Across the Lettuce Curtain East Salinas residents are risking their lives so all of us can eat. What sacrifices are folks in Carmel willing to make?

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By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Life under the pandemic goes on as vibrant as ever in the Alisal. Hundreds of cars pack Sanborn and Market streets at rush hour as essential workers come from work. At Cárdenas supermarket and Foods Co, the controlled crowds can find all sorts of foodstuffs with ease — no toilet paper shortage in East Salinas, thank you very much.

Shiny watermelons and edgy pineapples tower in their respective bins, their presence an announcement of a spring in full swing. There are oranges and jícamas and bananas aplenty. Near the prepared foods counter, a long line of patrons separated by about 4 feet each make their way to the cash register to order chiles rellenos, chicharrón, carnitas, fresh salsa, tamales and champurrado. Were it not for the ubiquitous masks, and the signs on the floor demanding physical distancing, you could swear life has not changed in East Salinas. And for the loudspeaker that blares “please keep your distance and wear your mask.” In English.

It’s been nearly nine weeks since Monterey County issued a shelter-in-place order, one that seems to have its days numbered with recent changes that allow some businesses to restart operations. The agricultural season kicked into full gear in early April, and field workers are deemed “essential,” which means they have the privilege of being required to go into work every day. Many leave their cars in the shopping center parking lot before boarding the contractor’s bus that will take them to the ag fields. When they return they have a chance to go to the store and stock up on their daily necessities. Some mingle with their co-workers, chat before heading back in their own cars or walking back home. Others linger, sitting in the back of a pickup truck, sharing tacos and camaraderie, their masks pulled down to their chins so they can eat. Watching them so relaxed among one another, the thought of coronavirus perhaps barely registering on their minds, sends shivers down my spine. No wonder Salinas has the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in Monterey County.

And what would you do, I tell myself, if you worked side by side with them all day long, bent over to harvest strawberries or marching up and down interminable rows, hoe in hand, selecting the fate of the lettuce sprouting at your feet? Would you draw a line in the parking lot, the one that you were not able to draw among the crops, and say to your co-workers, sorry, I can’t socialize with you now because you may have the coronavirus? How do you protect yourself, and your loved ones, when you live six people to a room, 20 to a house, in one of the most densely populated ZIP codes in Central California? How do we expect field workers to remain healthy when they all breathe the same air in the same room with 20 other people and you don’t know who is infected?

Of all the COVID-19 cases reported as of May 15 in Monterey County, Salinas had the highest number – 205 – and highest rate per 100,000 population – 127. On the other side of the Lettuce Curtain, the number and rate are much smaller: 36 cases at a rate of 28 per 100,000 on the Peninsula. This is not surprising, considering that Salinas is the most densely populated area on the Central Coast. Add to that the fact that farmworkers have not stopped working (i.e. they have not stopped being in contact with other people) and that their shelters are not exactly a refuge, and you have twice the rate of COVID-19 cases in the 93905 ZIP code, where most farmworkers live, than in the rest of the county. Monterey County as a whole has 73 cases per 100,000, and Santa Cruz, 53 per 100,000.

We, as a society, are failing the most vulnerable, the most valuable, the least heard and seen, the most essential. We, as a society, should be ashamed of ourselves.

Not surprisingly either, these farmworkers are Latinos: Mexican and Central American immigrants, more than likely undocumented, Spanish speakers, hard-working men and women who don’t have the luxury to shelter-in-place. There is no baking cakes or completing jigsaw puzzles on quiet afternoons for them.

This scenario, of course, is not just playing out in the Central Coast. It’s happening across the nation. Latinos in Chicago represent 39 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, even though they’re 30 percent of the population. In New York City, the rate per 100,000 population for Latinos and Blacks is twice as high as that for Asians and Whites, according to the most recent data from the New York City Health Department. Latinos represent 65 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths among people between 18 and 49 in California as a whole, despite making up just 45 percent of the population, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.

It’s one thing to deal with the devastating sadness of watching this unfold before your eyes and know there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, but it’s another very different one to have to deal with the insensitivity and selfishness that often grips our fellow human beings. I can’t buy homes so everyone can safely isolate. I can’t grant paid leaves of absence so farmworkers can just call in sick. I can’t make strawberries harvest themselves, or bring them to these workers’ houses so they can telecommute.

And you know what else I can’t do? I can’t stop anyone from posting insulting comments about these hard-working people; the online shaming that knows no bounds and has the prefrontal cortex of a hormonal teenager. “I’m so tired of seeing them gathering in groups, no social distance!” “They were wearing their masks below their noses.” “I just want to get out and yell at them.” “No wonder they’re getting sick.”

No, Privileged Person of the Pandemic. They’re not just getting sick because they work side by side and breathe the same air. They’re also getting sick because we, as a society, are not protecting our “essential” workers. We, as a society, are failing the most vulnerable, the most valuable, the least heard and seen, the most essential. We, as a society, should be ashamed of ourselves.

Something else I can’t do: stop the enormous pressure our public health officials are facing to “reopen” the economy. As if Dr. Anthony Fauci could wave a magic wand to make SARS-CoV2 disappear. As if Dr. Ed Moreno, Monterey County’s health officer, could single-handedly concentrate economic damage to the Monterey Peninsula or COVID-19 cases in the Salinas Valley. These highly specialized, educated, experienced individuals are giving us instructions based on their best professional knowledge, meant to protect everyone’s health. We ignore their advice at our own peril.

When we take care of our farmworkers, our nurses, our supermarket workers, of people who are now unhoused, we are taking care of ourselves too.

As the weather gets warmer and the economic fallout of the pandemic becomes deeper, the itch to return back to normal becomes harder to ignore. Like the Wisconsin bar-goers or the Carmel owner of The Tuck Box, we all want to go back to February 2020. We all want to mingle with our friends in a casual setting, go to the movies, enjoy the carefree life we thought we had less than three months ago. But returning to those times is not only impossible, it’s misguided.

We can’t continue living like we have in years past. There’s a virus that cares nothing about whether you live in the Monterey Peninsula or the Salinas Valley, whether you have a mortgage to pay or a family to feed, whether you lost $60,000 in one month or your life. The virus will get you if you let your guard down, if you wear your mask below your nose, if you don’t wash your hands or you open your fine dining establishment too soon. And it will not just destroy your health, but your finances along the way.

The most important reason why we can’t go back to February 2020 is because of the unfair world we lived in then. We can’t go back to a world in which we denounced people as “criminals” but call them essential the next day, as has happened to our farmworkers. We can’t go back to a world in which we say there is no solution to homelessness and the next day we find there are trailer homes where we can house them. We should not go back to a world in which we don’t give people the health care they need but start providing free COVID-19 tests to everyone a month later. We can’t go back to a world with no political will to do what’s right for everyone, not just for the donor class or the politically connected. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

I think of all of this as I watch the watermelons and pineapples and the jícamas and oranges spilling out of their stands, the shoppers walking past as if no pandemic existed. The fruits themselves are testament to a world that keeps on going in spite of the humans wreaking havoc to it. The trees still bear fruit, the watermelons still make it to the market, the farmworkers still harvest grapes that are turned into wine. The shoppers here today make it possible for these fruits to come to our tables.

But their jobs, their need to be out and about, endanger their lives. Like nurses and doctors and supermarket workers, they’re putting themselves at risk for the sake of others, for the sake of their own families because they know that, if they don’t work, they won’t eat.

Perhaps their ultimate reason is selfish — to provide for their own. But in the process, they feed us too. That’s exactly how we have to look at this: when we take care of our farmworkers, our nurses, our supermarket workers, of people who are now unhoused, we are taking care of ourselves too. When we have so many people putting their lives at risk for our collective benefit, the least we can do is endeavor to create a world that’s safer for all, not just the ones who can safely shelter-in-place at home.

Letter: Straight narrative about farmworkers during the pandemic

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.