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Work brings many from Mexico to Klamath Basin

photos by Lee Juillerat
Jose Maria and Ramido Lopez check irrigation pipe parts for possible leaks midway between Merrill and Tulelake.

March 26, 2006, Story and photos by Lee Juillerat,  H&N

MERRILL - It's been a wet winter. Fields are too wet to work in. So, for strawberry planting crews like the one supervised by Javier Chavez, it's time to wait and get ready.

Outside, it's bone-numbingly cold, with a chill wind that penetrates even layers of clothing. Chavez's crew huddles in the lee of a wall of sections of irrigation pipe. Methodically, they check gaskets to make sure pipes won't leak when they're finally set out on 40 acres of fields midway between Merrill and Tulelake.

Chavez, in his second year of working as a crew supervisor for the Bonanza-based Sierra Cascade Nursery, one of the Basin's largest producers of strawberry plants, divides his time between the crew and managing budgets. The 50-year-old speaks crisp English. Although he was born in the Mexican coastal state of Colima, most of his life has been in the United States. He was 7 or 8 when his father, Jose, worked as a bracero, or migrant farm worker, in Central California in the 1960s.

Chavez was educated in Mexico and the United States, where he became fluent in English. His family eventually was home-based in Chico, Calif., but seasonally traveled to Oregon to pick cherries and Washington to pick apples before returning for the olive harvest.

For many years the family returned to Mexico in the winters, but Chavez says, “more and more it became just working in the summers. It helped me because I became bilingual.”

One member of Chavez's crew is Ramido Lopez. He's been working in the United States since 1960, initially as a seasonal migrant laborer. He was older when he married. He and his wife, Veronica Losanno, have a 1 1/2-year-old son, Ramido Lopez Jr.

“The life here is better,” says the 36-year-old Lopez, a resident alien, in Spanish as Chavez translated his words to English. “There seems to be more future for my family and myself.”

Lopez and his family live near Tulelake, but they plan to move to the Newell Migrant Camp when it reopens in May because, “It's very convenient and economically a big help.” Importantly, too, the camp has day care and is gated, which prevents people from driving through.

When asked about discrimination, his reply is quick and firm - “Not at all,” Chavez translates. “His son is at school in Malin. They welcome him.”

Chavez momentarily emotionally stumbles.

“I didn't always experience that,” he says, remembering unkind treatment. “Maybe society is accepting the fact we are part of the country.”

Lopez continues talking, explaining how his life his changed because of his marriage and his child.

“I am a lot better off than if I had stayed in Mexico. I am settling down. Every year I am improving economically and in my life,” Lopez says, and Chavez translates, “He intends to make this his home.”

o o o

Alfonso Perez's story is different.

The 27-year-old Perez, from Nayarit, Mexico, is working his third season in the Tulelake Basin. He had been a fisherman in Mexico, but life was a struggle because of the low wages.

The pay is better here, but life is difficult. Perez is melancholy as he talks about his wife, Marie de la Cruz, and infant daughter, Irada, who, he says, was 1 year and 7 months old a day earlier.

“He worries about his family because they're not here with him, but he feels good that he can provide them with better living conditions,” Chavez says, summarizing Perez's comments.

Perez's visits home are infrequent because of the cost. He eventually hopes work six months at time so he can spend more time in Mexico or, “If the opportunity presents itself, if he could bring his family here he would do it in a heartbeat,” Chavez translates.

Many migrants send money to families in Mexico by telegram, but Perez does his through bank deposits. To save money, he lives with two other Sierra Pacific crew members in Tulelake. When not working, they mostly hang around or watch television. In coming weeks, Perez is looking forward to again playing for the Bonanza soccer team.

o o o

“I wonder what would happen if migrant workers didn't work for a week,” speculates Chavez, who believes the effects would be more wide-spread than people realize. Along with impacting agriculture, losses would affect trucking, restaurants and all phases of life.

“If we could do it with the people who live here in the United States that would be good. But we can't.”

Randy Jertberg, Sierra Cascade's chief executive officer, echoes Chavez. During the peak season, his company employs upwards of 1,200 people, mostly migrant workers, to transplant strawberry plants from the Klamath Basin to Southern California, Florida and Louisiana.

“You can't find anybody to do the work,” Jertberg says, explaining his company has gone through employment agencies and all types of recruiting methods.

“There's absolutely no way agriculture is going to operate in the West without the help of the Mexicans. It would be absolutely insane not to take advantage of that labor force,” he adds. “The whole strawberry industry could collapse if we didn't have migrant workers.”

o o o

Chavez is visibly affected by Perez's and Lopez's stories. It reminds him of what his parents experienced.

“It gives me a lot of strength to know my parents came from an economically deprived environment and came up here and established a better life for them and me,” he says. “There were a number of barriers, the discrimination, the language problems.

“For me,” he adds, “it's knowing my parents overcame all that. It tells me there isn’t anything I can’t overcome.”

‘I wonder what would happen if migrant workers didn’t work for a week. If we could do it with the people who live here in the United States that would be good. But we can’t.’
   — Javier Chavez









Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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