From NewAmericaMedia.org, Joaquín Magón, 17 Nov 2011.
New America Media Editor’s Note: The author of this story, who uses the pen name “Joaquín Magón,” is a youth writer from the east Coachella valley, now living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers. He blogs regularly for Coachella Unincorporated, a community health-reporting project of New America Media, supported by The California Endowment.
SALINAS, Calif. — Alfredo lives in a tool shed. A cramped shed made of tin. He has no running water, electricity, heating… nothing. The world of the farm worker holds this reality—work during the day is harsh and the end of the day is harsh.
An organizer and I walked through this Mixteco community in the outskirts of Salinas amazed as we saw the trash strewn about, the children covered in dirt, the poor excuses for houses people must turn into homes. When I look at archived black and white photos of farm worker housing in the 1930’s and 40’s, it looks the same. Nothing has gotten better.
“It’s not fair that we have to live in this place where it’s always cold,” says Alfredo in Mixteco, one of the many indigenous languages spoken in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “But it’s the only thing that we can afford with what we are paid. If they paid us better, well, we’d live in another place that was better but here we are.”
Alfredo, who did not want his last name included, works in the strawberry fields and although I haven’t seen him in action, I can tell just by looking at his hands, his eyes, and feeling his sense of ambition, that he works hard. But hard isn’t enough for an undocumented worker who struggles to speak Spanish and has no command of English.
A migrant worker from San Martin, Oaxaca, Alfredo is one of the many indigenous workers who lives in this community in the outskirts of Salinas where lonely horse-less horse ranches house people.
He came to California about a year ago and has been working ever since. Work in the fields, unlike work in the cities, is quickly found and taken up by anyone who wants it. Agricultural work in California knows very little of lay offs, pink slips, or fair wages.
Like many young men his age, Alfredo, 22, came alone to the United States in hopes of sending money back to his family and his community. Being alone allows him to make the harsh sacrifices such as living in a shed, toughing it out, hoping it’s only temporary until the season is up and then he will move south to Oxnard.
To be a farm worker is to make a living out of something that can’t be made a living out of. It’s to get up in the early morning before my paper hits my door and work all day arched over, turning strawberries, picking the red ones, leaving the green ones, in rows that seem to run into the horizon.
“I would like it if they paid us better,” says Alfredo. “The work that we do, well, it’s very difficult and for that we can only come here to this house at the end of the work day. We don’t have anything else.”
Mario lives a minute’s walk from Alfredo. In this area, it’s common for those with a ranch or empty lot to rent out their property to farm workers at a high rate. Mario lives in a horse ranch where there are no horses—the horse corrals are used for people. His home is what looks to be a horse corral boarded up as an excuse for a house. He lives there with his family paying $800 a month for the place. The room is packed with people and they share a bathroom in bad condition.
When it rains, the water leaks, then the dirt turns to mud and mixes with excrement, making it difficult for people to walk through and for the children to play. Like Alfredo, and like the surrounding community, he speaks little Spanish, no English, and commands Mixteco well.
“I’ve been living here for four months,” Mario said. “I feel bad paying so much and living in a place like this. It looks ugly. It doesn’t seem fair to me that I pay so much and live like this.”
But the options are scarce and he would not feel safe living away from the Mixteco community—a community that takes great pride in sticking together and not trusting those who are not part of it.
The farm workers living here are stuck in a similar political limbo as those in the communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley where conditions are harsh to endure but easier to endure than the homeless situation they would find themselves in if the government intervened and shut the places down.
Winter is cold here. Dark clouds loom over Salinas as Mixtecos cook outside their shacks, banding together to talk about their day, to rest, and laugh. Laugh? Humans are amazingly beautiful if they can laugh the way the do in a reality that is so harsh to live.
Even they, I suppose, feel they must take pride in the little they have. They work for the short inch of living space they have and they are not homeless; they are not hungry; they are not begging on the sides of freeway off ramps or at stoplights. They are not taking food stamps or welfare. No, they take pride that they are working, living in their own community, speaking their own language and laughing. Laughing at what? I have no idea but I smile at the thought.