Drought Survey: Jobs Drying Up for Indigenous Farmworkers
Zenaida Ventura, a former farmworker, conducts surveys of indigenous farmworkers at the farmers market in Madera. 'For me, everything is connected, immigration, health and the drought. I think we need to find a way that we can work this from the roots,' she says. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)
I first met Zenaida Ventura 11 years ago, when she was just a teenager. She was wielding giant clippers, pruning gnarled grapevines in a field south of Fresno one cold morning. She was working alongside her father, Rufino, and I showed up with my microphone to ask them how they protected themselves from pesticides.
The Venturas were recent immigrants then, who spoke Mixteco, an indigenous language from Oaxaca. The term “indigenous” means their language and culture predate the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
She’s standing at a booth at a farmers market in Madera County, home to one of the highest concentrations of Mexican indigenous immigrants in California.
“We’re doing surveys, especially to the farmworkers that are indigenous from Oaxaca, or Guerrero, Pueblo,” she explains. “Have they worked in the fields? Have they been affected because of the drought?”
A woman pushing her kids in a stroller approaches Ventura’s booth and agrees to answer the survey questions. She says her husband went to Washington state this year for the first time to pick blueberries. It was just too hard to piece together enough hours of work in California.
Studies have tried to quantify the economic impact of the drought on workers. One recent UC Davis forecast, for example, estimates more than 10,000 California farmworkers will have lost their jobs this year due to farms having less water. What those studies don’t show is that indigenous farmworkers are more likely to be undocumented and among the first to lose their jobs.
“Many people do not realize, but there is a pecking order, a hierarchy, in the labor force in agriculture,” says Professor Gaspar Rivera-Salgado. He studies Mexican migration at the UCLA Labor Center.
“Not only hierarchy in terms of when you migrated," he explains, "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.”
They’re less likely to get more stable jobs as tractor drivers or supervisors. Those jobs usually go to mestizos, Mexicans who have mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage.
Rivera-Salgado says this new grass-roots survey of more than 350 farmworkers -- a collaboration between several nonprofit organizations in Fresno and Madera County, including CBDIO, Central California Legal Services and the CRLA Foundation -- is taking an important pulse of the drought.
“They’ve been really picking up a lot of details about how tough it has been for families to make ends meet," says Rivera-Salgado. "A lot of these families, they’re really at a crossroads.”
In fact, 92 percent of the indigenous farmworkers surveyed in this project say they’ve had less work or no work because of the drought.
Like Maura Lukas, a Mixteca woman who lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with her husband and four children near downtown Fresno. She’s chopping some onions she got at a food bank on a table set up in a patch of dirt in front of her apartment, next to where she hangs laundry.
“Our rent is $600, and the truth is, we could only pay half, $300,” she tells me. “Our electricity was $119. I have to pay that in payments, too. There just isn’t money for everything. We don’t have enough to eat. That’s what we really need.”
Lukas says this year has been the hardest since they came to the U.S. from Oaxaca. They’ve scrambled to get enough hours picking grapes, raisins and cherries.
She says she’s trying to make meals stretch as best she can, especially as winter approaches. Normally, that’s the time when farmworkers try to live off the savings they’ve scraped together from the harvest season.
But this year, she says, there aren’t any savings.
Zenaida Ventura says the workers she’s surveyed who do have jobs say working conditions have gotten worse.
“Because of the lack of jobs, you have to do whatever it takes to stay there, no matter if they don’t give you shade or water or your rights. Your working rights. "
Ventura isn’t surprised that 81 percent of those surveyed have no knowledge of any programs to help farmworkers affected by the drought.
But 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. Farmworkers 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. Nothing.”
The nonprofit groups conducting the surveys plan to present their results at a legislative briefing in Sacramento next week.