Coachella Rising: Can Organic Farming & Unions Transform Calif.'s Hottest Farm Belt?

Coachella Rising: Can Organic Farming & Unions Transform Calif.'s Hottest Farm Belt?

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Photo: Jose Cruz Frias, a palmero, works in a grove of date palms. Once up in the tree, he walks around on the fronds themselves. Cruz has been doing this work for 15 years. He originally came to the Coachella Valley from Irapuato, Guanajuato in Mexico. (Photos by David Bacon)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

Driving down towards Southern California’s Salton Sea, I passed one of those trailer-park colonias [villages] a few miles from Oasis. Near the dirt entrance road two men sat back against the battered silver skin of one mobile home. They were still in their work clothes — one older, stocky worker with a few days’ beard, and a thinner, younger man. Looking at their work belts and bags in the dust at their feet, I guessed they were palmeros, or date palm workers.

Alberto Castro, the younger man, had spent 15 years working in the palms, one of Coachella Valley’s most dangerous jobs. Earlier I’d passed a roadside memorial next to a chain-link fence around a palm grove. Religious candles in tall glasses were surrounded by plastic flowers, a power line visible overhead. Last year two palmeros had been electrocuted on that spot.

“I still think about the two men who died in the palms,” Castro told me in a low voice. “I knew them. They lived nearby and worked 30 years in the palms. They made just a small mistake — it can happen to anyone. They were not watching closely enough, and when they pushed the button to raise the arm of the machine, they struck the power line overhead and died. It was a shock to the rest of us. The owner of the ranch should not have planted trees with power lines above them. I would never have put a palm there. But that is how we work.”

Danger in the Palms

Castro and his friend Carlos Chavez have had no union contract to provide them security over the decades. But they have a special set of skills. Not many people are willing to climb 30-foot trees, so if they don’t get hurt, they’ll have work.

“There are many different operations we have to do to the palms, like harvesting and pollinating,” he told me. “One month we’ll do one thing, and the next month another. We have work the whole year — we never stop. But it’s dangerous. The thorns in the fronds are very long and sharp, and can poke your eye out. You can slice your hand with the machete. In the 15 years I’ve been working here I haven’t cut myself badly, and I haven’t fallen, thank God. But I do not have another job to go to, so here I am.”

Castro has taken his children, one 7 and the other 11, to work with him on the weekend, “so they can see how the money in our family is earned. This job in palms isn’t really enough to support everyone well, but at least it is enough to eat, pay rent and buy gas,” he explains to them. “I hope

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Photo: As the sea dries and recedes, it exposes dust and dead fish, causing respiratory difficulties for children in the small farmworker towns at its edge.
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it convinces them to put more effort into school. I do not want them to follow in my footsteps. Every day I tell them if they try hard they can become a doctor, a firefighter or whatever they like, but not a palmero.”

While we were talking, moving to keep in the shade, Chavez’s daughter Michelle came out of the trailer to join us. Her father’s eyes lit up. Michelle is doing what Castro hopes his kids will do also — studying hard in high school, hoping to get a scholarship. She went to work with her dad too, and came away determined to go to college. But she says she wants to stay in Coachella with her family and find ways to keep them healthy and not so poor. I wondered if she would find the answers she was seeking.

Michelle may go away to school, but she’s not leaving this community, nor are her parents. Although they all come from Mexico no one is leaving the Coachella Valley.

These farmworker families are in Coachella to stay. Rosalinda Guillen, who was born into a farmworker family and today organizes farmworker co-ops and unions, charges that mainstream stereotypes paint field laborers as transient and unskilled. “We’re treated as disposable,” she charges, “but we’re human beings and we’re part of the community.”

Sustainability—and Survival

Sustainability is the mantra for many groups seeking a future in which communities near the Salton Sea can survive. Guillen sees sustainability from a farmworker’s perspective. To her, and to the workers of this valley, sustainability means that organic agriculture could help solve the problems of water runoff. That, in turn, could lead to jobs for communities living in broken down trailers, depending on dangerous work in the palm and mango trees. And if there were a union, it might become work they’d want their children to do.

Guillen especially sees the irony in workers producing organic fruits and vegetables, which their low wages don’t allow them to buy. “Like these organic carrots,” she fumes, pointing to a bunch on a market shelf. “A farmworker can’t come and pay the price for these fresh carrots, and they grow them! It’s totally off balance. [The system] is unsafe, unsustainable, inhumane and unhealthy for everybody — for people, for animals, for the earth.”

As one looks out at the dried crust of the Salton Sea’s playa at the end of the day, covered with hundreds of tilapia skeletons, Guillen’s words seem terribly relevant.

David Bacon wrote/produced this article for Capital & Main (co-published by American Prospect) with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.

Bacon is the author-photographer of the new English/Spanish-language book, In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte (University of California Press, 2017).