion suffered by H-2A workers generally.

The gross imbalance of power between H-2A workers and growers makes it impossible to implement meaningful worker protections. Yet efforts to expand the H-2A program have garnered political support among both Democrats and Republicans. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the most important of these bipartisan efforts, would likely lead to half the farm labor workforce in the United States laboring under the H-2A program within a few years - five times the already large number of H-2A workers currently.

Intensifying a race to the bottom for all farmworkers in the United States, the consequences would be disastrous, as it would likely limit any growth in wages, increase workers' vulnerability to employer pressure, undermine their bargaining power, and increase the already heavy obstacles to independent worker organization and unions.

Real change for H-2A and resident farmworkers requires upsetting the balance of power between workers and growers, and the government that protects them. The choice confronting the Biden administration is whether to expand an immigration program prioritizing grower profits over workers' and immigrants' rights, or to reinforce an immigration system based on family reunification and community stability, while protecting the wages, rights, health, and housing of farmworkers - the alternative advanced by the civil rights movement over half a century ago.

This article summarizes the conclusions of a report by the Oakland Institute, Dignity or Exploitation - What Future for Farmworker Families in the United States?, issued on February 18, 2021.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 2/16/21


Rosendo and Josefina live in a trailer in an encampment on the Tule River levee near Porterville. (Photo: David Bacon)

It was after midnight on Jan. 21 when Tulare County sheriffs walked into the encampment of unhoused people on the levee of the Tule River. "They parked on the highway," remembers Rosendo "Chendo" Hernandez, who shares a small trailer parked under a tree with his partner Josefina. "I heard them walking around in front, and then they called out to me to open my door. They said we were trespassing on private property and we had to leave."

Sheriffs made him sign a notice, Hernandez says, giving him a week to remove his possessions and find another place to live. Deputies then went to other levee residents who have set up shacks or impromptu shelters along the river. Mari Perez, co-director of the Larry Itliong Resource Center in nearby Poplar, estimates that includes about 150 people. "They said they'd arrest us if we didn't sign," Hernandez recalls, and one officer, he charges, drew his gun. "People are on edge, especially because of what happened on the St. John's River."



A photo taken by a local activist of the St. John's River levee encampment fire.

The sheriff's warning to the Tule River residents came 10 days after police in neighboring Visalia, Tulare County's largest city, evicted another group of people on the St. John's River levee. Residents there were forced to take what possessions they could carry, while heavy construction equipment piled up what was left. A fire later broke out in which those possessions were incinerated.

Tulare County is not unique. Similar situations face unhoused people across the state. Here they are unfolding along rivers in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, the country's richest and most productive agricultural region. That wealth, however, does not produce housing for the valley's impoverished residents, who instead face the use of law enforcement to remove them and render them invisible.

The use of police to get rid of the encampments of people living outdoors is hardly new, whether in the San Joaquin Valley or the rest of California. In 2009 a sweep by Visalia police of St. John's River camps was witnessed by Bill Simon, then chair of the Fresno chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Afterwards, "The river was as empty as the dreams of the homeless who were being evicted," he observed. "Some people [had] lived there for as long as seven to 14 years."

Fresno, the valley's biggest city, not only has the largest number of residents living on the street, but a long history of efforts to make them leave. The city passed a "ban on camping" on the streets in August 2017. In 2018 police had 9,000 "contacts" with people sleeping on sidewalks, yet their numbers continued to swell.
Jerry Dyer, former Fresno chief of police, was elected mayor last year, and he announced a new initiative on Jan. 22, "Project Offramp," to force homeless people to leave camps set up on the property of Caltrans. "Even though it's not our jurisdiction," Dyer admitted, he will send police and city workers to tell the people sleeping near freeways to leave. "We can't get used to homeless people living in our neighborhoods ... It's time we reclaim our neighborhoods and reclaim our freeways," Mayor Dyer earlier told the local Fox affiliate.

The Offramp project will supposedly find housing for the 250 people which Dyer estimates live near freeways. But they are only some of the 2,386 people living out of doors in Fresno city and county in 2020, an increase of 598 just from the previous year.



Justin lives with his mother in the Tule River encampment. (Photo: David Bacon)

Nevertheless, in 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court backed a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that "people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no available alternatives," according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel explained, "Cities must stop attempting to criminalize and hide their communities' homeless people and instead work toward providing real solutions, starting with the only thing that truly ends homelessness: access to safe, affordable, accessible homes."

Police and sheriff actions to eliminate outdoor encampments, therefore, require that displaced people must have access to alternative housing. Hernandez says that the notice from the Tulare County sheriff claimed replacement housing was available, although the deputies couldn't tell him where it was. "A trailer park would charge us $450 a month," he says, "and we just don't have it." Last year the New Porterville Rescue Mission on A Street was closed by the city after it couldn't come up to safety and health codes, and one resident complained of pervasive cockroach infestation.

Part of the Tule River levee lies inside Porterville, while part of it is in the county's unincorporated area. According to the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance' 2020 Point in Time survey, 704 people in Tulare County were sleeping outside and more than two-thirds of them had been doing so for more than a year. Over half are Latinos or other people of color, and their number has nearly doubled since 2013. In Porterville itself 174 people were unsheltered. Only 163 people in both Porterville and the surrounding county were able to find beds in a shelter. While social services exist for unhoused people, Tulare County, like every county in California, clearly can't deal with the number and rapid increase in people who have no adequate place to live.

Sleeping in shelters, however, is dangerous during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that "if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread." Instead of forcing people to leave, the CDC asks authorities to improve sanitation, and provide bathrooms with water and washing materials.



Rosendo Hernandez talks with Arturo Rodriguez, an organizer with the Larry Itliong Resource Center, about conditions in the camps along the river. (Photo: David Bacon)

The CDC recommendation was the basis for a court decision in Santa Cruz on Jan. 20, in which federal Judge Susan van Keulen stopped City Manager Martín Bernal and the police department from evicting people living along the San Lorenzo River. Bernal's efforts led to a confrontation between police and residents, who were supported by community activists, on Dec. 28. Afterwards Van Keulen issued a temporary restraining order against the city.

In Tulare County community organizer Mari Perez says residents along the levee are considering similar legal actions, and attorney Michael Bracamontes has written a warning letter to the board of supervisors. "The Tule River inhabitants," he charges, "are not being punished for any voluntary act, but instead for their involuntary status of being homeless. Because the Tule River inhabitants have nowhere else to go, they are forced to choose between sleeping exposed to the elements or subjecting themselves to criminal punishment by sleeping by the river."

Meanwhile, the situation has grown more tense since deputies detained Hernandez for a parole violation, although he was released two days later on his own recognizance. His detention added to the fear that the deputies might arrive at any moment to begin evictions. Hernandez had been helping bring public attention to the situation of the river dwellers. "If we've got to go we've got to go," he said glumly. "But where? It wouldn't be so bad if we just had a place to go, but we don't. And if we're moved out we could be a lot less safe. The COVID is out there, everywhere you go."

Friday, February 5, 2021


By David Bacon
The Progressive, On the Line, 2/5/21

The infection rate from the COVID virus is much higher in the rural counties of California than it is in the cities.  In Tulare County, 29,078 people had contracted the virus as of four days before Christmas, and 353 people had died.

Yet throughout this summer and fall, farmworkers went into the county's orchards to harvest fruit.  Workers are essential, since if they didn't do this work the grapes, pluots and persimmons would rot on the trees, and supermarket shelves would be bare.  But being essential during the COVID era also means that workers are forced to put themselves at risk of infection in the orchards because they have no money to pay rent or buy food if they don't.

In the trees and under the vines farmworkers do the best they can to take care they don't get sick.  Most wear masks or bandannas, although women especially have always worn bandannas at work.  In addition to protecting against infection, they filter out dust.  Most important for many, they provide a kind of shield against unwanted attention from men.

Even in a good crew with a responsible foreman, workers almost invariably have to bring their own shears, bags and masks.  Summer temperature in the Tulare fields get up to 110 degrees.  The masks are hot and uncomfortable, but workers are already challenging accepted wisdom by wearing many layers of clothing, which they say does a better job of insulating against the heat than showing up for work in a teeshirt.  

Still, wearing protection and being uncomfortable - cold in November's persimmons and hot in July's pluots and August's grapes - is not really a choice if you have a family to support.  And if it's the price of not getting sick, then workers pay it. 


POPLAR, CA - 11AUGUST20 - Filipino farmworkers pick table grapes in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley.  Most workers wear facemasks or bandannas as a protection against spreading the coronavirus.  Teresita Mateo came from Laoag, in Ilocos Norte province of the Philippines.


POPLAR, CA - 11AUGUST20 - Victor Tabino takes the picked bunches and puts them into a plastic bag, ready for the supermarket.


POPLAR, CA - 21NOVEMBER20 - Farmworkers pick persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Maria Madrigal is a picker in the crew.


POPLAR, CA - 21NOVEMBER20 - Next to his ladder, Pedro Rodriguez cuts each persimmon with a shears, placing it carefully in the box strapped to his shoulders.


POPLAR, CA - 21NOVEMBER20 - At the truck, a loader stacks the boxes.  The boxes can't be filled to the top, or the soft fruit will be crushed.


POPLAR, CA - 13JULY20 - Carmen, another picker, balances on a ladder while she fills her bag she carries on her shoulder.


POPLAR, CA - 13JULY20 - Sara Toledo reaches through the branches and leaves for the pluots she intends to pick.


POPLAR, CA - 13JULY20 - A worker empties her bag of fruit into the bin.

Saturday, January 30, 2021


Love Letter to Jeaneth

Lillian Galedo's tribute

I was so sad and heart sick and angry to learn of your death by a hit-and-run driver - on the day you would be celebrating your 31st wedding anniversary.

I remember when you first came to FAJ's caregiver support group (Kapwa Ko). Christine at Asian Health Services referred you to FAJ. Your stomach was tied in knots and you suffered from severe pain. She realized that it was less medical and more related to stress and anxiety.

Stress from missing your family in the Philippines, the hardships of poverty, living on the margins without 'papers', afraid of being discovered. It was your job that was making you sick. You were working all the time for less than $10/hr. That didn't leave you with much after sending much needed remittances home. Even though your salary did not reflect it, you were managing an understaffed, multiple patient care facility on a tight budget. Because you lived there you had to do whatever was needed, working 24/7. You had no privacy or quality time to yourself. On your 'off day' the only thing you could do was go walking/window shopping. Isolated. Trapped in the black hole of no legal status and no labor protections.

Your employer was heartless and despicable; but you would never use words like that. I remember one story you shared: You were excited about being invited to a holiday party at your boss's fancy house in Walnut Creek. You dressed up. When you got there you were informed that you were not a guest! You were there to serve and clean up - without compensation. She thought she owned you. Later, you joked that if you knew you would be working you 'wouldn't have worn heels!' (I swear 80% of Filipinos are comedians.) We both chuckled over that, but I hated your boss for humiliating and disrespecting you that way. 

Christine called ahead to say you were coming over. Judith greeted you with a warm, disarming smile. You seemed reluctant and didn't say much for a few group sessions. But you listened to the stories of other caregivers and over time opened up. They made you laugh, feel at home. You ate together, tried yoga, line dancing and shared your favorite pass time - karaoke. All good medicine. They too had to navigate heartless, exploitative, cheap, abusive employers and were managing to survive by supporting each other. A few actually had experienced decent employers. 



Some of them were involved in domestic worker rights campaigns that FAJ was a part of. We invited you to go with the California Domestic Workers Coalition to Sacramento to promote our domestic workers' rights bill. You were hesitant, but you agreed to tag along. (I think you were equally interested is going on a day trip to the Capital since you had never been there or anywhere since coming here.) You were nervous, but listened. 


We next invited you to march with us in Sacramento. You went.  There were so many domestic worker women of all nationalities - being loud, assertive, and telling their stories. When I pointed my camera in your direction you would take a half step backwards behind someone else - but you marched on.

You quit that abusive job and began finding your voice. You contributed a few words as part of a delegation of domestic workers who meet with our Assembly member.

Not long after, you agreed to go with us to Washington DC (!) for the National Domestic Workers Alliance's convening of domestic workers from all over the country. We were there to learn from and support each other as well as begin shaping a campaign for a national domestic workers' bill of rights. It was energizing and inspiring. You even participated in a cultural presentation. The Filipino caregivers joined together to sing Ang Bayan Ko. You were still camera shy, but I think you were happy to have participated and liked the photo of yourself on stage.


When we next went to Sacramento for a big Lobby Day you were prepared to tell your story. You wrote it down and confidently read it at two visits. My all-time favorite photo is of you leaning nonchalantly against the giant bear outside the Governor's office at the end of that day - looking directly into the camera (!). If I could write a dialog bubble over your head it would say: "I'm cool, I did what I came here to do."

Through the empowering domestic workers' rights eco-system of FAJ, PAWIS, CDWC, and NDWA you evolved into a worker aktibista, joining other caregivers to win workers' rights victories. At the time of your death you were reaching out and being supportive of other caregivers, even distributing face masks. You had found - and were building - a supportive community for low wage, exploited workers.


The new Administrative has promised to legalize the undocumented in the US. I really wanted that for you.

So, with you in my thoughts, I continue our fight for legal status for the millions of workers like you who are the bedrock of our economy. 

Love you karaoke Princess. Rest in peace and power. Jeaneth Presente!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


By David Bacon
The Nation, January 12, 2021

 Baby Lhiann Lacambacal with her grandparents Reginaldo and Gloria, and Arturo Rodriguez, an organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center. The Lacambacals live in housing built as part of the Self-Help movement. (David Bacon)

In California's agricultural heartland, farmworkers are fighting back against expensive rents, substandard housing, and economic disenfranchisement.

Support for this reporting came from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Poplar, Calif.-In the Covid era, poverty in California's rural agricultural counties has become deadly. California now has over 2.7 million coronavirus cases. While Los Angeles, with its huge population, has the largest number of cases with over 920,000, the highest infection rates actually are to be found in less-populous counties with large farmworker populations. Imperial County, right across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, and Kings County, just south of Fresno, both have well over 10,000 cases per every 100,000 residents. California is the richest state in the United States, so it's easy to forget that its rural poverty and substandard farmworker housing have contributed to the surge in Covid-19 cases here.

Tulare County, a large county in California's southern San Joaquin Valley, was a tourist destination in better times-it's home to the towering forests of the Sequoia National Park. But Tulare is also a working county-it was here that the United Farm Workers was born out of the 1965 grape strike, and it remains one of the most important agricultural regions in the state and the country. Tulare, with a population of about 466,000, has 34,479 Covid-19 cases, and 406 people have died. That gives it infection and death rates more than twice those of urban San Francisco or Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County. 


Erika carries her ladder from the row of trees she's just finished picking, to the next row in Poplar. The ladder weighs about 30 pounds. Most women farmworkers normally wear some kind of face covering, usually a bandanna, while working in the fields. The bandanna protects against the sun and breathing dust, and even against sexual harassment. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis bandannas have become a protection against spreading Covid-19 as well. (David Bacon)


Maria Madrigal picks persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants.  (David Bacon)

Covid rates follow income. Family annual income in San Francisco and Santa Clara is more than twice that of Tulare. Over 32,000 the county's residents are farmworkers, and farmworker families survive on less than half of what most US families earn.

In Tulare, poverty forces people to live closer together to share rent and living costs, making social distancing difficult. People here go to work because they have no cushion of savings-a day without pay can be difficult; a week could be ruinous. Traveling to and from the fields in crowded cars or buses also places workers in close proximity. "Getting better housing has become a survival need at a time when existing conditions make the threat of the virus much much worse," Mari Perez, an organizer with the Larry Itliong Resource Center in Poplar, a farmworker community in Tulare County, told me. 


Abandoned housing for farmworkers outside of Poplar. (David Bacon)

A farmworker family's home in Campo California, outside of Poplar. Campo California is a colonia, or an unincorporated community outside of the city limits of the closest city, Porterville. Most colonias, whose residents are low income farmworkers, and mostly immigrants, have problems getting public services from water to sewer connections. (David Bacon)

Justin lives with his mother in an encampment on the Tule River levee near Porterville. The riverbed is often dry, since a dam was built further upstream to create Lake Success. People with no other place to live have built a string of encampments along the levee downstream. (David Bacon)

But the fight to improve housing conditions didn't begin with the pandemic-in fact, better living conditions has been at the center of the struggle for rural emancipation here since the days of the grape strike. One of the most important tools for getting better housing, born in the civil rights upsurge among the valley's farmworkers, was a concept called Self-Help Housing.

It started with the idea that even people with low income could build and own homes. If farmworkers contributed their labor and got help with building materials and loans for land, they could free themselves from paying high rents. In activist Richard Unwin's history of Self-Help Housing's first idealistic decade, he called it "a story of a singular effort, a sustained commitment, to develop imaginative, efficient and humane methods of assisting families to move up from poverty by moving out of riverbank shanties and roadside shacks into decent houses...of determination to make substance of dreams." 


Mario Robles was born in 1999, just after his family had bought this house in Earlimart. (David Bacon)

Mario Robles, now 21 years old, was born the year his parents moved into a house on Sierra Avenue in Earlimart, a small farmworker town in Tulare County. It was already an old house, one of the first built by Self-Help Housing in 1965, 35 years earlier. 


A home on Bobbi Avenue in Earlimart, built in the late 1990s as a Self-Help housing project. (David Bacon)

"No one in my family knows who built it," Robles says. "But when we moved in the house was falling apart. We put a lot of work into it, and now we're really proud of it." A string of houses like the Robles's lines the south side of Sierra Avenue, all built in the same year. A few show their age, but most look like their owners have taken very good care of them, or even rebuilt them after they'd deteriorated.

These homes were the answer community activists had to the chronic crisis afflicting farmworker families-terrible housing, or even no housing at all. Today, it's still not unusual to see people living in cars when the grape harvest begins in Tulare County and migrants arrive for the picking.

Even families that live in the county year-round have to put up with homes in bad condition, paying a large part of their low farmworker wages to live in them. According to the Census, half the workers in the county earn less than $24,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the families in Tulare get food stamps and live below the poverty line-more than a third of families headed by single women. For half of Tulare's 56,000 renters-farmworkers and other low-wage laborers-a third of family income goes for rent.

Self-Help Housing was a product of the early farmworker movement. At the end of the 1950s, Larry Itliong, for whom the Resource Center in Poplar center is named, had been organizing strikes of Filipino farmworkers for a decade, with the Filipino Farm Labor Union and later the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Cesar Chavez was getting ready to leave the Community Service Organization to found the National Farm Worker Association.

In 1958, in Tulare County, Brad McAlister, a staff member of the Farm Labor Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, brought together the first group of farmworkers to talk about a self-help model for building homes. Two years later, he went to Congress and began writing what became the Housing Act of 1961, which produced the first federal home loans for low-income rural people.

By 1963, the first 12 families had begun construction in Goshen, a tiny Tulare County community on Highway 99. From the start, both Self-Help and the UFW were part of the same rebellious movement for change among rural families. Supportive activists like Clyde Golden and George Salinas worked as carpenters on Self-Help homes in some years, and in others built the union's retirement home for Filipino strikers, Agbayani Village. 


Husband and wife Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal in the garage of their home. Gloria came from the Philippines 20 years ago, and worked in the fields for years. (David Bacon)

The Lacambacal family in the garage of the home in Poplar that they built as part of the Self Help program. From left, Gloria, Reynaldo, Giyahna, Reginaldo, Eddie and Eufronio. In front, Lhiann, and Jenika Gwen. (David Bacon)

In Poplar, 20 miles north, Self-Help began pulling together Filipino and Mexican immigrant families two decades ago, and helped them begin building homes on Walker Street. "We moved into our house in 2004," remembers Gina Lacambacal. "Self-Help provided the materials and it was up to us to put it up. Sometimes if we couldn't work on our own house people would come and help. All the houses in this neighborhood were built with Self-Help."

When she was growing up, she recalls, people in Poplar rented homes from the local pawnshop owner. "Our house wasn't very well built. It was ancient, but you had a roof over your head. That's all that mattered."

The Sobrepena family built their home in 1996, just a few doors away. Both the Lacambacals and Sobrepenas come from the Philippines. Family migration wasn't easy for them: It took Gina's older brothers more than 20 years to get their visas because of the system's long backlogs. Another brother had to stay unmarried for years in the Philippines, since married children lose their visa preference. He could only marry his wife once he arrived in the United States. 


Valentine Sobrepena, the oldest member of the family, prepares Filipino goat meat for a party that evening, in the garage of the home they built in 1996 as a Self-Help housing project. (David Bacon)

Christina Sobrepena is 83 years old and came from the Philippines and worked in the grapes for 20 years. She now lives in housing built as part of the Self-Help movement. (David Bacon)

Nevertheless, having a stable home gave the families a base from which other members were able to come. Valentine and Christine Sobrepena and Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal were brought to the country by family members who were already citizens and legal residents. The couples worked the rest of their lives as farmworkers picking grapes and other fruit. They're now in their 80s, too old to work, but they have a home with four generations of family looking out for them.

Most families in Poplar, however, are still renting. It is a tiny, unincorporated "Census-designated place," but growing. In 2000 it had 1,500 residents, and 10 years later 2,500. "We haven't seen this year's numbers yet," says Mari Perez, "but we're sure they'll be a lot higher. So we need housing more than ever." 


Rachele Alcantar at the door to her trailer, where she lives with her husband Jose Serna, her son Victor Alcantar, and her baby Ezekiel Serna. She was just elected to the local school board. (David Bacon)

Jose Serna and his sons Victor Alcantar and Ezekiel Serna. Serna is active in the local chapter of CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. (David Bacon)

Despite some rural housing construction, half the housing in Tulare County was built before 1970, and only 4 percent in the last decade. Like many Poplar residents, Rachel Alcantar lives in a trailer, paying $500 a month in rent, with her husband, Jose Serna; her son, Victor Alcantar; and her baby, Ezekiel Serna. She was just elected to Poplar's school board, and she and her husband are both immigrant rights activists with the local chapter of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "We all hoped that Self-Help would continue bringing in more families, but they stopped after the houses were built on Walker Street," Alcantar says.

A few blocks away, Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago, and fixed it up. Then she added a tiny trailer in the backyard for her son and a friend to live in. Arturo Rodriguez, the other organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center, grew up in that house and remembers the condition it was in. "I just thought it was normal, the way people lived," he says. So when the center was organized, he began a campaign to take control of the local development board. 


Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago and fixed it up. She set up this bedroom for her son when he was still a boy. (David Bacon)

Lupe Aldaco added a trailer in her backyard for her son Israel Champion and his friend Miguel Ruiz to live in. She and her family live in difficult housing because there is not enough affordable housing for working families in Poplar. (David Bacon)

"It was run by the old guard," he says, "who stopped any new housing because more people meant a threat to their control." Poplar is in the district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives. The center finally found several acres of land for housing, but it's still fighting to get rid of restrictions the old guard put in place.

"Housing is a right," Perez laughs. "But it's also a fight. If we don't organize, we'll never get it." 


The staff of the Larry Itliong Resource Center-Arturo Rodriguez and his daughter, Mari Perez and Rachel Eyla-are organizing the residents of Poplar to demand better housing. (David Bacon)

David Bacon is author of Illegal People-How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. David Bacon's photography archive is now in the Special Collections of the Green Library at Stanford University.