Farmworker Maura Lukas says this year has been the hardest to make ends meet since she came to California more than a dozen years ago. She lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with her husband and four children.
“Our rent is $600 and right now we only pay half," she says. "We don’t have enough to eat. There just isn’t money for everything.”
Lukas is Mixteca, part of an indigenous group from southern Mexico that’s increasingly become part of California’s farmworker labor force — indigenous migrants who often work the lowest-paying jobs in US fields.
Now, a new survey shows they’ve been hit particularly hard by California’s drought, as farmers leave some fields fallow, or plant crops like almonds that require less labor.
Lukas chops onions she got from a food bank and, these days, tries to make meals stretch as best she can, especially with winter coming. Normally, that’s when farmworkers live off the savings they’ve scraped together from the harvest season. But this year, she says, there aren’t any savings. She and her husband have scrambled to get enough hours picking grapes, raisins and cherries.
That’s a common story among the 350 mostly indigenous farmworkers who have answered questions for a new grassroots survey about the impacts of the California drought. Those conducting surveys are often former farmworkers, like Zenaida Ventura, who speaks Mixteco, Spanish and English. She works with the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, a binational group operating out of Oaxaca and California.
On a recent morning, she set up a booth in Madera, a city that's home to one of the highest concentrations of indigenous immigrants in California. Many come from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla, parts of southern Mexico that send a lot of indigenous migrants to California. Many of them are undocumented. Ventura ask how long people have worked in the fields, and how they have been affected by the drought.
A woman pushing her kids in a stroller approaches Ventura’s booth, and agrees to answer the survey questions. The woman tells Ventura her husband had to migrate to Washington state for the first time this year to pick blueberries. He just couldn’t piece together enough work in California, even though they’ve lived here for years. In fact, 92 percent of the indigenous farmworkers surveyed say they’ve had less work or no work because of the drought, while 81 percent had no knowledge of any programs to help farmworkers affected by the drought.
And even if they knew about them, Ventura says, they’re not necessarily eligible. Some drought-related job retraining programs for farmworkers require a social security number, GED or high school diploma. Immigrants can’t get unemployment benefits if they’re undocumented.
“The documented farmworkers, they can go and apply for unemployment,” says Ventura. “Or they can look for another job, if there’s an opening for a restaurant to do dishes. But for the undocumented farmworker, there’s nothing.”
Zenaida Ventura says the indigenous farmworkers she’s surveyed who do still have jobs, say working conditions have gotten tougher.
“Because of the lack of jobs, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to stay there,” explains Ventura. “No matter if they don’t give you shade or water or your rights, your working rights.”
Some studies have tried to measure the economic impact of the drought on workers. Economists at the University of California-Davis figure more than 10,000 California farmworkers will have lost their jobs this year because crops have less water. What those studies don’t show is that indigenous farmworkers from Mexico are more likely to be undocumented and among the first to lose their jobs on the farm when hours are cut. That’s what’s being reflected in this grassroots survey.
“They’ve been really picking up a lot of details about how tough it has been for families to make ends meet. A lot of these families, they’re really at a crossroads,” says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, who runs the University of California-Los Angeles' Center for Labor Research and Education. He is a Oaxacan immigrant himself and says indigenous farmworkers are less likely to get stable jobs as tractor drivers or farm supervisors.
“Many people do not realize, but there is a pecking order, a hierarchy, in the labor force in agriculture,” says Rivera-Salgado. “Not only hierarchy in terms of when you migrated, but also this ethnic hierarchy, because these indigenous migrants that come from Mexico also tend to be very discriminated against, not only in Mexico, but also here in the United States.”
And, Rivera-Salgado notes a cruel irony here: Some of the indigenous farmworkers who lost their jobs because of California’s drought had left Mexico because of drought there.
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