Migrants fuel grape industry, yet sleep on Southern California’s streets
Thousands of migrant farmworkers live in Coachella Valley parks and parking lots every spring because there isn’t enough housing for them.
Story by Gustavo Solis | Photos by Omar Ornelas | July 14, 2016
Retirement doesn’t suit Martin Garcia.
The 82-year-old owns a home in Perris but he prefers to sleep in a F-150 while working as a grape picker in triple digit heat in Mecca.
“I don’t stop working,” he said. “If I stop moving, I stop living. I prefer to work because I enjoy the adventure.”
Garcia sleeps on a thin mattress draped over a plastic lounge chair on the bed of his two-tone late 1990s model pickup. Next to the makeshift bed is a gray hand-held radio that Garcia uses to listen to music or soccer games before turning out for the night soon after the sun sets.
His bed faces east toward the sunrise. Not that he needs the light to wake up. He and the rest of the farmworkers sleeping in the parking lot at Coahuilla and Second streets in Mecca, just minutes away from dozens of nearby farms, head to work at 4:30 a.m.
Before dusk migrants without cars find rides to work with those who do have wheels. Caravans leave the parking lot in all directions to nearby farms.
Some of his migrant neighbors have worked in the Coachella Valley for more than 30 years. They’ve been sleeping in the lot for just about that long. The parking lot has been home to these workers, many of whom travel up north when done with harvesting grapes in the valley.
Martin Garcia, 82, has been a migrant agricultural farmworker for decades. He opts to sleep in his truck as a means to save money. He plans to work until he dies. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
The austere living arrangements are partly by choice, but mostly out of necessity. There’s little housing for transient workers who flood the valley during the grape season. Providing affordable housing specifically for migrant farmworkers is complicated by a combination of factors.
Growers themselves backed away from providing lodging when the state revved up regulations. Nobody filled the void, and the problem has only festered due to a lack of funding and will to do much about it.
“Nothing changes,” said Tiburcio Guerrero, referring to the lack of housing in Mecca.
Guerrero, a middle-aged man who always wears sunglasses and flashes a wide smile, has worked the grape harvest for 20 years. Early in June, temperatures got so hot inside his van at night that he decided he had enough. It was a Thursday and Guerrero drove 12 hours to his home in the Mexican state of Sonora.
He was back at work on Monday.
Garcia, Guerrero and the rest of the migrant workers on the lot could pay $35 a week to share a bedroom with four other men. Or – if they are U.S. citizens or have worker visas – they could try to get a bed in one of two migrant-specific housing developments nearby. But those fill up before the harvest season begins and remain fully occupied until it ends.
In addition, the houses are expensive and the developments require them to pay rent before they start earning money. They’d rather sleep on the street and save money to send to their families.
Every year between April and June thousands of migrant farmworkers, largely from Mexico, come to Coachella Valley to pick table grapes. They are the backbone of a $120 million a year industry. They’ve been coming since the 1920s, sleeping in dirt fields and showering in canals because there’s never been enough housing for them.
Lack of housing for migrant farmworkers isn’t a new phenomenon or a well-kept secret.
Every spring, thousands of migrant farmworkers come to the Coachella Valley to harvest grapes. Because there isn’t enough housing for them, many sleep on the street or parking lots in Mecca. (July 13, 2016) Gustavo Solis/The Desert Sun
In 2003, National Public Radio described the housing conditions as “some of the worst in the state.” In 2006, The Desert Sun said migrants live in “squalor.” In 2009, the Los Angeles Times said “drunks and meth-addled tweakers” threaten the migrants “with knives or guns.”
Calls for outrage from local, regional, and national media haven’t prompted much change.
“It is frustrating,” said Mary Ann Ybarra, of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, a non-profit that develops affordable housing buildings. “It’s not a new problem, it’s been going on for a while and there just isn’t enough being done for it.”
In 2002, the coalition finished “Las Mananitas,” a 128-bed publicly-funded development in Mecca specifically for migrant farmworkers. The only other similar housing complex is in Thermal and has 48 beds. Conservative estimates peg the migrant farmworker population at 5,000.
“This is nicer than some of our homes,” said Valentino Zavala Patajalo, a grape picker who recently found a place at San Felipe Migrant Housing in Thermal that opened in 2011.
He and his brother share a clean, air-conditioned room. They have access to bathrooms, a refrigerator, and a lounge area.
Demand is so high that the buildings become fully occupied a couple of weeks before the season begins. The Patajalo brothers tried to get a spot at the height of the season but there weren’t any. They moved in once the season was nearly over.
If migrant farmworkers want an affordable place to live in the Coachella Valley during the season they need to pay rent before they start working.
The biggest obstacle to adding more migrant housing, is that developments that only get used for 90 days aren’t economically feasible. Nobody wants to invest in something that’s going to sit empty for most of the year.
Getting state or federal funding, specifically for migrant housing, is difficult because migrant workers are not the only group in need. Local farmworkers, veterans, and the homeless, all need affordable housing. The current system prioritizes those groups ahead of migrants.
“If I have to look at it in terms of financing, there is less money out there for migrant farmworkers than there is for other financing,” said Ybarra. “There is not a whole lot of money for low-income financing, I have to put that out there, but there is even less money for migrant farmworkers.”
Farmworkers get paid $10 an hour plus a bonus for every box they fill. They usually work before sunset and finish a couple of hours after noon. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
Garcia, the octogenarian adventurer/farmworker, remembers what it was like when the people who owned the farm provided housing.
He was born in Mexico and moved to Texas under the federal Bracero Program that brought manual labor to the United States during a worker shortage in the 1940s and 1950s.
The program guaranteed a minimum wage of 30 cents per hour and humane treatment in the form of quality shelter, food and sanitation. Garcia remembers living in small towns that were segregated by race.
For decades growers in the Coachella Valley also provided housing. But that stopped when state lawmakers responded to complaints of poor living conditions by passing a series of well-intentioned regulations aimed at improving the quality of housing but essentially removed growers from the housing business.
From the growers’ point of view, why would they set aside land they could cultivate to generate cash than build housing that would only get used for a few months out of the year and also invite state regulators to their property.
Advocates agree that the regulations had unintended consequences.
“(The growers) weren’t required to provide housing and it became so burdensome that they said, ‘Let’s just not do it anymore,’” said Julie Bornstein, the executive director of the housing coalition. “The problem is nobody picked up the slack.”
At least not in Coachella Valley.
Jose Juan Garcia and Patricia Garcia relax in their vehicle after a long day working in the fields. The couple arrived late to the Coachella Valley and were unable to find housing for the five to six weeks that they would expect to work picking grapes in the valley. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
Growers in Napa Valley have been taxing themselves $10 per acre to build and maintain housing for migrant farmworkers since 1990s. They started the program because their workers were sleeping in the street and other places. Some growers didn’t like the idea at first but nearly 90 percent of them back it now.
Napa’s program, or a similar alternative, could be implemented in other counties, said Jennifer Putnam, CEO of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
“You just have to have the will to make the decision to make something better,” Putnam said. “There are a lot of models out there. It is vitally important to the character of a community that there’s housing.”
Workers become more productive when they know they have a good place to stay at night, instead of stressing about sleeping in the street, she added.
That could be more challenging in the Coachella Valley. The area has a history of tension between farmworkers and growers. The park across the street from where Garcia sleeps is named after the labor hero Cesar Chavez.
During the 1970s, growers worked with the Teamsters to represent the farmworkers instead of the United Farmers Workers of America union. Despite Chavez’s call of peace, some demonstrations turned violent.
Politics between workers and growers is still complicated, specifically with a push to give workers overtime protections, said state Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat whose district covers the eastern part of Coachella Valley.
“We’re talking about farmworkers getting paid overtime after they work eight hours but there’s resistance to that,” he said.
Another obstacle to a grower-involved solution is that the growers in Napa County built the housing – in part – because they had a shortage of migrant workers, said County Supervisor John Benoit.
Coachella Valley doesn’t have that problem.
Rafael Lopez Garcia, 68, has been working the fields since he was a teenager. He has made an annual journey to Mecca since the 70s and slept in the parking lot on Second Street nearly every spring.
“We used to sleep over there in the fields,” he said pointing west toward state route 111. “We used to cook out there, shower out there, we did everything out there.”
This year he can shower, use the restroom, and wash his clothes in a new public facility built to help migrant farmworkers in Mecca.
Garcia visits the $1.2 million facility after work to wash up. Afterwards he buys food and beer at a nearby convenience store and hangs out with other migrant farmworkers in the parking lot. They sit around in small groups scattered throughout the lot. The scene resembles a campsite without the bonfires and with cars instead of tents.
The facility is the only public resource that has been installed for migrant workers in the last five years.
Riverside County funded the program after a discrimination lawsuit filed more than 10 years ago by a Mecca farmworker.
Monday through Thursday after 2:30 p.m., the place fills up with migrant farmworkers finishing their shift. At the height of the grape season, more than 200 visit the facility daily.
A migrant agricultural worker uses a public bathroom that was constructed for farmworkers in 2015. Many migrants who don’t rent housing often used canals or other non-potable water to wash themselves during the grape harvest season before this facility was built. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
The most popular room is a large air-conditioned lounge that shows Spanish-language TV on a projector and serves a free meal around 4:30 p.m. This particular section of the county facility was built with money raised by a non-profit Galilee Center. The county still pays for its maintenance.
Working with non-profit organizations, Riverside County has invested millions into providing housing for migrant farmworkers through projects like the two housing developments and the restroom facility, County Supervisor Benoit said.
The county and the housing coalition are currently working on a 23-acre development in Thermal that will house both permanent and migrant farmworkers, that includes a health clinic and grocery store. The county hopes to break ground on the development during the first half of 2017, said Benoit.
While the county is trying to improve the situation, Benoit believes there isn’t a comprehensive solution to the housing crisis.
“We’re doing the best we can in a difficult situation,” Benoit said. “We’ll never be able to fully solve it or provide (housing) for everybody who comes here on a temporary basis for the harvest.”
Assemblyman Garcia is also trying to do something about the lack of housing for migrant farmworkers. He is tackling the most glaring obstacle – economic feasibility – by designing a mixed-population development, where the same building can be used to house migrant farmworkers, veterans, and the homeless.
Meanwhile, the migrant farmworkers have mostly left the Coachella Valley this year. Many headed north to follow the harvest and others home to rest before finding more work. The majority will return next year, regardless of whether housing is available for them.
Farmworkers don’t complain about the conditions, although they agree that there could be more housing for them. The majority of them are happy to work and support their families.
Garcia, who turns 83 next year, is just happy he can still do the work.
“I like the adventure,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
$10 per hour – Farmworker base pay
$128 million – Value of table grape industry in Riverside County
176 – Beds for migrant farmworkers in county-funded developments
5,000 – Estimate of migrants working in the Coachella Valley during the grape harvest
Ernesto Garcia, who has no permanent home, heads to his makeshift home in the open fields near Mecca after a day of picking grapes. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)