Maria Madrigal picks persimmons in a field near Poplar in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Many workers wear face masks or bandanas as a protection against spreading the coronavirus. (David Bacon)
It's been more than a year since the pandemic began. And while some Californians are looking back at a year of working from home and ordering groceries online, essential workers are marking a year of risking their lives to stock grocery shelves, work in restaurant kitchens or to harvest crops. And COVID-19 has taken an especially heavy toll on migrant farmworkers in the state.
"This time has been more difficult," says Nicolasa González, an Indigenous Mixteca farmworker who lives in Fresno. "We need to protect ourselves, but some of my co-workers have gotten sick."
Like González, musician Lila Downs has Indigenous roots in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She's released a new song to honor essential workers called “Dark Eyes." The lyrics reflect on people locked inside their homes who are "waiting for the dark eyes outside" to deliver food and packages, saying "everybody's hoping to see you at their door."
“You see the harsh way that sometimes people are treated in the U.S.,” Downs told NPR in a recent interview. “There still is a lot of discrimination and racism, and it's a difficult thing to face, especially when they are the people who are providing our food.”
Sarait Martinez, CBDIO's executive director, says Indigenous immigrants from Oaxaca are crucial to the agriculture industry and keeping California fed.
“It’s not a coincidence that [Indigenous people] work in agriculture, because we know how to take care of the land and produce our food,” says Martinez, who is Zapoteca. “It’s because of [farmworkers] that we continue to have food on our tables.”
Still, farmworkers like González worry about getting sick on the job and losing wages as a result.
"If that happens to me, how will I make enough to pay rent?" says González, who harvests bell peppers and table grapes each season.
According to a study last year by the California Institute for Rural Studies, agricultural workers in Monterey County were infected by COVID-19 at rates three times higher than non-agricultural workers. Meanwhile, a study from UC Berkeley that followed 1,091 participants in the Salinas Valley found that farmworkers with lower levels of education or who spoke an Indigenous language had a higher test positivity rate of 23% for COVID-19.
Martinez says that language accessibility is key to keeping people safe. Proceeds from the song have helped CBDIO provide workers with information on testing and vaccine sites, in Indigenous languages like Zapoteco and Mixteco.
“When you think of farmworkers, you think of folks that speak Spanish," Martinez said. "But Indigenous farmworkers have very different linguistic and cultural needs that we keep forgetting about. The song really helps us to bring visibility to our work.”
Martinez attributes the high COVID-19 rates for farmworkers to factors like substandard housing, a lack of reliable transportation and the exploitation of undocumented workers.
“I’m really hoping that as we go through the pandemic, we reflect on [working conditions],” Martinez says. “And really paint not only us as farmworkers as heroes, but [also people who deserve] respect and dignity. And that that translates into adequate policies that ensure that we have a living wage for farmworkers and full labor rights at the workplace.”
With the help of proceeds from "Dark Eyes," and a partnership with local counties, the CBDIO has provided some essential workers with direct financial relief checks of $500 each.
Martinez says that some families are using the money to cover hours lost from work if they need to quarantine or to support their kids' expenses during virtual school.
For González, who pays about $600 for rent each month, the fund has put food on the table during the offseason.
"I was able to pay rent and buy food, that what's helped me the most," González says. "God bless them for supporting us and helping us."
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