With the release of Cesar Chavez , i thought i’d re-visit a personal project i’ve been working on about immigrant farmworkers in California. Maybe it’s because i’m not from here, but this hidden, yet essential workforce has always fascinated me. They may be in America, but it’s certainly not a dream…..
California has long been the land of the migrant farm worker. From the dust bowl migration of the great depression, as depicted by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, to todays countless undocumented border jumpers. With an endless supply of an increasingly desperate labor-force, California’s central valley economy continues to reap the benefit, becoming the main agricultural center in the US and propelling the State to the level of a global economic power.
For many who cross America’s borders illegally however, life can be harsh; some have no option but live in shanty town- like labor camps; some of the women are subjected to rape. Even embezzlement by fellow Mexicans immigrants is a problem, as well as the pure physical exhaustion of the un- regulated manual work, not to mention the constant fear of deportation. All to earn just $6 an hour.
Huron, a small town of 5,900, is a virtual Grand Central terminal for the immigrant workforce. Twice a year, lettuce is harvested in the area, and the population at least doubles in size. Known as the “Heart of the Valley,” Huron, in western Fresno county, lies about 50 miles southwest of Fresno. This is the heartland for what inspired Steinbeck, and where he ultimately set his literary classic.
It’s like a time- warp to a frontier town of the Old West, except the cowboys are all Latino’s and instead of carrying six- shooters, they’re packing lettuce knives! It has been described as ‘knife-fight city’ by some, due to the evening activities of some migrants who descend on the town. There’s a handful of bars, five gangs and a famous drug alley. In 1992, the mayor was shot in a dispute between bar owners and resigned. With it’s undocumented and transient workforce, cash is the preferred form of payment, and robberies are common. Gang members know most workers don’t have bank accounts.In 1998, Huron averaged 15% unemployment, and it’s per capita income was fifth lowest in the state, with 39% of it’s residents living below the poverty line. Many of the migrant workers either live in the labor camps in town for about $6 a night, or in converted garages and back-yard sheds, paying $300 a month or more. There is limited housing available for farm workers, and many live in trailer parks that have sprung up over town, that don’t have permits for even basic utilities. Not much seems to have changed for the impoverished and desperate working man since the 1930’s. As Steinbeck described in Grapes of Wrath; “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”Enrique is a 35 year old undocumented farmworker from San Luis, Mexico. He began his journey north on Valentine’s Day 2006, leaving behind a mother, sister and niece. In his quest to reach California, he paid a coyote $1200 and endured three straight days and nights walking in the Arizona desert. He makes his home for now, which was donated, in an overcrowded and moldy trailer in the backyard of a sympathetic Huron resident’s house. He is lucky, although damp and cramped, he manages to find privacy and safety over the choice living in a shared room at the labor camps.This photo- essay examines the daily life of the undocumented immigrant, picking food for our tables at minimum wage, whilst we debate whether we even want them here.
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