A place to call home Mexican Dream Part IV


News staff writer

April 1

The school bus rolls down Old Parkdale Road to a stop sign, turns right and halts in the middle of the road. The bus driver opens the door and quickly, the last seven or eight students – all Hispanic now – trickle out of the bus.

Javier swaggers down the county road, trailing far behind the teenagers, who are skipping giddily in front of him.

He turns left onto a gravel road and beside a sign that says “Peligro. Pesticidas.” (Danger. Pesticides.)

His home is down that road.

It is in a triplex cabin, no bigger than 1,000 square feet divided into three separate apartments. It houses 11 people – a farmworker family in one, four young farmworkers in the middle.

Javier lives in the southernmost apartment with his brother and the buddy with whom he traveled to Hood River County.

The apartment has just enough room to shelter a pair of bunk beds, a sink with counters, a small table for eating and studying, and a television, which sits on top of a refrigerator.

The boys have decorated the walls with Spiderman posters and framed pictures of Toliman, Jalisco, their hometown. They eat a lot of “carne y huevos,” Javier says. And they cook it on the portable electric burner, sitting beside the sink.

The floor is pine partical board with scuffs of dried mud.

It resembles what a college dorm might have looked like in the log cabin days. And for the most part, that is how Javier looks at it.

At home in Toliman, he and seven members of his family live in a four-room house. He has an ‘83 Chevy truck there.

But he is happy to be here for now and for the next couple of years or so to earn money and learn English.

And he should be. Javier is one of the lucky ones. He has no rent and very few working obligations to the orchardist, who owns the cabin in which he bunks.

His cabin is one of Hood River County’s 114 registered farm labor camps in a state with just 260.

“I think it’s difficult to make one enveloping statement regarding different farm labor camps,” said Steve Corson, spokesman for the Oregon Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “You have some places that are set up with good sleeping and quartering facilities. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ll find people living in conditions that really shock us, with all the markings of Third World poverty.”

But OSHA has had few qualms with Hood River’s farm labor housing.

The average size for Hood River County’s cabins is 667 square feet. On average they house from four to 10 people. OSHA mandates at least 40 square feet per occupant if it has bunk beds; 50 square feet if the cabin has regular beds.

Some cabins, like orchardist Chuck Thomsen’s nine off Eastside Drive, come with amenities like DISH satellite, a refrigerator, gas stoves and a soccer field, which Thomsen himself mows weekly in the spring, summer and fall. Rent is free there.

Thomsen can legally house 36 farmworkers in those nine cabins.

“We fill it up,” Thomsen says during peak harvest.

He even lets the workers stay in his cabins while they are picking cherries on orchards owned by other orchardists.

His foreman stays rent-free in the 2,000-plus square-foot farmhouse he and his wife lived in as newlyweds.

An expensive perk –

All of this, of course, has come at great cost to the orchardists, who spend thousands on improving and maintaining the housing.

OSHA looks at farm labor housing like any workplace. So the orchardist, like an office manager, has to ensure toilet paper is in the bathrooms, working batteries are in the smoke alarms.

“When we find a camp with egregious problems,” OSHA spokesman Corson said, “we find ourselves in a difficult spot. We have the authority to shut the camp down. But if we do, we’re essentially evicting all of the orchard’s tenants. So generally we’ll try to nurture the orchardist back into compliance.”

OSHA can, in fact, penalize orchardists for violating any one of 100 mandates on its inspection report, for breaches such as a failure in “Prevention of mosquitoes, fleas and rodents in immediate area,” or if the toilets are not “marked ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ in English and native language or with pictures/symbols.”

In 2004, OSHA inspected 61 Oregon farm labor camps and found 127 violations, six of which OSHA considered “serious” enough to cause serious injury or death. The results: $300 to $5,000 fines.

In 2003, OSHA inspected 60 Oregon labor camps and discovered 298 violations. Nine of them were “serious.”

“The biggest pain is having to keep up with it all the time,” Thomsen said. “In order to run a good labor camp, you have to go to the camp two or three times per week to make sure the bathrooms are clean, that the screens are all okay, not ripped.”

The other pain is money.

A west side Hood River orchardist, who preferred to remain anonymous, has already spent $10,000 this year to maintain her nine cabins.

“A majority of the growers make an effort to be in compliance with OSHA standards,” said Jean Godfrey, administrator at Hood River Grower-Shipper Association, “because they realize in order to get the laborers, they need adequate housing. But we have had some orchardists who have closed their housing because of the cost of bringing it into compliance.”

In the last 45 years, farm labor camps in Oregon have dwindled in number from more than a thousand to 260 in 2004.

To minimize this trend, Hood River County in 1990 pursued and won a Farm Labor Housing grant, which gives qualified farmers a $25,000 loan at three percent interest for 10 years, to improve the quality of their farm labor housing.

From 1998 to 2003, Hood River County processed 14 loans in the four and a half years during which the grantees intended the loans to improve the quality of farm labor housing. Since then, the county has relaxed the conditions of the loans to allow farmers to use them for improvements, such as installing sprinkler systems, frost fans and propane.

On a statewide level, Oregon’s legislature created several programs aimed at helping farmers and orchardists create better housing for their workers.

“Hood River County has gotten the lion’s share of those programs,” said Lynn Partin, farmworker programs representatives for the state of Oregon.

Of the $206,016 the state of Oregon awarded for Farmworker Housing Development program, Hood River County orchards and/or orchardists got $90,500.

The other side –

Juan Escabar, 31, is now the director of the Oregon Child Development Coalition for Hood River County. But when he was 23, Escabar was still a picker, a way of life that began for him 15 years earlier in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

His parents, from Jalisco, were undocumented pickers for 10 years.

As a farmworker, Escabar said he worked for an orchardist who provided nice cabins, free of charge and nearly free of obligation to his workers. He’d bring watermelon for the kids and one time vouched for a worker who’d been busted for Driving Under the Influence.

“They even brought in the satellite dishes,” he said.

But, he says, camp life for many farmworkers isn’t so merry.

“It’s an isolated world out in the cabins,” he said. “A world where the orchard owner is the ultimate authority. If you’re going to live there, you’re going to work when the boss says he needs you to work. It’s a pretty sweet deal if you’re a business owner. You get labor on demand. But a lot of farmworkers don’t complain about it because they think if they are living here (in the cabins), they should work.”

The trouble with those kinds of allegations, admits Escabar, is that type of behavior is impossible to quantify.

“It’s not what everyone sees that bothers us,” Escabar says. “It’s what people don’t see.”

Barry Jones, a farm labor housing enforcement manager at OSHA had heard of some of the horrific living conditions in farm labor housing throughout the state.

In a quest to find what people don’t see or what some people don’t want to be seen, Oregon OSHA sent out two compliance officers on a five-month drive through the state’s back roads looking for unregistered camps.

“We always hear all these stories about all these unregistered camps,” Jones said. “So we drove every road.”

Jill Cornejo, one of the two compliance officers, said in the two years she and her partner searched, they found 11 unregistered camps in 2003 and 10 the year before – none in Hood River County. OSHA fined the owners of those camps a total of $105,000. In 2004, OSHA found just one unregistered farm labor camp and fined it $7,000.

Cornejo said Clackamas, Marion, Yamhill and Southern Oregon were all areas that hid unregistered camps. The worst camps, she said, are in the Willamette Valley.

“No plumbing. No electrical. No water. There’s a portable toilet outside. And an outdoor hose and bucket for a sink. Pretty poor conditions,” Cornejo said. “And a lot of these people (farmers) are charging rent: $50 per month or $50 per week. The average occupancy was seven to 10 people.”

“Some places take chicken coops and turn them into farm housing,” OSHA’s compliance director Jones continued. “Some of them are horrific. Horrific. You couldn’t imagine the conditions that some of these people work and live in. But then some are quite nice.”

Hood River has been somewhat immune to the blight of poor farm labor housing, Jones and Cornejo said, because a lot of the Hood River County farms have been in the same families for generations. In other counties, such as Clackamas, Marion, Yamhill and Southern Oregon, the farm owners tend to recycle.

And, Jones and Cornejo added, Hood River County’s type of agricultural work requires more skill than say, picking asparagus, so local orchardists need quality housing to attract skilled farmworkers.

But Escabar, the picker-turned-social worker, says the most significant indicator of where you’ll live as a migrant or seasonal farmworker – quite nice or horrific – is who you know.

“If you don’t know anybody, you’re probably going to live in your car,” Escabar says. “If you do know somebody, you can have yourself a nice cabin.”

And that is where Abel, a 51-year-old farmworker, lived for 26 years. He moved here from the Mexican state of Guerrero 30 years ago to tend the orchards.

Just six years ago, he moved from his tiny cabin No. 9 on Binns Hill Road to a downtown rental. But he’s still tending crops.

Jovil Galvez –

A cabin is where Jovil started out 36 years ago as a 19-year-old pear and apple picker for Wells Farm. When he married three years later, he and his wife were living in a one bedroom house. Rent free.

Within five years of migrating from Villa de Pihuamo, Jalisco to Pine Grove, Jovil had a wife, brand-new baby twins and a rent-free, three-bedroom mobile home. Oh, and as a summertime foreman, he also had a 20-worker crew.

“We lived very happy there,” he said.

He and his family lived in the mobile home, working and stashing money until his son Manny was born.

“The trailer was getting kind of small at that point,” Jovil said. “So we moved to a three-bedroom house. Brand-new. Probably 2,000 square feet of living space. Yes, rent free. They treat me good. I’m still grateful to them. Some people complain about their bosses. But I’m still grateful to them.”

And of course, Jovil was saving his money.

“You bet,” he said. “You bet your booties. We saved. I had a vision.”

Jovil realized at some point that the house, the work, pretty much every luxury he had, all shared a single source: Wells Farms. And he realized that if something bad should happen, he and his family could lose it all as fast as his boss could tell him he was fired.

So in 1983, Jovil took out a $54,000 loan and bought a new two-bedroom house, paying his mortgage while living rent-free in the orchard house.

“In case something happened,” Jovil said. “I told my wife: ‘We have to have some place to move.’”

By 1992, he realized the house was too small for his family of five anyway, so he sold it to his little brother for $73,000.

By 1998, when Jovil finally quit Wells Farms, he was earning $1,500 a month. But he had saved enough to buy his family a 2,000-plus square foot house in Oak Grove.

His girls are now serving their residencies in hospitals as doctors. And Jovil is now the Prevention Specialist at Hood River Valley High School, charged with preventing high schoolers’ troubles with fights, drugs and poor grades.

He has another duty: Prod those Newcomers such as Javier, Miguel and his wife Maria through the graduation line, get them to learn their English. Convince them that they, like him, can have the Mexican Dream, if only they work hard enough.

Hood River News, Columbia Gorge Press and HRN Images

are all subsidiaries of Eagle Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright 2003 * Hood River, Oregon

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