Billions in Crop Value, But Few Apples for Older Latino Farmworkers

Billions in Crop Value, But Few Apples for Older Latino Farmworkers

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Photo: Genaro Valenzuela, 67, is at home--four months behind on rent. Failing health and no retirement savings have compromised his future. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

GEORGE, Wash.--In late October 2016, social worker Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega drove from the community health center in Quincy, Wash., toward the town of George. The barren, post-harvest landscape contrasted sharply with the land’s economic bounty.

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the market value of crops produced in Grant County led the state in 2012 with a value of $1.76 billion spread over 1,552 farms. The leading crop produced was apples.

Ybarra-Vega’s car stopped at a small building, a series of ramshackle apartments mashed together in a row. It’s hard to tell where one begins and other ends.

“Ah, there’s his shopping cart. He uses it as a walker,” said Ybarra-Vega.

“His Joints Snapped and Creaked”

Minutes passed after Ybarra-Vega’s knock. When she raised her hand again the door creaked open and a large man greeted her with soft eyes and giant, calloused hands the size of splitting-maul axes.

He offered a soft handshake, his eyes squinting from the daylight pouring in the doorway. Retreating into his dark apartment his joints snapped and creaked; he moved slowly, hunched over.

Genaro Valenzuela, 67, said he came to America looking for opportunity. He knew he’d be making more in the United States for the same work he was doing in Mexico.

“I doubt I’d do it again,” he said, laughing. “I doubt I could jump the wire now.”

After five years of working in George, he rose to the level of cuadrillero – a field manager where he was in charge of about 25 people.

“I would do the labor and manage the workers,” Valenzuela said. “Sometimes you’d have problems between workers, sometimes you’d have to teach them, sometimes orders would come and you’d have to do them yourself.”

He lived hard, often in ways he didn’t realize. He’d hydrate during work with colas and unwind afterward with sugary foods. Patterns developed and so did type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, “and who knows what else,” Valenzuela said.

Said Chaz Webberly, a physician assistant at the Quincy Community Health Center, “Diabetes, especially type 2 is by far the most terrible thing we deal with here, there’s a high hereditary

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Photo: Social worker Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega, left, speaks with Genaro Valenzuela, 67, at his home in George, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

component to it. Workers will just completely forgo treatment because the season has kicked up and they need to be in the orchard.”

Things snowballed and began to affect Valenzuela’s work. The final straw came when his crew boss told him to take an ax and break up stumps to clear room for an orchard tractor.

“My body hurt so bad, I would cry out in pain,” Valenzuela said. “But you can either work or you can’t. I couldn’t anymore.”

Valenzuela is in a tough spot. He’s out of work, has next to nothing in savings and, as of October, four months behind on the rent.

Trees Get Better Care Than Workers

“The bosses don’t care about your welfare, they care only for money,” he said. “A boss takes better care of his trees because it makes him money. A boss sees men as tools. When you break, you are not worth anything.”

He joked with Ybarra-Vega that he may have to find a hole in an orchard to wait out the winter if things didn’t improve.

A mouse scurried across the kitchen floor.

“I’ve lived in this apartment for 18 years and now I have missed four months rent,” he said to Ybarra-Vega. “It’s embarrassing.”

When asked about retirement, he laughed. “I thought retirement was going home to Mexico,” he said.

Returning to Mexico, while once Valenzuela’s goal, now seems a distant finish line. It would take money he doesn’t have and he guesses the Mexican health care system wouldn’t be able to do much for him.

Valenzuela has residency and a Social Security number. But he’s not able to claim Medicare, the housing options through the clinic and other social services he’s paid into for years as a taxpayer until he can get a reissued copy of his residency card. He lost track of the original in his divorce.

In his situation, a simple document is likely the difference between life and death.

“That Money Gave Us Opportunity”

Isabel Vega and her son and daughter-in-law, Toño Vega and Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega, gathered after dinner in the living room of Vega’s home. The harvest was over and it was a rare moment of relaxation for Isabel Vega. She leaned back in her large leather sofa under a big-box store painting of a Western landscape and listened to her grandchildren play in the next room.

Aside from that painting and another of a Paris street scene, Vega’s home was sparsely decorated – and immaculately clean. A large television occupied one end of the room surrounded by neatly

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Photo: Isabel Vega, 65, prunes apple trees in an orchard near Chelan, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

ordered toys for her grandchildren. A massive trampoline dominated her front yard and under it the grass was clipped short and watered.

It’s the functional home of someone who takes pride in ownership, but doesn’t plan to stay in the neighborhood.

The trio chatted as the silent flat-screen television flashed through images of then-candidate Donald Trump.

“I wonder what would happen if Trump kicked out all the Mexicans?” mused Toño Vega. “What average American would want to work for nothing, and if not, could the ranchers afford to pay?”
“Eight dollar tomatoes,” answered his wife.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Ybarra-Vega observed, “My mother-in-law, she survived because she is a smart businesswoman. The Vegas are entrepreneurs.”

Isabel Vega’s husband, Antonio Vega, left his Michoacán ranch in the 1980s, at age 45, for the lure of higher wages in the United States. Money he could invest into the ranch and possible amnesty for his family were a magnetic draw pulling him north.

His oldest son, Antonio Jr., or “Toño” as his family calls him, was left to take care of the family.
“I was the man of the house, but my mother held us together and my uncles were there to help out,” Toño Vega said.

Gradually Isabel’s sons began leaving to head north, crossing the border illegally with the help of “coyotes,” men who work as guides to lead Mexicans over the border. Toño Vega said he traveled with friends from the rancho, heading to Livingston, Calif., for work, then further to Wenatchee where his father was.

“Sometimes money can do damage; when Antonio came back there was more drinking,” said Isabel Vega. “But also money, and that money gave us opportunity.”

In Wenatchee, Toño met and married Mary Jo, the granddaughter of an early Bracero worker who stayed to work in Quincy after he became a citizen. The couple had one son and plan to stay stateside.

Mexico No Longer the Same

After Antonio Sr. was granted amnesty, Isabel and five of the couple’s children became permanent residents. Some of the children returned to Mexico to work on the family ranch, leaving the Vega clan split between countries.

There’s a way, if she squints, that the Eastern Washington landscape near Wenatchee reminds Isabel Vega of her home in Michoacán, Mexico – mountainous and rugged.

That vision is fleeting though, and sometimes, as her family grows in both places, it’s hard for her to decide whether the U.S. or Mexico is home.

“The rancho is where I am happiest, but much of my family is here and so is my work,” she said. “It’s like I am living on a teeter-totter. When I’m home I want to be here working, and when I’m here, I want to be home.”

Ybarra-Vega noted that she sees a lot of workers returning to Mexico, only to find the home of their memories no longer exists or seems hollow.

Isabel Vega mused that if she were younger and could do it over again she’d probably stay in Mexico. On the other hand, Vega can say she chased the idea of the American dream and did

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Photo: The pre-dawn drive out to the orchards in Eastern Washington. (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman Review)

better than most. She owns her home in Wenatchee and has invested money she made working stateside in her ranch in Michoacán. She planned to take several suitcases back to Mexico on her next visit, one for her and the rest stuffed with clothes for her family and friends.

As for retiring?

“I think I’ll just keep working until the crew manager or my body tells me I can’t,” she said, laughing. “We’ll see what happens.”

Photojournalist Tyler Tjomsland wrote a single long version [] of this story for Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by the SCAN Foundation. Also, read Part 1.