As I approach Ernestina Solorio’s home in downtown Watsonville, I see a weathered, gray La-Z-Boy on a small porch, and a worn trampoline on the front lawn. There are some action figures and other small trinkets on the recliner, and a busted-up scooter next to it. I ring the doorbell and immediately hear a tiny bark behind the door. I can hear Solorio tell a dog “estate quieto”—calm down—from behind the door before she opens up.
She greets me with a loud “buenas tardes” as her little Pomeranian mix barks away by her feet. I chuckle at the diminutive pooch as we shake hands, and I ask her what his name is.
“Danger,” she says through a thick Mexican accent.
“Oh, como peligro?” I ask as my chuckle grows into a full laugh.
She laughs and confirms, saying that her kids gave him the name 15 years ago when they first got him.
“Lo que quieran mis hijos,” she says—whatever my kids want.
Her home is exactly as I imagined. There’s a washing machine in the corner of the living room behind a couch, and religious decorations are scattered throughout—crosses, sculptures and half-spent candles line the walls. Two large bouquets punctuated by dazzling red roses sit on the mantle of an unpainted red brick fireplace surrounded by candles. One burns away underneath a portrait of a man I later find out is Solorio’s husband. The similarities to my childhood home just blocks away are uncanny, and the nostalgia is heavy.
As we sit down on couches covered with thick, plush blankets, she immediately begins to apologize for pushing our meeting from the previous week. She says that recently, life has been kicking her while she’s down, and it’s been difficult to keep up with appointments. She pulls out her planner and flips through dozens of pages filled with notes and dates that carry her through the next two months. She’s not technologically savvy, she says, but that doesn’t give her an excuse to be unorganized. With four kids to look after, she can’t afford to be unorganized, she adds, before pointing to a set of used planners from months past hidden at the side of her couch.
“I’ve lived a very hard life,” she says in Spanish. “But things are even harder now.”
Solorio moved to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico in 1993. She was the youngest of four siblings. Her family had a roof over their heads, but they slept on the floor. She had dreams of making enough money in the U.S. to build her mom a house back in Mexico. But she fell in love with a man from Jalisco, Mexico shortly after she arrived in Watsonville, and they got married in 1996. They had four kids together, who are now 24, 20, 15 and 11—the latter of whom joins us for a spell during our interview and says hi before scurrying away with Danger.
Solorio’s story, in many ways, runs parallel with my abuelito’s journey. Through the Bracero program—an agreement struck between the U.S. and Mexican governments in 1942 that allowed Mexican men to legally cross the border to work in the U.S. on short-term labor contracts—my abuelito voyaged north with the sole purpose of helping his family back in Cueramaro, Guanajuato, Mexico. He worked in the fields picking berries. The way he talks about those days in conversations, he never imagined that he’d lay down roots in this country—2,000 miles away from his original home—but he quickly realized that if he wanted to support his growing family, he would have to stay here. My abuelita eventually joined him in the U.S., and together they had 10 kids—the majority of whom still live here.
But this is where our families’ stories deviate. My abuelito was able to buy a house, and my abuelita could stay home to raise the kids. And when those kids got old enough—10 or 11, give or take—my tias stepped in as second and third mothers for their younger siblings. They stayed out of trouble because they had a support system at home that corrected their course whenever they strayed.
This wasn’t the case for Solorio’s family. For much of her 26 years in the U.S., Solorio has had to be the breadwinner. She was picking berries deep into three of her pregnancies to make sure her kids had a roof over their heads, and an opportunity to focus on school. Her husband was deported back to Mexico several years ago, putting even more responsibility on her shoulders. Just a few weeks before our interview, her husband had died after battling years of health issues related to alcoholism. Solorio couldn’t attend the funeral—she’s on a work visa that does not allow her to leave the country—but three of her kids, all of them U.S. citizens, did.
Her eldest kid has sporadic debilitating mental health issues as a result of multiple car crashes. The 15-year-old and 11-year-old are both dealing with learning disabilities—the former, Solorio says, is being transferred from the local school district to a specialized program over the hill in San Jose.
She looks off to the ceiling—thanking God that she’s still alive and that her kids are with her before voicing her grief—and wonders aloud whether the pesticides she inhaled while pregnant had any impact on her children’s development. She’s asked doctors about this, but none have taken the question as seriously as she’d like. Her eyes begin to well up with tears, and even though she’s wearing a mask, I can see her lip quiver underneath it.
“You learn about all of this now, and it’s difficult to deal with,” she says in Spanish. “My life hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to, but I have to keep going.”
Close to Home
There is an unspoken trade-off that comes with being a farmworker in the U.S. They are expected to sacrifice their bodies and well-being toiling away on the fields, and, in exchange, they receive a fleeting chance to provide education and opportunity for their kids. And while there are several stories that end like my abuelito’s—fostering a big family that progresses from farmworker to blue-collar worker to white-collar worker from generation to generation—there are thousands of others that take Solorio’s path.
This has long been well-known in Watsonville, the Pajaro Valley and around the Central Coast. But it wasn’t until recently that the conditions many farmworkers deal with gained notoriety throughout the country. When many of us were sheltered in our homes in the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, farmworkers did not have the same privilege. They went to work during a time in which the world knew very little about how Covid spread.
Unsurprisingly, farmworkers were disproportionately impacted by Covid, but many did not contract the virus in the workplace. No, the high infection rates among that profession were tied back to another well-known issue on the Central Coast: overcrowded homes as a result of crippling housing costs (last month’s median rent for Santa Cruz-Watsonville of $3,300 ranked second in the nation and was $700 more expensive than the same time last year). Soon, media outlets across the country were producing stories about farmworkers, and the heat was turned up on lawmakers to do something to help.
“The Central Valley, Imperial Valley, our own valley, they became hotspots because these are families that couldn’t avoid exposure to Covid-19 because of the work they do, but then after work, going home to these overcrowded living conditions. It’s inhumane,” said 30th District Assemblyman Robert Rivas. “I’m so glad those news outlets reported on this, because it really brought to light that in a state like California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, no one should be living like farmworkers live in this state—and we’ve got to do better.”
In retrospect, says Rivas, who represents the Salinas and Pajaro valleys as well as San Benito County and Gilroy and Morgan Hill, the media exposure is one of the tragic but important silver linings of the pandemic. A product of modest farmworker housing in the tiny town of Paicines near Hollister, Rivas says that he and many who grew up on the Central Coast know all too well about the conditions that farmworkers face. But, he adds, for many across the country, the reporting during the pandemic served as a dose of reality.
“I think that there’s been a lack of understanding, and I think that has changed,” Rivas says. “There has been so much more focus than has been the case in the past on the work farmworkers do, and I think that has helped increase awareness and generate a better understanding of the crisis we know exists in regions such as our own.”
A 2018 landmark farmworker housing study of the Salinas and Pajaro valleys spearheaded by the City of Salinas found that many farmworkers live in crowded, unsafe and deteriorating housing because of low wages and the seasonal nature of their work. Families of eight live in a room designed for one. Seasonal workers rent corners of living rooms and hallways. And these cramped homes were reportedly littered with mold, insects and rodents, as well as broken-down bathrooms, kitchens, roofs and plumbing. The study also set goals and an action plan on how to solve the problem. The loftiest goal on the list: create roughly 5,300 permanent, affordable farmworker housing units in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys over five years.
The region has not made significant progress toward meeting that goal, yet Rafael Hernandez says that there are still misconceptions about the state of farmworker housing that trick the general public into believing that there is significant progress being made.
Hernandez is a housing program associate for Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP), a nonprofit coalition between the public, private and civic sectors in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. In that role, he serves as a conduit who guides housing projects—primarily affordable, nonprofit-led developments—from concept to creation. He says that although there have been some good-sized projects that have been constructed over the past few years—the majority of them in Monterey County—many of them do not address the root cause of overcrowding.
“I think when people think about farmworker housing, people think about bunk housing, H-2A [the federal program that allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs], but that’s the misconception,” he says. “What we’re talking about is family housing. People that live here, have lived here for years and are really struggling … So people see these H-2A complexes going up, and think, ‘We’re making progress.’ Those projects are good, but they don’t address some of the most dire situations that we saw in the [2018 study].”
It’s that missing family housing, Hernandez says, that creates the greatest “human cost” of the overcrowded housing dilemma: the impact on the kids.
Although children in these overcrowded conditions might have a roof over their heads and four walls around them, they can be considered homeless, according to the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987. That federal legislation sought to help shield educational rights and protections for children experiencing homelessness, which, according to the act, is generally defined as a child who lacks a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
A study conducted by an education justice think tank in 2019 found that Monterey County had the largest population of homeless youth in the state. A staggering 9.9% of students in that county were homeless; 90% of those students were Latinx and 64% were English learners. In the Pajaro Valley Unified School District—Santa Cruz County’s largest school district that dips into Monterey County—there were 2,510 students this past school year that qualified as a “student in transition,” according to district spokesperson Alicia Jimenez.
“You ask about what the human cost is for not addressing the situation, it’s this,” Hernandez says.
While the pandemic served as a signal boost for the plight of the farmworker, the staggered halts in work and triage of responsibilities for local government agencies and other organizations over the past two years—including the response to the CZU Lightning Complex—have served as a devastating blow for the momentum that was starting to coalesce behind farmworker housing.
Just months before the pandemic struck, the County of Santa Cruz had updated its rules around employee housing to try to help alleviate the situation laid out in the 2018 study of the Salinas and Pajaro valleys. The plan was to allow employers to build small, bunk-style housing developments in rural agricultural land in order to sustain their business. And, perhaps most importantly, the update also included the creation of a “development reserve” of 200 affordable housing units deed-restricted to farmworkers and their families that could be constructed on agricultural land without having to go through the hassle of “upzoning” the property.
Suzanne Ise, a principal planner with the county, says that the reserve allows prospective developers to call “dibs” on a portion of the 200 units for a nine-month period while they conduct the legwork needed to determine if the project is viable. That gives the applicant some assurance that if they can square away all of the pre-construction minutiae that they will have a fast track waiting for them come construction time. Ise says that the county has received one request to reserve 80 units, but it has expired.
“But it’s not that the applicant is no longer working on those efforts. It’s just that the pandemic has really slowed things down quite a bit for everybody,” Ise says. “It’s almost like we lost a year in terms of where we thought we would be in 2019.”
The good news is that despite the setbacks for developments on agricultural land over the last two years, homes that are deed-restricted to farmworkers are indeed being built. Late last month, nonprofit developer Eden Housing broke ground on a 53-unit affordable housing complex off Freedom Boulevard in Watsonville. Of those units, roughly half will go to farmworkers and their families. And two more developments backed by MidPen Housing, another nonprofit developer, will feature another 74 units with similar deed restrictions.
MBEP’s Hernandez says all three of these projects are the gold standard of affordable housing. Not only are they family homes, but they come with several amenities such as computer and community rooms, outdoor barbecue and play areas and wellness, career, education and financial service centers. These resources are included in projects as a way to increase a nonprofit developer’s chances of receiving funding from the state and federal government in hypercompetitive grant applications. Hernandez would like to think that these nonprofit leaders are also working these features into their projects because it’s the right thing to do.
Rivas is trying to bolster these efforts with Assembly Bill 1654, which would set aside additional state funding for new housing projects benefiting farmworkers over the next 10 years. It would also replicate the local 2018 farmworker housing study on a statewide scale, and develop a strategy to “substantially improve policy, funding and implementation of farmworker housing production in California to adequately address the size and scope of the problems identified in the study.”
For decades, farmworker housing was built cheaply on the edges of society next to the land the laborers would oversee. But while that approach kept costs low for farmers and worked for some farmworkers, it also made life tough for secluded farmworker families that wanted their children to benefit from the U.S. education system. These new projects give farmworkers a shot at setting their children up for success, Hernandez says.
“It’s not just about the home,” he says. “It’s also about the opportunity.”
And Solorio says that’s all farmworkers want. The work is brutal, and the expectations are tremendous, but it’s all worth it if her kids can find success that she never could. She proudly says that her 20-year-old daughter is supporting herself and her two children, and living on her own after recently graduating from school in San Jose.
“I feel so happy for her that she’ll one day offer everything to her kids. What do I have to offer to my kids? I have no education. I can’t offer them what they need,” she says in Spanish. “I’d like to learn a little English, look for another job cleaning somewhere, but I can’t. Farmworkers sacrifice themselves. Sometimes we’re underpaid, and other times we’re mistreated. We’re in the cold, in the heat and, nevertheless, we have to do our work. Sometimes I think, ‘Will this get better?’ I’m not sure. But I have to keep trying. I have to keep going. God willing, things will get better.”