Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Photographs by David Bacon

Relying on the photographs, reporting and video in the mainstream media can give you a false idea about the marches and demonstrations against white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers in San Francisco and Berkeley last weekend.  The newsroom adage says, "if it bleeds it leads."  But screaming headlines about violence, and stories and images focused on scuffles, were not a good reality check. 

Mainstream coverage was miles away from the reality most people experienced.  One racist quoted for each counterprotestor ignored the fact that there were at most a few dozen of one, and many thousands of the other.  More important, where were the reasons why people came out to demonstrate against racism and rightwing politics?  How did people organize their broad constituencies of faith and labor, communities of color, women and immigrants?

In the confrontations between a tiny number of white supremacists and a very small number of demonstrators, the photographers who chased them sometimes outnumbered those involved.  At those same moments, hundreds of Black, Latino, Asian and white church people were marching up Martin Luther King Jr. Way.  The two banners of the Democratic Socialists of America (one all the way from Santa Cruz) stretched across the four lanes of the avenue.  Where were the photographers? In San Francisco thousands marched up Market Street.  I saw fewer photographers there than at any march in recent memory.

Making the scufflers so visible makes everyone else invisible.  Sure, editors choose what to put on the page or website.  But as media workers we can also see what's real and what's not.

In the Fields of the North / En los Campos del Norte

September 5, Living Wage Coalition
6PM, 2940 16th Street, Room 301 San Francisco

September 12, UC Berkeley Labor Center
6PM, 2521 Channing Way, Berkeley

September 13, Food to Farm Event
5:30PM, Guy West Plaza, Sacramento State University, Sacramento

September 15, Green Arcade Bookstore
7PM, 1680 Market Street, San Francisco

September 20, Commonwealth Club
With Jose Padilla, Executive Director, California Rural Legal Assistance
6PM, 555 Post Street, San Francisco

Sunday, August 13, 2017



Review: In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte)
August 08, 2017 / Eve Ottenberg

In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte
By David Bacon
(University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte; 302 photographs, 450 pages; $34.95 paperback)

David Bacon's unforgettable new English-Spanish photo-essay, In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte), is about migrant farm workers on the West Coast. Bacon says that without unions, the state of affairs in the fruit and vegetable fields would be even sorrier.

Mexican blueberry picker Honesto Silva Ibarra died in Washington state on Sunday after complaining of headaches but being forced by his supervisor to return to work in the blazing sun. He ended up in a coma. When 70 of his co-workers struck Sarbanand Farms to protest Silva's treatment, they were fired the next day and within an hour were thrown out of their company-owned housing.

Such situations are typical of those found in David Bacon's remarkable new English-Spanish photo-essay, In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte), about migrant farm workers on the West Coast. The main takeaway from the book is that if the United Farm Workers were a stronger union, tragedies like this would not occur. But it should also be said that without the UFW and smaller independent unions like Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), the state of affairs in the fruit and vegetable fields of the West would be even sorrier.

Still, most farm workers don't have a union yet, and many of those who do have not had a contract for a long time.


This book contains unforgettable photographs. There is one of farm workers from the Gallo ranch in Sonoma Valley, who "cross arms, hold hands and sing at the end of a meeting to protest the unwillingness of the company to sign a union contract. Holding hands and singing at the end of a meeting is part of the culture of the United Farm Workers."

And these workers, mainly indigenous people from Mexico, have lots to protest. As Lucrecia Camacho recalls: "I would tie my young children to a stake in the dirt while I worked and I tried to work very fast, so that the foreman would give me an opportunity to nurse my child...I've always been alone, a single mother of ten children...The strawberry harvest...[is] hard. I don't wish that kind of work on my worst enemy."

The labor is arduous, the living conditions atrocious: workers describe how they sleep out in the open, under trees or tarps. Explaining what led to one strike in Washington, Rosario Ventura says: "We were upset about the conditions in the labor camp. The mattress they gave us was torn and dirty, and the wire was coming out and poked us...There were cockroaches and rats. The roof leaked when it rained...All my children's clothes were wet."

Eventually, because of the strike, the company agreed to some of the workers' demands.

The photographs of the shacks, tents, trailers, and tarps the workers live in and under are powerful-the need for decent housing everywhere evident. These hovels often stand right next to luxurious upper-middle-class abodes, separated only by a low wall or path. "We're the first trailer park to have the owners legally removed," says Elisa Guevara, who leads Mexican farm workers protesting bad living conditions. "When people realize they don't have to be quiet and afraid, then change will happen."


As Laura Velasco Ortiz writes in the book's afterword, David Bacon is a "partisan artist." He himself elaborates: "Eighty years ago, many photographers were political activists and saw their work intimately connected to worker strikes, political revolution or the movements for indigenous peoples' rights...I don't claim to be an unbiased observer. I'm on the side of immigrant workers and unions in the United States." His new book highlights resistance and solidarity, but it also exposes injustice and details the exploitation of the people who put food on our tables.

Today growers are "paying an illegal [subminimum] wage to tens of thousands of farm workers," Bacon says. Workers get about $1.50 for picking a flat of strawberries. "Each flat contains about eight plastic clamshell boxes, so a worker is paid about 20 cents to fill each one. That same box sells in a supermarket for three dollars...If the price of a clamshell box increased by five cents (a suggestion made by the UFW during the Watsonville strawberry organizing drive of the late 1990s), the wages of workers would increase by 25 percent."

Workers are thus cheated of a fair wage. They are also threatened with deportation, if they complain, and they have no work in winter. But coming from 13 Mexican states, they speak 23 languages and have strong community ties. As Bacon points out, these bonds are key to their efforts to organize.

Romulo Muñoz Vazquez recalls: "I was beaten at work five years ago on a ranch by the freeway in San Diego. The boss asked us why we weren't working hard. I told him we weren't animals and we had rights. I still remember everything they did to me afterwards...On May Day we've decided not to go to work...We must organize ourselves in order to move ahead."


Most migrants crossing the border today are, typically, about 20 years old. In the chapter, "I'm Going to Be a Rapper with a Conscience," Raymundo Guzman, a young farm worker from Oaxaca who lives in a trailer in Fresno, explains: "I really didn't like to work in the fields when I was in school. I still don't like it, but we have to do it."

He speaks Mixteco, Spanish, and English. "I graduated from high school," he says. "I was the first in my family to do it, my mother was so proud that she threw me a party...but I felt sad...because I didn't know what to do with my diploma, I didn't know where to go and nobody at school helped me." He describes picking grapes in the dizzying heat, and the pain in his knees and back from bending over to pick strawberries all day. "I want to live, not just survive," says Guzman.

Farm workers have difficulty just getting decent clean water. Arsenic contaminates the drinking water of migrants in Lanare, California, an issue around which residents have organized. Another problem is rampant sexual abuse at work and gender discrimination in hiring. But job insecurity remains one of the biggest issues.

"I know one [foreman] who only hires immigrants without papers, because she says legal residents complain too much," Lucrecia Camacho reports. "It's always based on if they like you or not, we just have to put our heads down and work quietly." Speaking of the cost of living, she goes on: "The more we earn, they more they take away. We can't move forward...if I didn't work fast, I was fired immediately."

Everyone in this book who is asked thinks a union would help. "When I was working for [the UFW]," says Andres Cruz, leader of a Triqui immigrant farm worker community, "a group of workers...told me that the company they worked for was firing people every day, this company wanted each worker to pick 250 pounds of peas daily...their hands were so swollen and cut...Sometimes organizing a strike takes three to four days, but in some cases, we can organize in one day...When [our community decides] to do something collectively, they are very united."

That is why the work of the UFW and of smaller independent unions is vital. (After many strikes, Familias Unidas por la Justicia ratified a first contract this summer with Sakuma Bros. Berry Farms in Washington.) So are groups like California Rural Legal Assistance and indigenous movements like La Nación Purepecha. And so are publications like In the Fields of the North.


'Chasing the Harvest' and 'In the Fields of the North'
Review by Elaine Elinson
SF Gate, July 19, 2017

In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte
By David Bacon
(University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte; 302 photographs, 450 pages; $34.95 paperback)

Chasing the Harvest
Edited by Gabriel Thompson
(Verso; 320 pages; $24.95 paperback)

In 1946, Carlos Bulosan documented the gritty lives of Filipino migrant workers in California in his autobiographical novel "America Is in the Heart."

Since that time, there have been a wealth of books about California farmworkers, from Steinbeck's iconic "Grapes of Wrath" to Peter Matthiesen's "Sal Si Puedes," published at the height of the Delano grape strike, to Matthew Garcia's recent "From the Jaws of Victory," with revelations from an excavation of United Farm Workers archives.

Yet aside from Bulosan's groundbreaking work seven decades ago, the stories have been told by outsiders - albeit excellent journalists and observers - not by farmworkers themselves.

Two new books, "Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture," edited by Gabriel Thompson, and "In the Fields of the North/ En los campos del norte," by David Bacon, change that pattern.

They come at a crucial time: One third of the nation's agricultural workers, about 800,000 people, are in California. Though the crops they harvest yield $47 billion dollars annually, their average annual income is $14,000. They face chronic arthritis from stoop labor, pesticide poisoning and heat stroke.

Today, 70 percent of the farm workers were born in Mexico, and many travel with their families and fellow villagers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Guerrero. They speak Mixteco, Triqui and 20 other indigenous languages; many don't know Spanish at all. "We are the invisible of the invisible," Fausto Sanchez, a Mixteco, told Thompson. Sanchez worked the onion fields and orange groves and is now an advocate with California Rural Legal Assistance living in Arvin, a whisper of a town south of Bakersfield where Steinbeck once did research.

Thompson's book, a collection of 17 oral histories, is part of the innovative Voice of Witness series. An award-winning journalist, Thompson is the author of "America's Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century."

Roberto Valdez, a 48-year-old farmworker who lives in a trailer with his family in Thermal, in Riverside County, took cell phone videos in the scorching fields after his teenage son almost died from heatstroke. "No one comes out here, no one knows what we go through," he says.

Valdez became an advocate for safe conditions, even testifying before the state Legislature: "The hands that you see are the hands that harvest the lemons you use to make the lemonade you are now drinking. The strawberries that your children eat, we cut them. We're dying out there in the fields."

Valdez's testimony and videos helped win the passage of regulations protecting workers from extreme heat. But, as Thompson notes, "widespread violations - and death in the fields - continue."

Rosario Pelayo, a 77-year-old great-grandmother of 21 from Calexico, proudly shows Thompson a photo that appeared in El Malcriado, the UFW newspaper, when she was arrested during the grape strike in 1974. "There were days when the only thing we had out on the picket lines was a bottle of water and one taco. And I still haven't lost the spirit."

She recounts facing Teamsters who menaced picketers with tire irons, chains and pruning shears. Yet she was one of the workers who was ousted from the UFW convention when she sought a seat on the executive board.

Though Pelayo harbors some resentment, she still feels proud of the UFW's accomplishments. "I saw so many injustices in the field. They used to treat the farmworkers as if they were slaves. We didn't get breaks. There were no bathrooms in the fields. We needed a union and to get it we had to fight with all our hearts."

Thompson notes that, thanks to the UFW, California still has the only law in the country that protects the right of farmworkers to unionize, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975.

Bacon's comprehensive bilingual volume also includes oral histories, as well as analytical essays and hundreds of black-and-white photos. A former union organizer, Bacon is the author of "The Children of NAFTA and Illegal People," and his photos have been exhibited in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. Bacon describes his work as "not objective but partisan, documenting social reality is part of the movement for social change."

Ironically, despite using a more diverse array of documentation, Bacon may have chosen a more challenging path. As photographer Teju Cole asserts, "Photography is particularly treacherous when it comes to righting wrongs because it is so good at recording appearances. ... It's not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you, but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed."

The poignant photographs in Bacon's collection meet that call. Avoiding both sensationalism and sentimentality, the photos reveal not only the workers' desperate poverty, but also the dignity of their toil and their consuming effort to provide a better life for their children.

The inside look at the migrants' "informal housing" is deeply disturbing. We see families crammed in tiny trailers and dilapidated plywood shacks, covered by tarps or sin techo (without a roof) hastily thrown up in orchards or fields. The growers allow them to stay in exchange for protecting the crops. Clusters of shacks outside city limits lack sewage, electricity and water treatment, forcing the residents to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. They bathe in irrigation ditches, polluted by runoff of pesticides and fertilizers.

Bacon's photos are most captivating when he focuses on people's faces and calloused hands as they prune vines, cut lettuce and sort strawberries. In accompanying captions, they remember precisely how many buckets of jalapenos, blueberries or tomatoes they picked, how much they weighed and how much they earned per bucket.

Bacon also captures moments that brighten the lives of the workers. Raymundo Guzman, a trilingual rapper in baggy shorts and unlaced sneakers, entertains from a makeshift stage in a labor camp. Mothers embroider intricate designs on blouses for their daughters to wear when they perform traditional dances at fiestas. Bright-eyed Mixtec children show off their drawings and sing with their teachers in Migrant Head Start. And workers march under banners reading "Respect," and "United Without Borders" as they renew the arduous effort of union organizing.

Both Bacon and Thompson bring us one step closer to Bulosan's masterful novel, providing not just an intimate, but an insider look, at the lives of California's farmworkers.

Elaine Elinson, coauthor of "Wherever There's a Fight," represented the United Farm Workers in Europe during the grape strike and boycott.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


The American Prospect, 08/08/17
Traducido por Jose Gonzalez

Recoger arándanos en una granja del estado de Washington. Correr el riesgo de expulsión, los trabajadores agrícolas del estado de Washington protestar por las condiciones peligrosas en los campos

La muerte de un trabajador agrícola en los campos de asar el estado de Washington ha llevado a sus compañeros de braceros para poner sus medios de vida en peligro por ir a la huelga, afiliarse a un sindicato, ser dado de alta - y correr el riesgo de ser deportados.

Honesto Silva Ibarra murió en el hospital Harborview en Seattle el domingo por la noche, el 6 de agosto Silva, casado y padre de tres hijos, era un trabajador invitado - en español, un "contratado" - traído a los Estados Unidos bajo la A-H2 programa de visas, para trabajar en los campos.

Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, otro contratado, dice Silva fue a su supervisor en Sarbanand Granjas la semana pasada, quejándose de que estaba enfermo y no podía trabajar. "Me dijeron que si no guardó trabajo que estaría despedido por 'abandono de trabajo.' Pero después de un tiempo que no podía trabajar en absoluto ".

Silva finalmente fue a la Clínica de Bellingham, a una hora al sur de la granja en la que estaba trabajando, en Sumas, cerca de la frontera con Canadá. Para entonces ya era demasiado tarde, sin embargo. Fue enviado a Harborview, donde se desplomó y murió.

La muerte de Silva fue el último empujón que empujó a los CONTRATADOS en una acción sin precedentes en la historia moderna de mano de obra agrícola. Se organizaron y protestaron, y cuando fueron disparados por ello, se unieron nueva unión del estado de Washington para los trabajadores agrícolas, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Como este artículo está siendo escrito, 120 trabajadores H2A están sentados en tiendas de campaña en una parcela de tierra cerca del rancho en el que trabajaban, en protesta por el trato y los derechos de los trabajadores huéspedes exigentes.

En el sitio web de la CSI de procesamiento de visas, que reclutó Silva, Ramírez y otros para trabajar en Sarbanand Farms, una declaración dice lo siguiente: "El compañero que está hospitalizado, la causa fue la meningitis, una enfermedad que sufría de antes, y no está relacionado con su trabajo." Ramírez y otros trabajadores dudan de la explicación. Silva había estado trabajando en los EE.UU. desde mayo, y no llegó con síntomas de meningitis. En cambio, insisten en que fue la consecuencia de las malas condiciones cada vez más en el rancho.

Según Ramón Torres, presidente de Familias Unidas por la Justicia, los trabajadores H2-A en Sarbanand granjas se habían quejado durante semanas sobre la mala alimentación, las temperaturas en los años 90 con ninguna sombra, agua potable caliente y baños sucios en los campos. En las últimas dos semanas, el aire cerca de la frontera se convirtió en humo de los incendios forestales, al norte de Canadá, lo que hace que sea difícil respirar. Algunos trabajadores se desmayaron en medio de las plantas de arándanos donde estaban recogiendo.

Cuando Silva se derrumbó y fue al hospital, un grupo fue a la gestión del rancho y pidió más seguras condiciones de trabajo. Cuando fueron rechazados, organizaron una huelga de un día el viernes, 4 de agosto Familias Unidas por la Justicia, que acaba de firmar su primer contrato de unión con Sakuma Brothers Farms en las cercanías de Burlington, celebró su primera convención que el viernes. Cuando los trabajadores H2-A vinieron de Sarbanand Granjas, decidieron unirse.

Al día siguiente, 70 fueron despedidos. "Le dijeron a todos nosotros en el paro fuimos despedidos por insubordinación," otro trabajador, Barbaro Rosas Olibares, dijo el organizador FUJ Maru Mora Villapando en una entrevista en video. La declaración de CSI insiste: "Once personas fueron despedidos por cuestiones de insubordinación, que es una causa legal".

Aunque la mayoría de los trabajadores en los EE.UU. están cubiertos por las leyes que hacen tales represalia por golpear una violación legal, los trabajadores agrícolas en general, no tienen esa protección, excepto en los pocos estados, como California, que han dado a los trabajadores agrícolas de esos derechos. Trabajadores con visas H2-A tienen incluso menos derechos y protecciones. La visa se les da cuando vienen a trabajar en los EE.UU. ellas se une al empleador que los reclutó. Si pierden ese trabajo, pierden la visa y se vuelven a deportación. No tienen capacidad legal para demandar a su empleador en un tribunal de Estados Unidos.

Por consiguiente, era notable que no sólo lo hicieron los trabajadores Sarbanand huelga en protesta por las malas condiciones, pero que después de que fueron despedidos no abandonaban el país. La compañía dijo a los trabajadores despedidos que no pagarían inmediatamente por sus últimos cuatro días de trabajo, sino que enviaría un cheque a su domicilio en México - una violación de las normas H2-A. Los trabajadores se les dio una hora para limpiar sus pertenencias fuera del campo de trabajo de la empresa, lo que les deja fuera de pie, sin dinero.

Reclutador de Sarbanand, CSI tramitación de visados, se llevó a algunos a una estación de autobuses local, pero no los compran un boleto de regreso. Esto viola otra H2-A regulación de la contratación, lo que requiere de selección de personal para pagar el transporte hacia y desde el lugar de trabajo en los Estados Unidos. Mientras tanto, los trabajadores se acercaron a presidente del sindicato Torres y también a Community2Community, una organización de defensa de los trabajadores agrícolas y los derechos de los inmigrantes en el noroeste de Washington. Juntos, encontraron una residencia privada cerca de la ubicación Sarbanand, cuyos propietarios acordado dejar el campo de los trabajadores despedidos en sus tierras al decidir sobre su próximo curso de acción. Partidarios locales llevaron a cabo tiendas de campaña y un generador, y un campamento rápidamente surgieron.

Los trabajadores marcharon de regreso al rancho y se manifestaron frente. "Se formó un comité de entre ellos mismos," Torres dice, "y otros 50 trabajadores abandonaron el rancho y se unieron a ellos, a pesar de que la [Sheriff del condado de Whatcom] diputados y policías locales estaban amenazando con llamar a inmigración."

Torres dice que otros trabajadores han sufrido de parálisis facial parcial, y tres están ahora viviendo en el campo. En el vídeo de la entrevista, Rosas Olibares llevó a cabo una pancarta denunciando las autoridades locales para hacer la vista gorda a sus condiciones. Se lee:

Condado y la ciudad - Su ceguera = CULPABLE
- Supresión de los derechos de los trabajadores inmigrantes
-Los trabajadores abierto a las amenazas de deportación!
Trabajadores -Immigrant muriendo aquí / EMPRESA
Condado y la ciudad - Usted son cómplices por negligencia!
¿Como duermes en la noche?

De acuerdo con H2-Un trabajador Ramírez, "Sólo queremos respeto a nuestros derechos -. Disparando nosotros era muy injusta También queremos seguir trabajando hasta el final de nuestro contrato." Ramírez ha estado trabajando como contratado durante 15 años, recogiendo tabaco en Carolina del Norte y Kentucky, y durante los últimos dos años, los arándanos en el noroeste del estado de Washington. El invierno pasado firmó un contrato en la oficina de la CSI Visa Procesadores en su ciudad natal de Santiago Ixcuintla en el estado mexicano de Nayarit. Bajo los términos del contrato que se le garantizó un mínimo de cinco meses de trabajo, hasta el 25 de octubre.

A continuación, Ramírez fue llevado a Nogales, en la frontera entre Estados Unidos y México y se le dio una visa. "Pero vi que era sólo es bueno hasta el 30 de junio", recuerda. "Cuando le pregunté, me dijeron que habían solucionarlo. Pero nunca lo hicieron."

Más de 250 trabajadores fueron reclutados en la oficina Nayarit, dice, una de las nueve de la CSI tiene en México. Fueron llevados a Delano, en el Valle de San Joaquín en California, el 7 de mayo Allí empezaron recogiendo arándanos en Munger Farms, un gran productor y socio en el gigante Naturipe productores asociación. Luego, el 1 de julio, el día después de la visa de Ramírez y muchos otros expirado, que fueron transportados al rancho Sarbanand granjas en el estado de Washington, donde continuaron recogiendo. Sarbanand es una filial de Munger Granjas, propiedad de la familia de Baldev y Kable Munger.

La declaración de CSI insiste en que los trabajadores "recibió una autorización por parte del gobierno de los EE.UU. para este segundo contrato, [y] ninguno de ellos está fuera de estatus legal." Sin embargo, después de la agitación comenzó la semana pasada, un trabajador trató de comprar un billete de avión de vuelta a casa a México, y fue rechazada porque su visa había expirado. "No sabemos qué va a pasar ahora", dice Torres. "Lo que creemos es que los trabajadores tienen derecho a protestar y organizar, y no deben ser castigados por que al ser negado el trabajo que se les prometió."

"Creo que tenemos para organizarse", añade Ramírez. "Estoy dispuesto a trabajar duro, pero pongo tal presión sobre nosotros - ese es el mayor problema que tengo un hijo de 16 años de edad, de vuelta a casa en México ¿Qué le pasaría si muriera aquí, como Honesto hizo..? "

En los Campos del Norte / En los Campos del Norte
Fotografías y texto por David Bacon
University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, 8/8/17

Picking blueberries on a Washington State farm.  Risking deportation, Washington state farmworkers protest dangerous conditions in the fields

A farmworker's death in the broiling fields of Washington state has prompted his fellow braceros to put their livelihoods in jeopardy by going on strike, joining a union, being discharged - and risking deportation.

Honesto Silva Ibarra died in Harborview hospital in Seattle on Sunday night, August 6.  Silva, a married father of three, was a guest worker - in Spanish, a "contratado" - brought to the United States under the H2-A visa program, to work in the fields.

Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, another contratado, says Silva went to his supervisor at Sarbanand Farms last week, complaining that he was sick and couldn't work.  "They said if he didn't keep working he'd be fired for 'abandoning work.' But after a while he couldn't work at all." 

Silva finally went to the Bellingham Clinic, about an hour south of the farm where he was working, in Sumas, close to the Canadian border.  By then it was too late, however.  He was sent to Harborview, where he collapsed and died.

Silva's death was the final shove that pushed the contratados into an action unprecedented in modern farm labor history.  They organized and protested, and when they were fired for it, they joined Washington State's new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  As this article is being written, 120 H2A workers are sitting in tents on a patch of land near the ranch where they worked, protesting their treatment and demanding rights for guest workers.

On the website of CSI Visa Processing, which recruited Silva, Ramirez and others to work at Sarbanand Farms, a statement reads: "The compañero who is hospitalized, the cause was meningitis, an illness he suffered from before, and is not related to his work."  Ramirez and other workers doubt that explanation.  Silva had been working in the U.S. since May, and did not arrive with symptoms of meningitis.  Instead, they insist that it was the consequence of increasingly bad conditions at the ranch. 

According to Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, H2-A workers at Sarbanand Farms had been complaining for weeks about bad food, temperatures in the 90s with no shade, warm drinking water and dirty bathrooms in the fields.  In the last two weeks, the air near the border became smoky from forest fires just to the north in Canada, making it hard to breathe.  Some workers fainted amid the blueberry plants where they were picking.

 When Silva collapsed and went to the hospital, a group went to the ranch management and asked for safer working conditions.  When they were turned away, they organized a one-day strike on Friday, August 4.  Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which just signed its first union contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms in nearby Burlington, held its first convention that Friday.  When the H2-A workers came from Sarbanand Farms, they decided to join.

The following day, 70 were fired.  "They told all of us in the work stoppage we were fired for insubordination," another worker, Barbaro Rosas Olibares, told FUJ organizer Maru Mora Villapando in a video interview.  The CSI statement insists: "Eleven people were fired for questions of insubordination, which is a legal cause."

While most workers in the U.S. are covered by laws that make such retaliation for striking a legal violation, farmworkers generally have no such protection except in the few states, like California, that have given agricultural workers those rights.  H2-A workers have even fewer rights and protections.  The visa they're given when they come to work in the U.S. binds them to the employer who recruited them.  If they lose that job, they lose the visa and become deportable.  They have no legal standing to sue their employer in a U.S. court.

It was therefore remarkable that not only did the Sarbanand workers strike in protest over bad conditions, but that after they were fired they did not leave the country.  The company told the fired workers they would not pay them immediately for their final four days of work, but instead would send a check to their address in Mexico -- a violation of H2-A regulations. The workers were given an hour to clear their belongings out of the company's labor camp, leaving them standing outside with no money.

Sarbanand's recruiter, CSI Visa Processing, took some to a local bus station, but didn't buy them a ticket home.  This violates another H2-A recruitment regulation, which requires recruiters to pay transportation to and from the jobsite in the United States.  In the meantime, workers reached out to union president Torres and also to Community2Community, a farmworker advocacy and immigrant rights organization in northwest Washington.  Together, they found a private residence near the Sarbanand location, whose owners agreed to let the fired workers camp on their land while deciding on their next course of action.  Local supporters brought out tents and a generator, and an encampment quickly sprang up.

The workers marched back to the ranch and demonstrated outside.  "They formed a committee among themselves," Torres says, "and another 50 workers left the ranch and joined them, even though the [Whatcom County Sheriff] deputies and local police were threatening to call immigration."

Torres says other workers have suffered from partial facial paralysis, and three are now living at the camp.  In the video interview, Rosas Olibares held a placard denouncing local authorities for turning a blind eye to their conditions. It read:

County & City - Your Blindness = GUILTY
- Suppression of immigrant workers rights
-Workers open to threats of deportation!
-Immigrant workers dying HERE/NOW
County & City - You are complicit through neglect!
How do you sleep at night?

According to H2-A worker Ramirez, "We just want respect for our rights - firing us was very unjust.  We also want to continue working until the end of our contract."  Ramirez has been working as a contratado for 15 years, picking tobacco in North Carolina and Kentucky, and for the last two years, blueberries in northwest Washington State.  Last winter he signed a contract in the office of CSI Visa Processors in his hometown of Santiago Ixcuintla in the Mexican state of Nayarit.  Under the terms of that contract he was guaranteed a minimum of five months of work, until October 25.

Ramirez was then taken to Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border and given a visa.  "But I saw that it was only good until June 30," he recalls.  "When I asked, they said they'd fix it.  But they never did." 

Over 250 workers were recruited in the Nayarit office, he says, one of nine that CSI has in Mexico.  They were brought to Delano, in California's San Joaquin Valley, on May 7.  There they began picking blueberries at Munger Farms, a large grower and partner in the giant Naturipe growers partnership.  Then, on July 1, the day after the visa of Ramirez and many others expired, they were transported to the Sarbanand Farms ranch in Washington State, where they continued picking.  Sarbanand is a subsidiary of Munger Farms, owned by the family of Baldev and Kable Munger.

CSI's statement insists the workers "received an authorization by the government of the U.S. for this second contract, [and] none of them are out of legal status."  Yet after the turmoil started last week, one worker tried to buy an airline ticket back home to Mexico, and was refused because his visa had expired.  "We don't know what will happen now," Torres says.  "What we believe is that workers have the right to protest and organize, and shouldn't be punished for that by being denied the work they were promised."

"I think we have to get organized," Ramirez adds.  "I'm willing to work hard, but they put such pressure on us - that's the biggest problem. I have a 16-year-old son back home in Mexico.  What would happen to him if I died here, like Honesto did?"

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 8/2/17
The American Prospect

Jose Cruz Frias, a "palmero," works in a grove of date palms. Once up in the tree he walks around on the fronds themselves. Cruz has been doing this work for 15 years. He originally came to the Coachella Valley from Irapuato, Guanajuato in Mexico.

Forty one years ago I was a young organizer for the United Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley, helping agricultural laborers win union elections and negotiate contracts. Suspicion of growers was a survival attitude. I was beaten by the son of one rancher in a vineyard, while trying to talk to people sitting in the vines on their lunch hour. When I met with workers in another field, my old Plymouth Valiant convertible was filled with fertilizer and its tires slashed.

By those standards, I could see that HMS Ranch Management, which manages day-to-day operations for ranch owners, was different. I'm sure Ole Fogh-Andersen, who ran the company, would have preferred that the laborers he employed voted against the union. But when they did vote for it in 1976, he sat down and negotiated. It took quite a while - he was no pushover. But Ruth Shy, a former nun who taught the virtues of patience and persistence, got most of our union committee's demands into the agreement. I did the field job of keeping everyone on board.

HMS workers irrigate fields, drive tractors and otherwise care for ranches in this harsh, beautiful desert valley. In the summer's 105-plus degree heat, the bright green leaves of grape vines shimmer below dark mountains, lunar in their sere, sharp edges. Coachella's winter air is thick with the fragrance of flowering grapefruit and tangerine trees. In the groves of the valley's unique crop - the date palms - dusty green and tan fronds create an arched ceiling over marching rows of bare trunks, rising 20 and 30 feet from the sand.

I've returned to the Coachella Valley many times in the last three decades, interviewing workers and photographing impoverished desert communities. Despite its beauty, the sustainability of large-scale farming, and of the communities that depend on it, is more clearly at risk here than anywhere I know. Published accounts of the valley's huge environmental problems offer some insight. But my interest is in the world as it's seen by the people working in it. Their biggest unanswered question is: sustainable for whom?

This spring I was driving up a rural road in Oasis, not far from the Salton Sea, when I met Rafael Navarro, busy trapping moles on an organic mango ranch. I wasn't surprised that he worked for HMS - many maintenance workers on ranches are HMS employees. But then he told me he'd been hired in 1976. He was there when we negotiated that first agreement.

Rafael Navarro, 72 years old, still works as a farmworker. He works in a grove of organic Keitt mango trees, belonging to Ava's Mangos, the largest mango grower in California. Among other jobs, he sets traps for moles, which eat the roots of the trees.

"That was the year people joined Cesar Chavez's union," he recalled. "From then until today we've been working under the union contract. It is very rare that someone can work in the fields, and keep working for one company for 40 years. Here we have been protected. It has a lot to do with the contract because it is not that easy to fire someone, unless you are drinking or you get in a fight. But if you don't have those problems you work here very comfortably."

The contract provides a medical plan, still a rarity for farmworkers. Pushed by the union, Cal-OSHA now enforces standards that provide shade from the fierce sun and heat, drinking water and some control over pesticides.

The mango ranch, however, is organic, so non-organic pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals can't be used. That means at work Navarro doesn't run the risk of chemical exposure, one of the greatest occupational health dangers for farmworkers. It also provides him work.

"My job is catching moles," he told me, "because they eat the roots of the mango trees. It is an organic orchard, so they can't use chemicals to kill the animals. We put traps with strong wires in their holes.  When a moles arrives it gets trapped and you grab it."

Since it is a grove of organic trees, the grower can't use pesticides or poison to kill animals. This means relatively constant work for Navarro in eliminating pests, and a regular paycheck.

Navarro is 72, well beyond the age when other workers can retire and get Social Security, but he continues working although he has problems with one of his legs. Bending his stiff joints, he took a shovel and, in the weeds, dug out the entrance to a mole burrow to show me how he places the trap. The sun on the brim of his sombrero cast dark shadows across his face, highlighting his big bigote (mustache).

"They gave me the chance to do this job," he explained, "but before, I worked fumigating the date palms on other ranches with sulfur, or spraying with different medicines. Then they decided some chemicals were too dangerous and took that work away."

The Coachella Valley produces about $500 million in farm produce every year, and dates, grapes, citrus and tree fruit account for about half. Organic agriculture produces a growing part of it. According to Linden Anderson, who manages HMS's field operations, mango growing is only a decade old. About 10 percent of mangoes and the much larger citrus crop are grown organically.

"It takes more work, its costs are higher and it's less efficient, but what drives it is return on investment," he explained to me in a phone interview. "Some growers like it for itself, but there is a growing market for organic produce, and while the premium isn't as big as it used to be, there's still a differential."

A ravine carries agricultural runoff into the Salton Sea.

The growth of organic agriculture, and the elimination of the use of some pesticides, has another impact on the valley's ecology and on the health of its communities. The runoff from irrigation in both the Coachella Valley, and the Imperial Valley to the south, flows into the Salton Sea, carrying with it whatever chemicals growers are using. Irrigation also dissolves naturally-occurring salts from the desert soil, increasing the salinity of the water table. Tile lines placed five to six feet below the surface to drain excess water can carry those leached-out salts, contributing them to the runoff as well.

In past decades, Coachella Valley growers would irrigate by simply flooding the rows between vines, trees or plants with water, and then collecting the runoff. Today, Anderson says, most use drip irrigation, which uses less water and targets it more closely to the plants. Reduced water use creates less runoff as well.

Nevertheless, the Coachella and Imperial valleys face an environmental crisis created over decades.  Both valleys lie in an ancient geologic depression that reaches a depth of 278 feet below sea level. In 1905, as Imperial Valley growers were building a system to bring nearby Colorado River water to irrigate their ranches, the levees built to contain the diversion failed. For two years the river poured into the depression, creating the Salton Sea, whose surface rose to over 80 feet above the desert floor.

Both valleys are dependent on Colorado River water.  Without it agriculture here would hardly exist. Until 1949 Coachella ranches depleted the aquifer during dry years, and their wells would run out. Then the Coachella Canal began bringing 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado to the valley each year. The All-American Canal, built even earlier, drained the Colorado into Imperial Valley fields. After the 1960s, the State Water Project also gave Coachella farmers an even bigger allotment of water brought down from the north.

The branches and stumps of dead trees that were once on the shore emerge from the water.

Evaporation would eventually have dried out the sea, but in 1928 Congress designated land below -220 feet as a repository for agricultural runoff. Until recently, the lake's surface has been about -227 feet, giving it an area of 378 square miles - the largest lake in California. The Salton Sea became an important stopping point for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway, and was stocked with fish species including corvina, sargo and bairdella. Tilapia introduced to control algae in irrigation canals also wound up in the lake.

Over the years the Salton Sea's salinity increased, however, from 3,500 parts per million to 52,000 ppm - about 50 percent saltier than the ocean. Fish, except the tilapia, died off.  Dissolved selenium salts now pose the same danger seen in the Kesterson Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley, where birds ingesting selenium became sick and died, and laid eggs with shells so fragile they collapsed.

Even more seriously, starting next January, water flowing into the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley will be diverted to San Diego. In 2003 the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to transfer 200,000 acre-feet per year, if California took responsibility for the lake. In one year alone, according to a 2005 assessment made by Victor Ponce of San Diego State University, the diversion could reduce the lake area by 30 percent. That would expose square miles of dried lakebed. Wind-blown sediment could easily reach the streets and golf courses of Palm Springs, travel south to Mexicali, a city of over a million in Mexico, and even blow into the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino to the north.

Whatever is in the sediment will wind up in people's lungs.

As the sea dries and recedes, it exposes dust and dead fish, causing respiratory difficulties for children in the small farmworker towns at its edge.

That's already the problem of the farmworker towns of the eastern Coachella Valley - Thermal, Oasis, Mecca and North Shore - where dust from the fields and the evaporating sea gives everything a gritty coating when the wind blows. Dust creeps through the doors of the beaten up mobile homes in the tiny trailer parks wedged into the corners of fields and date groves.

In one such settlement Elisa Guevara leads protests over rent hikes or high rates for undrinkable water.  As we sat talking in her living room, her trailer vibrated from the wind. The swamp cooler on the roof cut the temperature inside by only a few degrees from the sun's furnace outside.

Rancho del Sol Trailer Park in North Shore, near the Salton Sea.

"We're a forgotten community. We're invisible," she declared angrily. "We're called 'ranchos polancos' - trailers without city permits that don't meet local codes. There's hardly any housing for farmworkers, so park operators can rent or sell us these dilapidated trailers. There are more than 100 parks like this in the Coachella Valley. None have permits. Workers often go without electricity and a sewer system, or live with contaminated water. If you complain the owners threaten to call the county or the migra."

Driving down towards the Salton Sea, I passed one of those trailer park "colonias" a few miles from Oasis. Near the dirt entrance road two men sat back against the battered silver skin of one mobile home. They were still in their work clothes - one older, stocky worker with a few days beard, and a thinner, younger man. Looking at their work belts and bags in the dust at their feet, I guessed they were "palmeros," or date palm workers.

A memorial to two workers killed in March 2016, when the platform they were working on came into contact with an electric power line. The crane was leaking oil and one worker was electrocuted while the other burned to death. Both were Mexican immigrants, trimming palm fronds for Valencia Tree & Palm Trimming. One worker was 22-year-old Osvaldo Ceron-Sevilla of Thermal. Other workers built this memorial to them on the corner of 68th Avenue and Highway 86, in the Mexican tradition.

Alberto Castro, the younger man, had spent 15 years working in the palms, one of Coachella's most dangerous jobs. Earlier I'd passed a roadside memorial next to a chain-link fence around a palm grove. Religious candles in tall glasses were surrounded by plastic flowers, a power line visible overhead. Last year two palmeros had been electrocuted on that spot.

"I still think about the two men who died in the palms," Castro told me in a low voice. "I knew them. They lived nearby and worked 30 years in the palms. They made just a small mistake - it can happen to anyone. They were not watching closely enough, and when they pushed the button to raise the arm of the machine, they struck the power line overhead and died. It was a shock to the rest of us. The owner of the ranch should not have been planted trees with power lines above them. I would never have put a palm there. But that is how we work."

Carlos Chavez and Alberto Castro both work as palmeros. After work they sit in the shade of the trailer where they live in a trailer park near Thermal.

Castro and his friend Carlos Chavez have had no union contract to provide them security over the decades, as Navarro has. But they have a special set of skills. Not many people are willing to climb 30-foot trees, so if they don't get hurt, they'll have work.

"There are many different operations we have to do to the palms, like harvesting and pollinating," he told me. "One month we'll do one thing, and the next month another. We have work the whole year - we never stop. But it's dangerous. The thorns in the fronds are very long and sharp, and can poke your eye out. You can slice your hand with the machete. In the 15 years I've been working here I haven't cut myself badly, and I haven't fallen, thank God. But I do not have another job to go to, so here I am."

Castro has taken his children, one 7 and the other 11, to work with him on the weekend, "so they can see how the money in our family is earned. This job in palms isn't really enough to support everyone well, but at least it is enough to eat, pay rent and buy gas," he explains to them. "I hope it convinces them to put more effort into school. I do not want them to follow in my footsteps. Every day I tell them if they try hard they can become a doctor, a firefighter or whatever they like, but not a palmero."

Carlos Chavez, a palmero, sits with his daughter Michelle, in a trailer park near Thermal. Michelle is in high school, trying to win a scholarship so she can go to college. Carlos took her to work with him one summer, but she didn't like it. She says it motivated her to study harder.

While we were talking, moving to keep in the shade, Chavez's daughter Michelle came out of the trailer to join us. Her father's eyes lit up. Michelle is doing what Castro hopes his kids will do also - studying hard in high school, hoping to get a scholarship. She went to work with her dad too, and came away determined to go to college. But she says she wants to stay in Coachella with her family, and find ways to keep them healthy and not so poor. I wondered if she would find the answers she was seeking.

Michelle may go away to school, but she's not leaving this community, nor are her parents. Although they all come from Mexico no one is leaving the Coachella Valley. From time to time Navarro goes back to visit Salitre, his hometown in Michoacán. "I stay a month and then I come back," he explained to me. "I have a house but it is falling down since no one lives there. All my family was born when I was working here, and my children are not thinking about going to live in Michoacán. They go with me to visit, but then they come back right away. They like it for a while but not to live there."

These farmworker families are in Coachella to stay. Rosalinda Guillen, who was born into a farm-worker family and today organizes farm-worker co-ops and unions, charges that mainstream stereotypes paint field laborers as transient and unskilled. "We're treated as disposable," she charges, "but we're human beings and we're part of the community."

Sustainability is the mantra for many groups seeking a future in which communities near the Salton Sea can survive. Guillen sees sustainability from a farmworker's perspective. To her, and to the workers of this valley, sustainability means that organic agriculture could help solve the problems of water runoff. That, in turn, could lead to jobs for communities living in broken down trailers, depending on dangerous work in the palm and mango trees. And if there were a union, it might become work they'd want their children to do.

The hands of Carlos Chavez, a palmero for over 20 years, show the lines and creases of a lifetime of hard work in the trees.

Guillen especially sees the irony in workers producing organic fruits and vegetables, which their low wages don't allow them to buy. "Like these organic carrots," she fumes, pointing to a bunch on a market shelf. "A farmworker can't come and pay the price for these fresh carrots, and they grow them! It's totally off balance. [The system] is unsafe, unsustainable, inhumane and unhealthy for everybody - for people, for animals, for the earth."

As one looks out at the dried crust of the Salton Sea's playa at the end of the day, covered with hundreds of tilapia skeletons, Guillen's words seem terribly relevant.

This article was written/produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.