Environmental Racism in South County The ‘silent issue’ is swept under the rug

Salinas Valley lettuce field | Adobe Stock photo

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By Yajaira Garcia Meza

Before heading off to college at Cal, I worked in the fields near my hometown of Greenfield. For two summers, I weeded and thinned lettuce fields.

Getting a job in the fields is relatively easy; no experience is required. It was an opportunity to develop work experience. I was working alongside people who were working in fields most of their adult lives. At the time, the money I earned seemed reasonable. It was not until I had my first professional job with really good pay, paid vacation and sick hours that I realized that agricultural work is an exploitation for the hard labor required.

Aside from the physical toll that working in the fields takes on the body, farm workers are exposed firsthand to harmful pesticides and chemicals. One morning I met up with my coworkers at a field and we were overcome by a horrible odor. It turned out that the field was sprayed with pesticides the night before and we were told to leave immediately.

I gave little thought to the situation at the time. I do recall my coworkers saying we could have been sickened if we proceeded to work. It’s happened before. In 2017, 17 farm workers became sick after being directly exposed to a field near Salinas that had been sprayed with pesticides.

I grew up in South Monterey County, surrounded by agriculture. Greenfield is a small farming town, part of the “Salad Bowl of the World.” The Salinas Valley got the “Salad Bowl” nickname because it produces most of the world’s lettuce, broccoli and spinach, just to name a few of the vegetables grown here.

If you drive south on Highway 101, you will surely miss my small town within the blink of an eye. However, you will not miss seeing the vibrant green fields along the roadway. For more than 20 years of my life, these fields were all I knew; fields after fields. Despite these circumstances, I am proud to be from a farm working community. I am proud to have worked in those fields myself.

When I began my education at the University of California, Berkeley, I came to realize that the small hometown I thought I once knew was being overlooked. I’m always amused to read the packaging of the vegetables in stores to see where they come from. More often than not, the packaging will say “Salinas, California.” Not surprising, since Salinas is headquarters for most of the agricultural corporations in the Valley. But what about Greenfield?

Environmental racism exists and thrives in historically marginalized communities.

As children, we are taught to wash freshly purchased produce immediately to prevent the consumption of any harmful bacteria, such as E. coli. However, we overlook labor exploitation that comes with the harvest of these vegetables. Many Latinx immigrants work from dawn to dusk, doing back-breaking work to harvest produce consumed on Americans’ dining tables.

Agriculture workers are not paid living wages, often working under dangerous working conditions that can lead to extreme cases of mental and physical deterioration. Chemical concerns arise from excessive pesticide exposure. I call this the “silent issue” because it is so rarely talked about in my community and beyond.

Addressing environmental racism is complex as there are competing interests at play. Agricultural workers rely on underpaid wages to live, the agricultural corporations make billions of dollars, and we need vegetables for our nourishment. At the local level, these multi-billion dollar corporations fund political campaigns, so our local politicians will never initiate conversations to address the environmentally exploitative element of contractual labor.

The issue is also ignored at higher legislative levels. Legislative bills have historically only benefited the corporations and not the workers or the communities. Environmental racism exists and thrives in historically marginalized communities. South Monterey County has a population of predominantly Latinx, low education, and low-income residents. Many families, including mine, rely on their farm jobs, so it is extremely difficult to speak up against these agricultural corporations.

We must begin to address the effects that pesticides are imposing in the communities of Monterey County. Based on the CalEnviroScreen 3.0, Greenfield has a relatively small population but high levels of pollution from pesticides. We may not see the immediate side effects of pesticides now, but it is bound to be evident with long-term health consequences of prolonged exposure.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think too much about the potential exposure I experienced while working in the fields until years later. Now that I am educated on the health effects of pesticides and environmental racism, I came to realize how my experience is one of many issues being ignored or minimized in the Salinas Valley. That incident in which 17 people were treated for pesticide poisoning? The farm corporation was fined a mere $5,000.

We must demand that our elected officials begin to strictly regulate the use of pesticides. We must begin educating the community on the effects of pesticides and working with community based organizations to demand accountability. Furthermore, I call to action for all citizens to come together and resolve this ongoing issue.

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Yajaira Garcia Meza

About Yajaira Garcia Meza

I grew up in Soledad and Greenfield for most of my life, my love for my community drives my passion to bring change and justice across different systemic and institutional racism. I graduated from Greenfield High School in 2016. I am about to finish my Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.