David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Hunger Haunts Orange Cove
by David Bacon

ORANGE COVE, CA (2/21/99) -- The name of Orange Cove describes the life and landscape of this tiny town precisely. Nestled in a finger of the San Joaquin Valley carved into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it owes its existence to a single fruit.

"That's all there is here -- oranges," says Diana Contreras, one of the 9000 people living here. "That's how we survive -- there's no other way. Oranges are what feed our children."

This winter, heavy reliance on a single crop proved Orange Cove's undoing. In dozens of farm worker towns stretched along the skirts of the Sierras, where they meet the eastern Valley floor, temperatures sank below freezing in late December. Tiny ice crystals formed inside the fruit on the trees. When they melted, the oranges were so badly damaged they could no longer be eaten as fruit.

Two thousand people in Orange Cove have jobs picking citrus. Suddenly, there was no work at all. In the middle of the busiest time of the year, the town's ten packing sheds fell silent. Groves were deserted that are normally alive with laborers in the trees, climbing ladders and filling huge boxes.

Since the freeze, workers have grown increasingly desperate, as they've sought to pay rent and buy food with no paychecks in sight. "We were the poorest city in the U.S. in per capita income before," laments Orange Cove mayor Victor Lopez. "Think of what our situation is now."

Physical disasters in America normally excite broad sympathy. Officials fly over the devastation in helicopters. Congress quickly appropriates emergency funds, while federal and state agencies organize food distribution and get paperwork started on loans for rebuilding.

Orange Cove has seen none of these things. Economic disasters affecting farm workers don't make it easily onto the radar screen.

Two months after the freeze, President Clinton finally declared five San Joaquin counties disaster areas. But the Department of Labor is still waiting for the state to tell it how many people need relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is only planning to send money to qualify small business owners for unemployment benefits, and to compensate growers for crop losses. Meanwhile, the method for delivering relief to thousands of affected workers will disqualify over half the people affected before they even get in line.

"Normally I make $300-350 a week," says Esther Nuņez, "and this is the best time of the year. I pay $425 for rent, and I'm two months behind." Nuņez is echoed by her neighbor Maria Andiano, who's picked oranges here for eight years. "I owe two months as well," she explains. "Plus, I have to feed myself, my husband, and my 10-year old son, and I have nothing to feed them with."

For eight weeks, food has been distributed here at the local Catholic Church. But there hasn't been nearly enough for everyone. "I leave my house to get in line at the church at 5 in the morning," complains Josefa Mendoza bitterly. Mendoza, whose weather-beaten face testifies to 13 years picking oranges, is no stranger to discomfort. But waiting needlessly for food that doesn't arrive gives discomfort a tinge of humiliation. "At 8am they come and tell us there's not enough for everyone. Meanwhile we've all been standing in the rain for hours, getting wet and cold for nothing."

Last week there were 450 people in line, and only enough bags for 180. In Orange Cove, the only relief food available has been surplus cheese and other commodities from US Department of Agriculture warehouses. Other towns tell a similar story.

The only other organized relief has come from the United Farm Workers, and from Von's markets in L.A., which donated six semi-trailers stocked with food. Last week, the UFW distributed 11 tons of food through organized committees of workers in each of the towns affected by the freeze. But the union says the need is four times that.

Back in January, the UFW urged the incoming administration of Governor Grey Davis to request federal intervention. In early February representatives of the Department of Labor and the Federation Emergency Management Administration finally flew out from Washington. For three days, federal and state officials toured valley towns, getting their fill of stories from hungry workers.

In Orange Cove, more than 500 families gathered in the town plaza, spilling into its single main street, lined with taquerias and Mexican grocery stores. A cold rain drizzled over angry men in workclothes and women holding infants wrapped in blankets, standing on the muddy grass in front of the bandshell to meet the visiting dignitaries.

Mayor Lopez warmed up the crowd, recounting a prior trip to Washington to plead with the President personally, and then urged his town's workers to let the officials have it. "You jumped on me the other day," he told them. "Now jump on them. We don't need cheese and stale bread, or to get in line anymore. We need money to buy our own food. It's our money. We pay taxes like everyone else."

The delegation arrived, escorted by UFW Vice-president Dolores Huerta, and for two hours the town's orange pickers took advantage of their chance to describe the failure of relief efforts.

Unfortunately, however, government representatives don't seem to have listened closely. They still plan to use a system to distribute disaster aid which already disqualifies many, if not most workers -- the unemployment benefit system.

Very few farm workers in Orange Cove or elsewhere receive unemployment benefits, despite being laid off through no fault of their own since December. Surveys by the local UFW committees document that in Tulare and Fresno counties alone, over 28,000 workers are unemployed or underemployed because of the freeze. Counting family members, the number affected could easily be well over 100,000, with additional tens of thousands in other affected counties.

But only 5164 workers have even applied for disaster-related unemployment in the five counties, according to the state Employment Development Department. Many seasonal farm workers didn't accumulate sufficient hours to qualify for benefits. Others have to work a day a week to keep their jobs, also rendering them ineligible. EDD is not relaxing any eligibility guidelines to make additional benefits available.

Orange Cove growers themselves have not offered any relief to their own employees, and workers say they are responsible for another reason for disqualification. One large grower, Harding & Leggett, no longer employs its own workforce directly. "The company sent us to Manpower in Visalia [a temporary employment agency]," Contreras says. "Then we came back to work for the company, but as Manpower employees. Now we can't get help with rent and bills because they say we weren't working for Harding & Leggett."

But most workers are disqualified because of their immigration status. Almost all farm workers in California today are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. While there are no accurate statistics, probably over half have no immigration documents.

That disqualifies them from unemployment benefits, despite the fact that those benefits are based on a worker's earnings. Similarly, lack of papers keeps undocumented families from receiving welfare, MediCal or food stamps.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and state disaster relief programs are planning to open 15 one-stop centers in the disaster area, where some workers may qualify at some future point for federally-financed help with rent and mortgages. "But people can only qualify for programs if they're here legally," according to Eliza Chan, FEMA spokesperson in San Francisco.

Most undocumented people live in the shadows, shunning public exposure which could lead to deportation. But desperation and anger fueled one undocumented Orange Cove woman, holding a baby in her arms and trailed by a small boy pulling at her skirt. She climbed to the stage in the town plaza to confront the visiting officials.

"We pay taxes," she declared angrily. "My rent is $292 a month, and seven of us -- me, my husband and five kids -- live in our apartment. Why can't we get relief? I've been living and working in Orange Cove for eight years. Two of my children were born here -- they're citizens. But I still can't get help. No unemployment benefits. No foodstamps. No welfare."

While Marta Lidia Orellana, who came from El Salvador 13 years ago, has a form of legal status, she also feels abandoned. "My husband was assassinated during the civil war," she explains, "and I had to come here as a refugee. I left my children behind, and for months I haven't been able to send any money home. I don't even have enough to pay rent or buy food. They say they can't help me because I don't have a regular residence visa."

Many workers in Orange Cove are legal residents themselves, but are worried because they're applying for visas for other family members in their countries of origin. They fear that the 1996 immigration reform law will invalidate those applications if they receive any form of public assistance. "I have a 23-year old son in Mexico," explained Maria Andiano. "I'm worried that if I accept any help, he'll never be able to come here. I have to choose between uniting my family and getting evicted."

According to Ted Mastroianni, deputy assistant to Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, as of mid-February his department was still awaiting a count from California of the number of workers affected. While the freeze was in December, "the impact was only really known a couple of weeks ago," Mastroianni claims. "We're moving very rapidly to deliver aid to the unemployed."

"Just tell us if the government's going to help us or not," Mendoza responds bitterly. "We pay taxes. Now we need help."

"All of us need it," Orellana adds, "documented and undocumented. It's the poor who make the growers rich. If we don't work, they don't eat. Now when we need something, where's all the money we made for them?"

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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