Home for the Holidays
Farmworkers’ migration patterns shift as U.S. economy continues to sour.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Foods Co parking lot in East Salinas normally serves as aa lively hub for farmworker men, who get on and off white, Porta-Potty-inclusive buses. But just days away from the holidays, few field workers are here. Some have followed the lettuce harvest to Yuma, Ariz., or headed down to Mexico until the crop returns. But for an increasing number of workers, the trip south may be a permanent vacation.
Rogelio Venegas loads a case of Coke into his SUV. Venegas, who wears a Tanimura & Antle cap, sturdy boots and a thick jacket, laments another workless day. While harvesting vegetables is seasonal, he says this crop season was the worst. “A lot of families went back to Mexico because there is no work,” he says in Spanish through a translator. “There is no future here. Everything is very expensive. There is no money.”
Venegas says he knows 30 friends who moved back to Mexico because of unemployment or foreclosure. While it may be easy for single farmworkers to return home when times are tough, Venegas’ family lives in Gonzales and plans to stay put. “I have nowhere else to go,” he says.
“I KNOW SO MANY FARMWORKERS WHO USED TO MIGRATE. THEY DON’T COME BACK TO SALINAS ANYMORE.”
Maria Fragozo is in a similar situation. Fragozo says grocery items like milk and cheese cost more, while her job packing lettuce has slowed down. A lot of her co-workers and neighbors have moved back to Mexico, she says. “There just wasn’t enough work this year,” Fragozo adds as she packs up her stroller and grabs her daughter to load onto an MST bus.
The county’s $3.8 billion ag industry had a rough summer, with skyrocketing diesel prices (which have since dropped considerably), high fertilizer costs and poor crop markets.
“Companies are not making the same levels of profit,” says Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “They are coming back hiring less people.”
Add in the staggering number of foreclosures this year, a national recession, and the county’s poorest workers are hurting like everyone else. But some farmworkers are feeling the pinch enough to head south, where their dollars will go farther and where family ties are stronger.
Starting around Thanksgiving, migrant families shift to Arizona to harvest lettuce, Oxnard to pick strawberries or Mexico for an extended holiday. At Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, Program Manager Sonia Aramburo says the elementary school received the usual requests for independent study before the winter break started Dec. 15. But this year more families pulled their kids out of the Salinas elementary school for good.
“We have five families that are leaving and they won’t be returning,” Aramburo says, “Either because they can’t find work or the cost of living is too difficult.”
While the Alisal Union School District is seeing some signs of a lasting migration, other Salinas Valley school districts report mixed results. June Allred, executive assistant to the superintendent at Greenfield School District, says they haven’t experienced any major pullouts of students, adding that could be because families are too broke to go to Mexico for vacation.
Jorge Guzman, superintendent of Soledad Unified School District, says usually 10 percent of the district’s students return to Mexico. This year the only new trend Guzman sees is parents requesting to stay for six weeks or more, probably because it not worth the expense to just go for three weeks or maybe to wait out the return of the crop.
Countywide, the number of migrant students is decreasing, but that number was sliding well before the economic downturn, says Rosa Coronado, director of migrant ed for the Monterey County Office of Education. There were 28,821 migrant students in Monterey County in 2003 compared to nearly 21,000 in 2007. Coronado says more agricultural families have settled in the county, and the industry has offered more year-round jobs.
Since crops will always need harvesting, Coronado doesn’t expect to see an exodus of local immigrants. “I think what would drive people out of the area is a drying up of positions,” she says, “and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Still, signs of a migration shift are evident. A study released last month found that Mexican emigration has dropped 42 percent over the last two years. Mexicans living in the United States are sending less money home and Mexican cities were prepping for an influx of immigrants to return this winter due to the sour U.S. economy.
The question is whether local farmworkers will be able to afford to make the trek south in the first place, and if so, will they bother coming back to Monterey County?
Sabino Lopez is deputy director of the Center for Community Advocacy, which trains local farmworkers on how to improve their housing conditions and health. Lopez says an increasing number of farmworkers are skipping the season in Salinas and just going to Yuma or traveling to cheaper states. “I know so many farmworkers who used to migrate,” Lopez says, “and they don’t come back to Salinas anymore. They can live in another place that’s not expensive.”
Plus, many farmworkers who settled here bought homes they couldn’t afford and fell behind on their mortgage payments. Hundreds have lost their homes. But Lopez says the decision to stay or go back to Mexico is more difficult once families have kids attending local schools. “We don’t want our kids to miss school,” he says.
While Lopez is heading back to Jalisco for vacation this winter, other Mexican immigrants aren’t so fortunate.
Back at the Foods Co, Benito Mateo sits on a planter wearing a cowboy hat. For the past five years that he has come to Salinas to pick lettuce, Mateo says, he has returned to Puebla for the holidays. This year he needs to save money for rent and can’t afford the trip. “There is nothing we can do,” he says with a shrug. Mateo, like other laid-off farmworkers, hopes next year will be better.