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ANOTHER FARMWORKER ENCAMPMENT IS UNDER SCRUTINY

FARM FOREMAN SAYS “THE MEDIA JUST TELLS A BUNCH OF LIES”

August 28, 1991

By Yolanda Reynolds

La Oferta Newspaper.

Benech Farms, a South Almaden fruit farm has drawn the attention of the Santa Clara County District Attorney. The District Attorney’s office is investigating the conditions at the farm for a number of reasons, among them a pond on the property filled with sludgy, turgid, thick water that emits a strong foul odor.

As the days progress, and there are reports that all of the farmer workers will be moved as the living and working conditions of their present becomes known, community concern for the workers is increasing.

The pond, which the District Attorney is investigating for possible environmental violations, separates two trailer encampments that house Benech farm workers. The second encampment of approximately 10 trailers lies beyond El Pirul (the name of one of the encampments) and close to the turgid, smelly pond. These trailers are generally larger than those at El Pirul and in only slightly better condition, however living conditions are almost the same. At both encampments, pools of waster water can be seen beneath the trailers besides other health and safety code violations.

When asked about the disposal of the waste from the trailers, and some people said that several years ago two cesspools had been built at the lower encampment.

The residents were not sure where the drinking water came from.

Information from the residents of the trailers is confused and sometimes conflicting. Some residents say that the trailers were purchased from Benech farms, others say that they live there “free” and they pay a monthly utility fee which they say is “either $30-$35.

The adults who were familiar with the situation at the cluster of trailers at the lower encampment said that “el patron” told them that they would probably have to abandon the trailers and find other housing.

One resident, Antonia Arredondo, a young mother of two, said that she and her husband had decided to go to Los Angeles and that they were leaving soon. They have been living at the lower encampment for two years since her husband began working at the farm. Arredondo says that she has not worked for Benech. She stays home with her 2 month old son and 2 year old daughter.

Arredondo said that her husband was not sure what kind of work he would find in Los Angeles but, one thing was certain, her children would not have the pleasure of playing out of doors as they can now on the farm.

The second encampment “los trailers de abajo” appears to be quite old and in need of repair but is in fact in slightly better shape than those at El Pirul.

In sharp contrast to the age and poor condition of the trailers “de abajo” are the beautiful flowers adorning a narrow passage way between the trailers. Throughout the encampments it is evident that the residents work very hard to make their surroundings special. Every day seem to be wash day. Keeping clean has to be a monumental chore. The children, like all children, love playing in the dirt and in fact have no other place in which to play.

The trailers sit behind a very large fruit packing shed and large fruit containers are stacked to form a sort of 15 to 20 foot high barricade, separating the trailers from view.

It is evident that the residents do try very hard to keep their dwellings clean. On the three visits that La Oferta has made to the encampments, someone was washing clothes, some by hand; another woman was using an electric washing machine located under a tree in the yard. Her son sat on the machine to keep it from rocking too hard as it washed the clothes.

The worker’s generally seem to earn a little over $4 dollars an hour. One employee, who has worked there for 14 years, said that he earned a little over $7 per hour.

Though all of the workers at the farm come from the same area of Saguayo, Michoacan, they are not necessarily related.

The children, like children the world over, exhibit an exuberance that is missing in the adults. The adults seem to face the media attention and news of their problems as just another event in their lives that they have to deal with. Life for them has never been easy.

When asked about promises of improved and alternative housing, one older lady who refused to tell her name said, “they have said that we will have it place to live.” She appeared unconvinced – seemingly too tired to get her hopes up, only to have another disappointment.

The hard life of the farmworkers is etched in their faces and reflected in their stoic demeanor. For them, the future is even more uncertain than it was before. If some of the newer trailers were, in fact, purchased by the workers, will they be reimbursed? Where will they find other very low income housing. Will they be trading severe environmental problems as the farm for life within the city, where crime and drug beleaguered life is common?

School begins September 3. Will the families be settled in time for the children to start school? Will the families receive the health care that many seem to need? Having to move so rapidly will add to their stress. Will they continue to have employment at the farm? Will Benech Farms help pay for the moving costs for its workers? Will the trailer owners be reimbursed and, by whom, if the trailers are to be destroyed?

These and many other questions arise regarding the resolution of a complex and difficult situation that would have been averted had there been proper code enforcement.

The farm owner sent a worker to ask that the reporters go to the main office of the farm so that he could answer any question that we might have. Upon arriving at the entrance, the main gate was closed and a young man was standing guard with a two way radio. We informed him that we were there and did wish to accept the farm owner’s invitation to ask some questions.

A tall, non Hispanic man, accompanied by one workman, approached the reporters car and said that he was the foreman and that the owner was unavailable. The foreman refused to identify himself by name and said “we tried to talk to the press but that didn’t work, they (the media) just tell a bunch of Iies.” The foreman did say that he lived in a house on the property but, after answering that question, said that any more questions we might have would have to be directed to the Benech attorney, David J. Murphy.

The foreman then pulled aside the workmen and after a short while he left, but allowed one of the women, who said that he had been there a “long time,” to speak to us. He did not live at the either of the encampments. He lived in another trailer near the main office. Jose said that he too was told that he may have to move from his trailer.

La Oferta inquired about the farm store, to which access was not possible because of the closure of the gate. The workman said that the store was open daily until 5 p.m. La Oferta was at the gate at 4 p.m. and could not gain entry.

The problem at Benech Farms probably would have been averted had there been greater respect for the health and safety of the workers.

The County, the teachers of the farmworker children (San Jose Unified School District) and many others in the community are finding ways in which they can assist the families with offers of clothing, food, money and labor for construction. The farmworkers families and others in their situation (there are reports of other similar encampments in San Jose) need a lot of help.

A major concern has been for the children is that they continue with their schooling. According to their teachers, the children are good students. Their parents are very concerned for the education of their children.

Persons wishing more information on this matter may contact Kathy Espinoza Howard 299-2424. © La Oferta Publication.

 

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