September 3, 1991
By Yolanda Reynolds
Friday, in the late afternoon, as most Bay Area residents headed off to a weekend of leisure, a group of Prunedale farm workers made their way from the fields to their makeshift shelters nearby.
The laborers, mostly men, have been working in nearby truck farms for a number of months. Their day is very long – they begin work at 6 a.m. and don’t quit until 6 p.m.
The laborers are paid $ 1.25 for a ﬂat of berries. The ﬂats are approximately 22″ x 30” x 6″. The workers said that it takes about one hour to ﬁll a ﬂat with the berries unless the plants have a good yield (which generally is not the case) and then they are able to pick a flat in half an hour.
The tired, dust laden workers “had hands that were stained a deep purple. Blackberries are in season and that is what they are now picking. The workers had been picking strawberries.
The work is hard and the pay is so low that the workers in desperation, live in small caves that they have excavated along a steep hillside.
The conditions of the encampment in Prunedale were terrible. The people had no beds other than pieces of wood or plastic to protect their bodies from the cold, damp earth. Weeds were spread on the wood to form a sort of mattress, over which rags served as blankets.
Friday, at 7:30 p.m. as the fog began to roll over the mountain – it became very cold and damp at the camp. The workers said that it was that way every night. They had been building small camp ﬁres but, since the encampments were surrounded with dry grass, the County officials asked them to refrain from building fires even for cooking. Friday evening, as they have for the past week, the County officials brought for the workers a truck load of nourishing, packaged food that did not require cooking. The County will continue bringing food until the workers are moved to decent housing.
With the pay that the workers receive, amounting to approximately $ 24 a day – their housing, food, clothing and transportation costs are so much that they can not make ends meet, much less take any savings back to Mexico.
The workers say that they came to the U.S. to pick fruit because they have families to support – and for that they will make great sacrifices.
The people living in the caves near Prunedale work for the sharecroppers of a major land owner in Monterey County.
There were no toilets visible near the caves and makeshift shelters where the workers live. A rivulet of water ran through one of the larger encampments. The workers said that they did not drink or use the water for fear that it was contaminated, because the water runs off of the strawberry fields above the steep embankment.
There were reports that the farmers did not provide the workers with toilets in the field, either. In fact from the appearance of the hands of the workers which were very stained and dirty, it seemed that the workers have nowhere, either at work or where they live, ready access to clean water will! which to wash their hands.
When La Oferta arrived, close to 7 p.m. , a number of workers were carrying small plastic (one gallon) jars with water that they got from another nearby field.
The 80 to 100 workers at this encampment came from the same region of Mexico – Oaxaca. There is a person from Michoacan.
Oaxaca which lies south of Mexico City, is a very lush tropical area and, to the visitor, presents a very exotic countryside.
In the group there are ten women. Two of the women (19 and 17) accompanied their father, who is 48 years old – probably the old person at the encampment.
According to a very pretty young mother, the problem for so many of them is that they were landless in México and, lacking any nearby factories for a place to work are totally dependent upon farm work for their livelihood.
She said that her husband has been coming to the U.S. for 9 years and this year she decided to accompany her husband, so that she could help. With a sigh, in Spanish, she said “I do this for my children – I love them so.” Her mother is taking care of her three young children.
As the sun set, the shadow lengthened and took many forms. It was scary. The young mother said that at first she was frightened for her safety at the encampment but that after a time she became less fearful. The group is very solicitous of each other and, by all reports, get help from each other, even though many of them did not know their fellow workers until they met earlier at the camp itself.
Most of the workers, including a number of 14 year old boys, appear far older than their age. The sun darkens their skin and makes it leathery, their faces are lined, the work is extremely hard and medical care is non-existent. One young man said that he ﬁrst came to the Unites States 5 years ago. He is now only 19.
These workers are badly exploited. Once here, they have to take what they can earn – in order to recover the costs of taking the long trip from Mexico. That trip, over and back, can easily cost $ 1,500. Some of the workers said that they would probably not be returning next year, because the salary that they earn is insufficient to warrant their travel expenses.
The current recession seems to have affected the farm worker salaries, but the cost of fruit at the grocery store has not gone down as much as the workers’ pay has fallen.
Added to the travel costs of the migrant worker from Mexico, the workers have to pay at least $25 a person per week for housing (farm cap) preferring to cut that cost by living in the caves. The workers are also charged from $ 2 to $ 3 daily for a ride from town to the fields and back. Add to these costs, food and clothing and there is obviously not enough money to meet their daily living expenses, much less, have any possibility of saving money to help the families they left at home.
Even at .59 cents a basket for strawberries at the grocery store (which is rare), the growers, “contratista,” and land owners continue to make fortunes – while the worker who harvests those crops is paid so little.
What many groceries shoppers do not realize – is that not only is such exploitation immoral but the unsanitary and illegal conditions in which the farm laborers work encourages the spread of diseases. Already, health officials are becoming increasingly convinced that such conditions are not only affecting the workers’ health, but that of the people who purchase those farm products. Severe epidemics of serious deseases have been reported in various parts of the United States.
Carmen Domingo, the Homeless Coordinator for Monterey County, informed the group that her office had been able to secure housing for the workers for two weeks, but after that her department was not sure what would happen. The County was hoping that, by Wednesday, the farmers could leave the encampment. Following their departure, the County would have the encampments bulldozed.
The County will also provide the workers with food at no charge for those two weeks.
For the County and the workers, a big problem is transporting the workers to and from the fields. The workers had planned to work at that farm until October or November, at which time they planned to return to Mexico where there would again be field work (beans & corn). They need to work far more than two weeks longer in order to recover the costs of their travel to the United States.
El Pirul, a substandard farm worker encampment in San Jose, was sheer luxury compared to the encampment at Prunedale. It is beyond disgrace and, in fact, a crime that such hard working courageous people should suffer such indignity, just so that the American palate can enjoy inexpensive fruit and make leeches (contratistas) and fault land owners extremely wealthy.
In the United states, honest human labor seems to have few defenders. Many people feel that conditions similar to those that have been discovered at “El Pirul,” “El Carrizal” (one of the encampments at Prunedale) and the 7 to 10 others at that farm likely to exist in other places in California, a state that is home to some of the wealthiest households in the United States and a state with one of the wealthiest economies in the world.
The agricultural industry in California is especially lucrative for the large corporate farms that now produce the great bulk of the crops and livestock. They receive enormous subsidies in the form of very low fees for water, frequently receive, other subsidies for some products (rice, etc.) and are rarely seriously penalized for exploiting their workers.
Mexico’s Consul in San Jose. Sr. Raul Cardenas Heraldes, and Canciller, Luis Arraiza, took a census of the laborers and are very concerned regarding the conditions under which the migrants laborers have been living and working.
Many others are concerned as well. Friday evening other officials at the Prunedale encampment were: a representative of the California Rural Legal Assistance organization, a number of Monterey County Social Service staff, a non profit organization based in Monterey County Social Service staff, a non proﬁt organization based in Monterey County and members of the local media.
Persons who wish to help the farm workers may contact Carmen Domingo at 755-8491 or the Mexican Consulate in San lose at 294-3414. © La Oferta Publication.