Guerrero: These people bear the brunt of California’s climate crisis


When smoke appears on the horizon, Maria Salinas wants to run. She knows the California wildfires mean working in the fields as ash rains down and asthma blocks her airways.

“When you spit, the saliva is black,” Salinas, a 41-year-old farm worker and Indigenous activist, told me outside the tin house where she lives in Sonoma County with her husband and four children. Salinas has no choice but to stay and harvest in the toxic air. She brings her inhaler to work, hoping it will keep her from suffocating.

“I didn’t even know what asthma was in Mexico,” she told me. She was diagnosed with asthma in 2006, three years after arriving in the United States to harvest grapes and other crops. She thinks the pesticides made her sick. Now the forest fires are aggravating his respiratory problems.

Salinas is one of half a million undocumented farm workers bearing the brunt of California’s climate crisis – risking their lives and health to harvest in the smoke and sometimes facing financial ruin. While producers have crop insurance and can apply for federal disaster assistance, undocumented farm workers — who make up three-quarters of all farm workers — typically get nothing when fires disrupt their work or destroy their jobs. property. They are also not entitled to unemployment benefits and health insurance.

Many are willing to work in life-threatening conditions because they are desperate to feed their families. Counties across the state are even providing worker passes to enter evacuated areas and harvest crops or feed livestock after everyone has left.

“They’re so on the sidelines at the start that they can’t in good conscience make the decision safely,” Healdsburg City Councilman Ariel Kelley said.

Adan Meza, a 70-year-old farmhand from Jalisco, Mexico who lives in Sonoma County, told me that when he tried to make the safe decision by refusing to work during the 2019 Kincade fire , his employer retaliated by withholding the job for a time. “If you work and kill yourself, they’re happy,” he said.

Last year, a record 4.2 million acres of land burned in California. So far this year, 2.5 million acres have burned and the drought has resulted in low yields for grapes and other crops.

Recent weather disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to what Ezequiel Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, calls “cumulative economic trauma” for undocumented farm workers who are the backbone of the state’s $49 billion agricultural industry.

“They’re trapped in a cycle of poverty,” said Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), the author of a new law improving farmworkers’ access to fire protective gear. “They suffer from higher rates of chronic disease, their housing is terrible, and they work harder and die younger than any other class of people.”

Overall, Latinos are more at risk from wildfires as they move to the urban outskirts and rural areas where land is more affordable. Although they make up 18% of the U.S. population, they make up 37% of people who live in areas most at risk from wildfires, according to risQ, an analytics firm. But undocumented and indigenous people are the most vulnerable.

Margarita Garcia, a 39-year-old indigenous Mexican farm worker, lost her apartment in the 2017 Tubbs fire, along with her family’s belongings. They were traumatized and temporarily homeless, but they had to continue to work hard in the fields. “It’s okay if we’re tired,” she said. “It’s okay if we haven’t slept.”

Advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice surveyed 100 farm workers to ask what they needed during the wildfires. Among their main demands was disaster insurance – support for wages and property lost to wildfires. “We need a system in place that ensures that when farm workers cannot work, they are able to survive,” executive director Max Bell Alper said.

Farm workers also want a hazard pay. Breathing in small particles from wildfires can cause irregular heartbeat, worsening asthma and premature death. Farm workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than other workers. They believe they should be compensated for putting their health at risk.

Additionally, they want safety and evacuation training in their primary languages, including native languages ​​such as native Chatino from Salinas or Mixtec from Garcia. More than 100,000 farm workers in the state are indigenous, and most don’t speak Spanish.

Even when workers receive evacuation orders, many are too desperate to leave. In September 2020, when the Glass fire came to Sonoma County, a 49-year-old undocumented Mexican named Roberto, who asked me to use only his first name, stayed at the vineyard where he lived after which almost everyone had evacuated. He and four other workers wanted to save the houses.

But as they doused houses with water, flaming pine cones shot out of the trees “like fireworks”. Flames surrounded them. “The fire happened in an instant,” he told me. “Because the wind was very strong. We didn’t have a chance to escape.

They jumped into a truck, but the driver, unable to see where he was going in the smoke, swerved off the road. The truck rolled and tipped over the embankment but stopped right side up. Workers rushed into the flames and scrambled up the steep hill as the truck exploded beneath them. “If I slip, I’ll fall into the fire,” Roberto remembers thinking.

On the way up, he burned his leg, hands and face, which required skin grafting at a burn center. Fortunately, the firefighters rescued them. Her employer paid her medical bills and rent while she recovered. But, supporters say, that kind of support is rare.

What is not uncommon is for undocumented workers to stay and try to salvage their owners’ properties or belongings like Roberto did, not wanting to lose what little they have.

Although undocumented workers are entitled to workers’ compensation, many work for farm labor contractors or other third parties, said Kelley of the Healdsburg City Council. Sometimes they don’t even know the name of their employer to apply for benefits.

Even with regulations in place, undocumented workers are often afraid to report violations. Without a pathway to citizenship and a social safety net that includes disaster insurance and hazard pay, these essential workers will be further devastated by the worsening effects of climate change. We need policies that recognize their essential contributions to this state.



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