For farmworkers in Monterey County, ‘shelter-in-place” is nearly ‘business-as-usual’

A bus driver waits |

Story and photos by Víctor Almazán


Sheltering in place is experienced differently throughout Monterey County. But it is agricultural workers who give a brushstroke of normality to this abnormal pandemic situation. They say they are doing what needs to be done in these circumstances: work to support your family and take precautions not to spread the infection.

“We are working normally,” Eleazar Sosa, who works in a vineyard in Greenfield, said in Spanish. “Only those over 65 were sent home.” Wine production in this city has not stopped. “Agriculture is essential, the process has to continue,” he said.

For Sosa, the special situation began on Friday, March 13, just days before the county imposed the mandatory confinement order. That day, a week before the California governor ordered the entire state to stay home, all schools in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties announced that their students would not return to class the following Monday.

Sosa went to shopping centers to stock up on food and necessary items, but the number of people buying products was huge, so he gave up. Sosa is not concerned about the shortage of toilet paper or food — “we have old rags and we (Mexicans) eat even ants” — but he is concerned about two things: the chaos that could arise and the crisis situation in his native Mexico. “There they keep going to baptisms and jaripeos (Mexican rodeo),” he said. “They are not taking things seriously.”

Shelter in place feels like a special holiday in Greenfield. The stores are open and full of customers. In the Rancho San Miguel shopping center, the big difference is that there are markings on the floor that separate customers 6 feet away from each other at the registers. Only the shelves of toilet paper and disinfectant products are empty. La Plaza Bakery, the popular bakery and cafeteria, only offers takeout food, just like fast food outlets like Burger King and McDonalds, which offer food through its drive through.

"The only thing (farmworkers) cannot sow is panic. Being afraid hurts." Andrés Cruz

The church is closed — there are no masses — but families gather in the park to eat or spend time with the children. A group of young people played basketball Thursday afternoon, before Monterey County re-enforced the order to stay home. Schools are closed but staff distributes Chromebooks to students who are now receiving classes online.

Of the nearly 90,000 agricultural workers in the Salinas and Pájaro valleys, one third are indigenous. In Greenfield, the majority are indigenous people from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, mainly Triquis and Mixtecos. For them, the information in their languages regarding the crisis is almost nonexistent. Only Natividad Medical Center has published a couple of videos in Triqui and Mixteco on its website, giving information about the pandemic and recommendations  in case of symptoms of COVID-19.

“We have no information (in our language),” said Andrés Cruz, born in Río Venado, Oaxaca. But Cruz does his best to keep his community informed. On Sundays, Cruz hosts La Hora Triqui on KHDC 90.9 Radio Bilingüe, a national non-profit radio network. “There I broadcast in Triqui government information and scientists’ recommendations, such as washing your hands and covering your mouth when sneezing,” he said in Spanish. However, he doesn’t know how big his audience is.

Cruz, who works for an ag company, is optimistic: “The only thing (farmworkers) cannot sow is panic. Being afraid hurts,” he said.

El Alisal in Salinas looks like any other day on Good Thursday. The parking lot at Foods Co. is almost full. Farmworkers return from work and board their cars to head home. The church of Santa María is closed and the playground of the Closter Park has yellow hazard tape around it.

José Acosta drives a Growers Express company bus and waits in the parking lot for the workers who went to the store to buy food. He writes a work report while he waits.

“We just started working last Wednesday. This is just the beginning” of the season, he said in Spanish. “We are afraid of catching the virus, but we take precautions.” While he talks, another person cleans the bus.

José Luis Bautista, originally from Oaxaca, works for the same company harvesting lettuce. He has lived in Salinas for 10 years. “The company gives us gloves and face masks,” he said. “But that’s not new, it’s always been like this.” He laughed when he answered whether he expects extra compensation for being considered an essential worker and working in hazardous conditions: “No, those guys don’t give anything extra.” Still, he indicates his salary rose, from $13.60 to $14.77 an hour compared to last season.

Joe Pezzini, CEO and president of Castroville’s Ocean Mist Farms, said it would be catastrophic if the virus reached farm fields, so his company does whatever it takes to keep its workers healthy. “Wearing gloves and masks was already a standard practice in the fields, but now we are implementing social distancing,” he said.

The county’s agriculture industry is worth about $ 4 billion, according to the Agricultural Commissioner. Pezzini believes that in these difficult times companies and workers must be united to overcome the pandemic. “The world has turned upside down and inside out,” he said. “But we are going to get through this together.”

Another face of agricultural work in the county are the H-2A guest workers. Erick Castro, originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, is one of the participants in the program. Castro says he is afraid of getting the virus, but he takes precautions. “The company gives us talks about what we should do (in this contingency),” he said in Spanish. “At work we have to be 6 feet apart and wash our hands constantly.”

In 2019, California received more than 23,000 H-2A visas to hire as many workers, the fourth highest number behind Florida, Georgia and Washington. It is the first time that Castro has been in Salinas, although he has been working through the program for several years. “I have been harvesting grapes, we came from Coachella,” he said as he disinfected the truck in which he transports his coworkers.

The situation of H-2A guest workers at the Budget Inn Motel in Salinas worsened after Salinas Councilman Tony Villegas broadcast a live video on his Facebook page — which he shot while driving by the motel on April 9, which is illegal because Villegas was using a cellphone while operating a vehicle. The video shows workers approaching the catering truck known as lonchera to buy some food after a day of hard work. The councilman comments on the video, “This is their social distancing, look at that,” adding,  “I guess it’s taco time.”

From that day on, motel employees have kept a strict watch on the workers, exhorting them not to leave their rooms, aggravating their overcrowded conditions. Villegas, an ardent supporter of President Trump, shares articles on his Facebook page that acknowledge the work of farmworkers.

Asked if this represents a hypocritical behavior regarding the video he posted, he responded to Voices through a Facebook message, “Everyone has an opinion.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the size of the Salinas Valley agricultural workforce.

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Víctor Almazán

About Víctor Almazán

Víctor Almazán nació en la Ciudad de México, ha colaborado en periódico de México y California, entre ellos The Salinas Californian, El Sol y la célebre El Andar Magazine. Vive en Salinas y le gustan la películas de vampiros. | Víctor Almazán was born in Mexico City and has contributed to publications in Mexico and California, including The Salinas Californian, El Sol and the renowned El Andar Magazine. He lives in Salinas and likes vampire movies.