From the crack of dawn, as the sun’s first rays pierce the horizon, farmworkers are already hard at work. However, their journey is anything but easy. Each day, around 11 p.m., a long line of these dedicated individuals can be seen at the Calexico Port of Entry, a routine they follow regardless of the harsh conditions, be it cold, scorching heat, or a global health crisis. These men and women toil to put food on the tables of countless Americans.
Meet Jesus Arredondo, one of these farmworkers who crosses the border in the early hours of the day in search of work in the fields. He understands that this journey is not just about securing a day’s job but also about having access to basic rights, such as restrooms and a safe environment. Unfortunately, Calexico faces a shortage of services, and the increasing homeless population in the downtown area, combined with a lack of shelters, creates a health hazard for both the farm workers and the homeless community. Most are forced to camp on the streets, waiting for hours in Calexico before they can begin their workday.
“All of us working in the fields had to support and take care of each other during the pandemic because we received very little help,” Arredondo shared. “They gave us some face masks, but that was it. We had to continue working and looking out for one another.”
Arredondo vividly recalled how during the pandemic, when everything was closed, they had no place to use restrooms. They were left with no choice but to use alleys and other makeshift locations.
The estimated number of hired farmworkers in the U.S., including migrants, seasonal laborers, year-round workers, and guest program participants, is substantial. Approximately 15,000 farmworkers cross the U.S.-Mexico border daily through Imperial County.
They gather early in the morning, around 3 a.m., at the corner of Third Street and Paulin Avenue in the city of Calexico, California. This border town is a melting pot, with a significant farmworker population that assembles each night, waiting for work. The Donut Avenue, a restaurant located on Third Street, has become a temporary haven for farmworkers who spend time there before their work shifts.
Their journey is fraught with countless obstacles, from battling unpredictable weather to enduring grueling physical labor that demands unwavering strength. Farmworkers are the unsung heroes, often overlooked and underappreciated. Their sacrifices go unnoticed, and their stories remain untold. Despite the successes of Cesar Chavez’s efforts decades ago, it appears that the support they should receive has become lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth, with political promises left unfulfilled.
Former Calexico Mayor Javier Moreno once proposed a farmworker service center that would provide essential facilities such as restrooms, a medical center, shelter, and referrals. Regrettably, this center remains an unrealized idea.
The coronavirus pandemic amplified existing problems in Imperial County, one of California’s poorest regions, classified as a disadvantaged community due to its high poverty levels. Paradoxically, the agricultural industry is the second-largest employer in Imperial County, surpassed only by the government sector. The county generates substantial agricultural revenue, mainly from cattle ranching. Several crops generate more than $100 million in economic activity annually, including various types of lettuce, alfalfa, and broccoli.
Despite the necessity of supporting the transient population in Calexico, the local government has taken minimal to no action to provide public restrooms or housing for farmworkers.
“All the workers who start crossing the border from Mexicali to Calexico due to the lack of housing live over there,” said Marco Cesar Lizarraga, Director of the Sacramento-based La Cooperativa Campesina. “Nobody is concerned about providing housing for fieldworkers within their economic means.”
Lizarraga emphasized that most of these workers fear abuse, especially when they are not compensated for their hours worked. Moreover, he highlighted the prevalence of abuse and discrimination, particularly against women.
“Sexual abuse against women is an ongoing issue, and victims are often afraid to speak out. Access to medical care is another concern. Nobody is making the effort to provide access to SNAP benefits for farm workers, even though they qualify during the working season,” he explained.
While laws have been enacted to protect farmworkers, they are not consistently enforced. Lizarraga stressed that government agencies should provide the services that farmworkers are entitled to, rather than merely existing as bureaucratic entities.
La Cooperativa’s five member agencies operate 66 service centers throughout 31 California counties, providing comprehensive services in rural, agricultural regions.
In addition to procuring and subcontracting funding for their members, they foster inter-agency collaboration and ensure compliance with federal and state grant guidelines. Together, member agencies create a workforce of over 500 employees, with a combined operational budget exceeding $81,000,000. Lizarraga, a native of Calexico, remains committed to supporting farmworker families through his organization.
Because the services offered by La Cooperativa focus on increasing self-sufficiency and protecting farmworker agencies, they can achieve much higher rates of participation in this traditionally hard-to-reach population. The organization continues to be a beacon of hope for these farmworkers, striving to fill the gaps left by the local government and provide them with the support they need and deserve.
The work of a farmworker is not just about planting and harvesting. It is a path of resilience, perseverance, and empathy. For that reason, their needs have to be addressed so they can have a better future for themselves and their families. These immigrant farmworkers give their all, and their services are denied due to discrimination, and taken advantage of because they don’t speak English.
The challenges they face are immense, but the solution is clear: it’s time to bridge the gap, provide the necessary facilities, and ensure that every farmworker receives the respect and support they rightfully deserve. As we shine a light on their struggles, it’s our responsibility to make a change, standing beside them to create a brighter and more equitable future for all.
The time for change is now. It’s time to end the struggle faced by farmworkers in Calexico, providing them with the support they need to thrive in their adopted homeland. It’s time to recognize their invaluable contributions and ensure they can lead a life of dignity and respect.
In the heart of Calexico, farmworkers embark on a relentless journey every day, starting before the sun even rises. Their dedication to putting food on our tables often goes unnoticed. Their struggles are far from ordinary, transcending harsh weather conditions, grueling labor, and, most recently, a global health crisis.
Despite the immense value they bring to our lives, these unsung heroes face countless challenges, from limited access to basic facilities to uncertain working conditions. The lack of support from local authorities leaves them vulnerable and overlooked, making their uphill battle even more challenging.
It’s high time to recognize the sacrifices made by these farmworkers and address their pressing needs. By providing essential facilities, housing, and protection from abuse and discrimination, we can empower these hardworking individuals to secure a better future for themselves and their families. The time for change is now, as we strive to ensure that every farmworker’s contribution is acknowledged and appreciated, free from discrimination and hardship.
Article developed as part of EMG Stop the Hate Fellowship in partnership with the California State Library.