Around 2.4 million farmworkers work across the United States, and of those, 68 percent are foreign-born workers. The job involves toiling long hours under the sun as well as meeting often difficult quotas for produce picked.
California is where a significant number of the country’s farmworkers, around one-third, work. These farmworkers produce over a third of the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables and generate $50 billion in revenue for the state, yet they deal with high levels of poverty and few employment benefits—if any. They are the lowest-income group in the state as well as one of the least protected during a dangerous day-to-day job.
Many also live in migrant farmworkers’ camps owned by the government, a grower, or another private owner. Although California’s Office of Migrant Services was established in 1965 to provide safer housing accommodations, the insufficient funding sometimes leads to lax enforcement. Inadequate housing flies under the radar.
Jaime Cortez opens his debut collection, Gordo, the December California Book Club selection, with a scene set in the fictional Gyrich Farms Worker Camp, near Watsonville. The short stories follow a young boy living with his nuclear and extended family and friends. We see the dynamics of the community in the workers’ camp through an unusually young pair of eyes. The air is heavy with dust, and the dirt beneath the children’s feet only builds the camp’s atmosphere of need and neglect. Each family has its own house, but these are basic living arrangements, with no telephones and shared outhouses for showers and restrooms.
Farmworkers’ yards are merely dirt that surrounds the dwellings, something Gordo finds endlessly amusing when he gets kicked out of one of the yards: “‘Oh my God, her yard,’ I say. ‘No grass. No fence. No flowers. Not even weeds.’ We keep saying ‘my yard,’ and every time we do, we laugh more and more.”
Cortez underscores the poor working conditions when a family unexpectedly shows up looking for work, shelter, and a glass of water. Looking from afar, Gordo analyzes their situation, taking note of their thin frames and their belongings gathered in sacks. He bicycles around them in circles as they set up a temporary shelter of plastic sheets over the dirt and the children shower in the open air.
The rough living conditions in Gyrich Farms Worker Camp are matched only by the physical rigor of the agriculture jobs: “The stoop labor was performed in the afternoon temperatures that hovered in the low nineties and sometimes more for weeks at a stretch. For this reason, summer was a season of dread to all the children age five and up, who harvested garlic alongside their parents. The worst day of school was better than the best day in the garlic fields.”
Although his work is fiction, Cortez captures the many real-life dangerous conditions that children and parents face on California farms. While working, farmworkers are exposed to high levels of pesticides and other chemicals regularly, and exposure to pesticides can lead to an array of chronic diseases. Oftentimes, this exposure occurs after the farm owner has provided inadequate training for dealing with potential hazards. As COVID-19 took hold, producers failed to emphasize mask usage and hygiene practices to minimize the risk of exposure to the disease.
Although employers must provide accessible drinking water and restrooms, they sometimes overlook this legal requirement or cut corners, providing inhumane facilities and insufficient restrooms, leading to long lines. Workers report soap and other necessities running out.
Many organizations, agencies, and groups provide aid and legal advice to farmworkers, but change often happens slowly. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health boasts Spanish-speaking field inspectors, but because of a lack of proper staffing, only one field inspector is available for every 192,308 Spanish-speaking workers.
During the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, farmworkers were expected to work in the fields with little to no protection. Volunteers from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and Future Leaders of America banded together to try to distribute around 15,000 N95 masks to farmworkers and raise awareness of a higher than usual risk of respiratory illnesses as essential workers. On several occasions, however, farm managers refused to pass out masks or provided them to only the men working the fields. When volunteers attempted to pass masks out themselves, they were prevented from doing so by farm managers.
Gordo reflects the drama of these hardships for essential workers. Cortez condenses gut-wrenching realities, mixes in joy and gallows humor, and powerfully fictionalizes stories of California’s backbone.•