The author worked as an EMT and paramedic in northern California from 1993-1997.
The call came just after 5:30 on a cold Autumn morning. A possible broken leg woke my partner, Russ, and I from broken sleep. As I stumbled to my ambulance, I rubbed sleep from my eyes and wrapped my jacket tightly around body. Russ claimed the driver’s seat, found the highway that divides our small town into north and south, and headed east toward the sunrise, to the fields and orchards that frame the town.
The rundown shack sat in the middle of an almond orchard, it’s dirty windows covered with old sheets, pillow cases, and towels; anything to protect the inhabitants from daylight during precious hours of rest.
We approached the shack hesitantly, listening to a multitude of male voices murmur in Spanish inside the clapboard house. The front door swung open, and as I stepped into the dimly lit room, half a dozen men scattered into the corners of the building. A man in his early twenties lay in their wake, writhing in pain as he lay next to a woodstove in the center of the room. A heavy air of stale cigarettes enveloped the young man, and his dirty, worn jeans and long sleeved cotton shirt hung loosely on his unnaturally thin frame. His head rested on the four inch step that he had tripped over while getting ready to head to the fields.
Surrounding the woodstove, a dozen or so thin, narrow mattresses filled the floor, a foot or less of open space between each. In the background of the living room, men shuffled in a small, makeshift kitchen, scraping together leftover beans and corn tortillas for breakfast.
We spent nearly 20 minutes stabilizing and splinting the man’s shattered ankle; he would be lucky to walk on it again after surgeries, casts, and months of rehabilitation. Without those things, he would likely never be able to use his lower leg properly again. His work in the fields of California, picking peaches and oranges, raking almonds, hand picking strawberries in the unrelenting Sacramento Valley heat, was undoubtedly over.
Men and women work 12 to 14 hours a day during California’s harvest season, which begins in April with strawberries, moves to peaches, watermelon, tomatoes, garlic, and ends later in the fall, with almonds and walnuts. If you eat a strawberry this year, it was likely picked by a temporary farm laborer in California. We grow over 400 different crops here in California, and the vast majority are planted, tended to, and harvested by migrant farm laborers who earn just at minimum wage, or less than $19,000 a year.
This is what many of California’s farms are built on, what they’ve been built on since the 1940s, when American men went off to war, and farms still needed to be worked. Hispanics from many countries, but mostly Mexico, harvest the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that feeds America and the world. It is the dirty little secret of cheap produce in the United States.
…our state produces a sizable majority of American fruits, vegetables and nuts; 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots and the list goes on and on. A lot of this is due to our soil and climate. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre. – Western Farm Press
We finally loaded our patient into our ambulance, transported him to the nearest hospital. He had no identification, no driver’s license, insurance card, and refused to provide us with his name. He was undeniably an undocumented worker. He likely would never receive the care the needed beyond the visit in the emergency department, would lose his job, would receive no sick days, Worker’s Compensation, nothing for his destroying ankle. And there would likely be 5 men eagerly waiting to take his job when he didn’t show up.
It was conditions like these that Cesar Chavez fought against in the 1960s and 70s in California, striking with farm laborers and starving himself for weeks on end to bring attention to the plight of the workers who feed the United States, but often cannot afford to feed themselves. These migrant farm laborers are not permanent employees, often don’t understand US employment law that would protect them, and often find themselves in the employ of people who would exploit them.
Regardless of the controversy that surrounded him late in his life, in his early days, Chavez sought to fight for people who were being exploited with low wages, suffered in unsafe working conditions, and fell prey to unfair employment practices. He stood up for the men and women who often couldn’t stand up for themselves.
Today, we celebrate Cesar Chavez, and the principles he stood for, and remember the farm workers who labor every day in this country to provide food for us all.