Thursday, February 10, 2005
Mario Hernandez turns off the weed cutter. He pushes a visor, now spattered with lawn clippings, on top of his head. He’s got thick black hair and a mustache, and lines around his eyes and his mouth.
He works as the apartment manager and groundskeeper here at Camphora Camp, next to the state prison in Soledad. Despite the graffiti sprayed on the septic tank, the boarded-up windows in the old community center building and the broken-down fence, Hernandez’s proud of the job he does.
He points at a roof on one of the front units. It looks almost new.
“I fixed that roof,” he says, in Spanish. (Hernandez, like many of the people who live at Camphora Camp, is an undocumented worker, so his name and all of the workers’ names in this story have been changed.)
Hernandez also paints, tiles and fixes leaky sinks. He cleans up litter and graffiti, and he’s also the point man for law enforcement or County officials who have business at the camp.
When he was in Mexico, visiting family over the holidays, problems arose. A guy with a gun shot a dog near Camphora Camp; Hernandez says the fire department called him because they thought it was someone who lived here. It wasn’t, but by then, Hernandez was already on his way home.
He says he’s going to call the County because people drive out to the camp and unload trash, used engine oil and old tires.
“They think it’s a dump,” he says. “It’s not.”
Camphora Camp dates back to the Bracero Program, a 1942 agreement between the US and Mexico that allowed millions of Mexican laborers to cross the border and work. The program failed; the workers were exploited and most were forced back home. The labor camp, however, still sits at the intersection of McCoy and Camphora roads, right off of Highway 101 in Soledad.
Hernandez says about 200 people live here. They’re all Latinos, and most of them work in the fields or in vegetable packing plants. Some of the men work in construction.
On a warm summer day, kids would be playing in front of the buildings, and women would be outside doing embroidery, cooking tamales or pozole, the smells of cilantro and spearmint hanging in the air. On a cold, windy, January day, kids are in school, or still in Mexico with their extended families.
There’s not much work to be done in the fields during these winter months, and a half dozen men huddle outside, playing cards and wearing ski gloves and hats. They don’t have any money, so they play for stones.
“The one who wins gets 10 hard knocks,” jokes one of the card players, knocking on his head.
Most people call this man El Señor Pajarito, the little birdman. He wears huge black glasses, red gloves and a black puffy jacket with a plaid hood.
Sometimes the men find sick or injured baby birds in the fields, and when they do, they bring them home to El Señor Pajarito, who’s got a collection of covered cages outside his apartment. He feeds the birds bread and milk until they are able to fly away on their own.
El Señor Pajarito came to the US in 1952, a bracero from Michoacán, and worked in the fields until he hurt his back, 13 years ago. Now, all of his disability checks go to pay for his prescriptions. He says he wishes that there was a pharmacy nearby.
Maria Giuriato, a Salinas City Councilwoman who works for the County’s department of social and employment services, tells the men to apply for Medi-Cal and food stamps.
“No,” says a younger man, who wears a hoodie over a San Francisco 49ers beanie. “I don’t want to be a carga publica,” a public charge, he says.
Giuriato explains that he’s been paying taxes out of his wages to pay for public benefits, including food stamps and the like. But she can’t convince him. He doesn’t want to hurt his immigration documents.
“We’ll struggle,” he says. “We’ll eat his little birds.”
“I’m missing two birds,” jokes El Señor Pajarito. “They’re making tacos, or soup.”
A muddy dirt road winds between the 44 apartments, where cars and kids’ bicycles sit parked next to garbage cans and folding chairs and umbrellas. White icicle lights and plastic wreaths hang above doorways and in windows. Jeans and baby clothes hang drying from a chain link fence.
There’s a community center in the middle of the property, but years ago, Hernandez says, someone broke all of the windows. Instead of replacing the glass, the landlord told Hernandez to board them up. Graffiti covers the plywood now. Half of the building has been converted to a makeshift storage shed, with tile remnants and cans of paint piled up next to tires, refrigerators, law mowers and gardening tools. The other half of the space hosts birthday parties, and baptisms, as well as Catechism classes and health clinics. A deflated pink balloon hangs from the ceiling, and the windows are covered with plastic pink-and-white tablecloths.
The two-bedroom units are clean but cramped. They’re cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer. As many as eight single men will share the tiny space to save money they earn in the fields. Larger families will eat dinner in shifts, because there’s not enough room for everyone to fit around the kitchen table at the same time. Tenants pay $475 a month for one of these apartments. In May—once the picking season starts—rent will increase $25.
Grapes grow behind the apartments. There’s a barbed wire fence that separates the labor camp from rows of vines.
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Next door, at the Salinas Valley State Prison, some 4,200 inmates eat hot meals and receive free health care. Some study English as a second language or earn their GED. Others take vocational classes in auto mechanics, or computer electronics. Others try to escape.
“When all the lights go on, and you hear the sirens, you know something major has happened,” Hernandez says.
Sometimes prisoners hop the fence and try to hide in the labor camp. One forced a family to let him into their apartment. “They were afraid,” Hernandez explains. Eventually the prisoner turned himself in.
While Hernandez sees the nearby prison as a fact of life, Giuriato sees it as a cruel injustice.
“It’s clean,” she says pointing across the field at the jail. “They’ve committed crimes and they get three meals, they get a library and computers, they get health care.
“Here, they work hard, and they make our economy successful. And the conditions they live in are worse.”
Giuriato first visited Camphora Camp 25 years ago. She was working for the Monterey County Youth Program, which had just received a federal grant to provide employment opportunities for local teens. So she came to Soledad to recruit farmworkers’ kids to work in the forestry department and at local schools, among other jobs.
Giuriato remembers pulling up to the labor camp in a beat-up county van. She didn’t know where to park. As soon as she opened the van door, the smell of sewage hit.
“The smell was unbelievable,” she says. “And then I see the kids playing, I look at the runoff…the next thing I did was call the Health Department to come take a look. That was my first impression: watching the children playing in sewage.
“I come from a poor background myself—I grew up in a little two-bedroom house in Castroville, but when I went out to the labor camps and I saw the families living in these super-crowded conditions, I was surprised.”
Now the families know Giuriato; they call her Maria del Condado, “Maria from the County.” She works closely with a bunch of groups that provide services to migrant workers, including the Citizenship Project, Clinica De Salud del Valle, California Rural Legal Assistance, and the Sunstreet Center, among others.
“We have a network of keeping each other informed,” she says. “We write grants together. I got a call today from two of the unions that are interested in doing a food drive, a clothing drive. People are becoming more aware of the populations out there.”
Giuriato hones in on a woman who’s walking toward the laundry room. Her name is Ester, and she’s lived her four years. She’s a short, compact woman who wears her hair in a long braid. Ester has lived in the US four years; her husband and two older sons work in the fields. She has a 14-year-old boy in high school, and she says she works in the fields, “un poco,” too. Between May and November, she bunches onions in Marina.
She says she came to the US to work. There are no jobs in Guanajuato, the state in central Mexico where she once lived.
When asked if she plans to go back, Ester says, “I’ll visit.”
I ask her if she’s disappointed in her life here. Work is scarce. She’s poor, and she lives with five other people in a tiny, cold apartment.
“No,” she answers. “I’m not disappointed. This is my country now. I prefer to live here. Here, we all see the same conditions. We all struggle, but we all help each other.”