By Olga Rosales Salinas
Living in Pajaro, California, means living at the whims of the effects of climate change on both life and property. On March 11, 2023, the Pajaro River breached the town levee, flooding the town. It’s been seven weeks since the levee breach. Now I wonder how the residents and township of Pajaro will hold up during the next natural disaster. Because it’s now clear: Pajaro residents survived by relying on community support, mainly from nonprofits.
FEMA stalled in supporting the town, and President Biden’s presidential declaration of an emergency took too long. Yet even without government support, residents have been allowed to re-enter their homes, the tap water has been deemed safe to drink, and most businesses in Pajaro have reopened. Volunteers helped clear mud-ridden homes and businesses. Businesses like Fruition Brewery in Watsonville held fundraisers and rallied support for nonprofits.
In fact, nonprofit organizations bridged the gap between the federal government and direct assistance to the underserved residents of Pajaro.
When emergency services and shelters provided by the town of Watsonville were overrun or filled to capacity, organizations like Raíces y Cariño (Roots and Love), which focuses on education and pro-social activities for children, youth and families collected clothing and other essential items and delivered the items to the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds, where most evacuees sheltered.
Another organization, Campesina Womb Justice (CWJ) created a gofundme raising more than $180,000 for farm-working families. Since 2020, founders Maria Ramos Bracamontes, a certified nurse-midwife, and Irene Juarez O’Connell have supported Indigenous postnatal mothers and newborns. They’ve done it with a drive born out of COVID and without the benefit of a non-profit structure. In the last six weeks, they’ve given $500 each to individual Pajaro residents from these funds. They’ve met with flood victims, knowing that many undocumented residents, especially the region’s Mixtec population, might be fearful of filling out forms. Because these women work in the Pajaro community, they have the trust of local residents.
When I met with Irene to discuss the organization, a flood victim joined us to accept a donation from her group. She had been staying with a friend on a couch. The week before, that friend died and left this now grieving flood victim searching for another place to stay. She will use the money given to her by Campesina Womb Justice to stay at a hotel for three days, — after which she’ll likely be displaced again.
As of April 14, 1,000 families in need showed up for free food distribution in Watsonville, at an event organized by the Center for Farmworker Families.
Residents in Pajaro have also relied on donations from small business owners like Imelda Beleche and her husband Arturo Beleche, owners of Freedom Centre Laundry in Freedom.
Imelda usually donates lost and found laundry items that have not been claimed to those in need. When the levee breached, she gathered the clothing and donated it to displaced families. The laundry also offered use of its machines to flood victims. Imelda said, “Tenemos que ayudar a las familias que han perdido todo.” (“We have to help the families who have lost everything.”)
Imelda and Arturo were farm workers themselves when they came to his country, and understand the struggle of living paycheck to paycheck, relying on crops and the harvest season.
Soon, the residents in Pajaro who depend on farm work will have to migrate. Low-lying crops, currently inundated with mud and mold, won’t be harvested, and migrant workers must find jobs elsewhere. Eloy Ortiz, board member of the nonprofit Center for FarmWorker, said, “I don’t think there will be work this year. Many fields had already been taken offline because of the December storm, and now, even more will need to be assessed since the levee breach.”
What will happen to Pajaro — and Watsonville — when so many migrant workers must follow the crops to another part of the country? “It’s not just that the farm workers will leave town,” Ortiz said. “It’s that small businesses who cater to residents will have to shutter.”
To Ortiz, the issue runs deeper than questions of who will provide temporary support, suggesting it’s a matter of environmental justice.
“This is an ongoing humanitarian issue,” he said. “FEMA is not going to solve this. Nonprofit organizations are not going to solve this. Now is the time for drastic climate policy change.”
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