Francisco Naranjo | Photo by David Royal
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
The pandemic came first. Now, fires pollute the air they breathe. One way or another, farm workers on California’s Central Coast have been among the people most affected by COVID-19, with the highest rates of illness and vulnerability to extreme smoke conditions when working outdoors. Journalist Claudia Meléndez Salinas interviewed three farmers, who narrated their experiences for Voces de la Bahía de Monterey. A version of this article will be published in palabra, a publication of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Francisco Naranjo, 62
I come from the state of Michoacán, from the Purépecha region where Tarascan is still spoken. We have been farming for four or five generations; it is not just me but our grandparents, parents, our children; we have worked there (in the fields) in Michoacán and also in the United States. There, on a small scale, we sow corn, beans, squash, chilacayotes, broad beans; the milpa.
I work in the strawberries. I have been in the United States for many decades, in the field, in different jobs. From COVID-19 we stopped working, the doctor told us to stop working. There were several workers who got sick. We considered going to a physical exam with the doctor, based on that the doctor told us to stay home. I had to stop working for 10 days the first time, and again an average of 10 days … When you are sick, you are going to get hit, and you have … to take action on the matter. (When the fires came) we had a meeting with the foreman, he said we could be absent for three days without retaliation. We had to be absent so that the smoke would not affect us. Most of the workers stayed. I was the only one who decided to be absent, so that the smoke did not affect me. They will not pay anyway. I don’t have sick time.
I think we have a long way to go to take the initiative. If the foreman says “three days without retaliation” we need to take action, but sometimes we don’t. I don’t mean I don’t need (the pay), we all need it. The point is that they could do what they did. The foreman has them controlled, they can control us. Life is worth more than 30 hours, if we look at it that way. The companies know that we are going to return, they know that we need the money.
(I would like) the people who eat strawberries to sound an alarm. That this became a state alarm, that people left the fields, that the workers were recognized, that they had unemployment payment, that the pandemic and the fumes be considered a state of emergency. That is what we would like, that the companies granted us leave (without retaliation and with pay). The word (essential) is important, but on the other hand we feel like we were screwed up, the capitalist system with the ranchers takes advantage. I feel beaten down, sad. Tomorrow I go to work knowing that the smoke is still present.
"(I would like) the people who eat strawberries to sound an alarm." Francisco Naranjo
I have been in the United States for 29 years. I have worked in packing, in stores, but what happens is that I do not like working in stores, they do not give me enough hours, the time that there is no work reduces my hours. In 2008 I lost my house for the same reason … (T)hey did not give me enough hours in the store and I returned again to the field.
I work in the strawberries. I’ve been there since March, April. I’ve been in that company for two years. It’s by Spreckels, near the fires, and at no point did we stop. I suffer from asthma, I felt a lot of pressure in my chest. Right now I’m very sick in my lungs, I just had a test done. I feel a lot of burning, pain, in my lungs. I know that all this, right now, the fires are affecting me. But we have to do the work, we have to get ahead, the work is not going to come out alone. We have to do part of the work so people can have fresh fruit on their tables and they don’t really know how one is struggling and suffering.
"What they care about is their product, they do not care about the people." Yolanda Perales
Thank God no one in my crew has gotten sick from “that.” I thank God that He has protected us. They supposedly gave us some masks after those days, about a week they organized a meeting for us, they said that special masks are available now for us to wear. But you have to keep them, they are disposable masks. You go around smelling the chemicals, how is one going to use that mask? What they care about is their product, they do not care about the people.
We are essential workers because they want us to pick their product, to harvest it so that they do not lose. They win and the one who loses is the worker. Many people are afraid to speak, to express what they feel. Whenever there is a meeting I say, “Now they come to give us explanations, why didn’t they come before? Why didn’t they come before?” What separates me from the other worker is a box, I am not divided by six feet. Right now, on Saturdays, sometimes there’s more than 30 people, on weekdays it’s 24. I have to be around so many people but they do not look out for the workers, they look out for their product.
I have a daughter who is 9 years old, another 19, another 29 and another older. With that virtual school, I don’t like it, but what else is one going to do? That’s how they’re working right now and I say, if they don’t learn when the teachers are around, much less they’re going to learn now. I’m not really at home, I’m mostly working. The babysitter takes care of her. She makes her study. She has more children to take care of, I think she must have two or three more at school.
The days of the fires, when it’s burning, people should stop. You can’t work, they should take the day, but they don’t. They have to get their product out. That would be my opinion. We have to take care of people so that people can endure.
"Food is being grown, but we the workers are being left behind, without attention." Juan Mauricio
Juan Mauricio, 38
I was called late for work, later than normal. Strawberry begins the month of March, April. This time I started in July. I was looking but I could not find work. The company I worked for last year did not plant this year. I looked for work with several companies, but I was told to wait, and that’s what happened.
I made it through with what little I had saved. We applied for rent through a program, they helped us for part of a month, my wife got a $500 credit for people who did not qualify for the $1,200 (from the federal stimulus program). She received it and also applied for the essential worker fund from the UFW. Just this week I got my $500 card. With that, and since we are low-income, we get Cal Fresh. For our children.
My wife is not working, she is staying with the children — a boy of 17, a girl of 15, another of 10. She is the one in charge of helping them enter their virtual classes. She stopped working to help the children.
There were two days (during the fires) when my throat was sore when I got home. I work on two sites, Moss Landing and Watsonville, and the smoke was coming in, the ash. In fact, the day that affected me the most was Tuesday or Wednesday (Aug. 18 and 19). The N95 mask was not given to us until Thursday. Those days I asked the foreman but he said he didn’t have one. They are gone. Most of the people bring masks from their home. One day I didn’t have one, I forgot, I asked for one but was told they didn’t have any.
It is frustrating for all workers. One continues working out of the need to cover expenses. I think that if we had asked permission, perhaps they would not have denied it, but one also loses money. We don’t have sick days here. To qualify for three sick days, you must work 90 days. I started in July, it’s only been two months, I still don’t qualify for three days.
Many people do not know what farm work is like. They think we have benefits, vacations, paid days, but we don’t even get holidays. All those holidays, July 4, Labor Day, we get none. We don’t have that benefit. Food is being grown, but we the workers are being left behind, without attention. Most companies do not have health insurance. They offer health insurance but the cost is very high and the coverage is almost nothing. This time they didn’t offer it to me.
Something very important that we have discussed with colleagues, perhaps in the future we can … create an economic fund that benefits farm workers. Something that, if there are fires, smoke, ash, where you say “I can go home” but not miss the pay.
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