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Noé Montes

Fellowship Title:

Immigration: The Pain and Reward

Noé Montes
June 11, 2015

Fellowship Year

The Coachella Valley is located 130 miles east of Los Angeles in California. It is about 45 miles long and 15 miles wide extending southeast from Palm Springs to the northern shore the Salton Sea. The north side of the valley is comprised of a series of connected desert cities, south of that strip of cities is a vast expanse of land containing a huge variety of fruit and vegetable fields and a few small towns.

Imagine for a minute that you have to leave your home. Imagine there is a war going on around you and you fear for your life and that of your children. Maybe the potato crop, which your country is dependent on, has been ravaged by disease and hundreds of thousands of people have died of starvation. Imagine that you do hard physical labor, every day, in order to provide your family with basic necessities, and it is not enough. Imagine that you are in love and starting a family and you want them to have a better life than yours. Maybe what you want is to practice your religion without being persecuted.

Agriculture in the Coachella Valley began in the early 1900’s with discovery of many artesian wells in the area. These were soon depleted and the existing irrigation system was created. Although the valley is part of the Sonoran Desert, it is a successful agricultural region because of an enormous underground aquifer and a very effective irrigation system that brings in water from the Colorado River.

The reasons that we have immigrated are strong enough to make us leave behind our country, culture, friends, home and family, all the things that make us who we are. In the case of the farm workers in California’s Coachella Valley, it is many of these reasons, plus the fact that the government in their homeland is corrupt. Together, with the drug traffickers, the situation that has been created is untenable. People come to the Coachella Valley because they hear that it is a place where they can use their hands and the strength of their body to survive and maybe even move forward. A place where there is possibility.

A field of young bell pepper plants under a shade cover. The labor intensive nature of agriculture creates many jobs in the valley. These jobs are filled mostly by Mexican immigrants.

To get to the Coachella Valley, people endure many hardships. Educated and skilled individuals leave behind their aspirations, mothers leave young children with promises of returning for them. They leave behind everything they have built in the first part of their lives in order to start again. They come to this new place despite the fact that they don’t know the language, geography, the native people or how systems work. They place a lot of faith in their religion and in themselves. They walk through the desert and the hills for days, scared, sometimes subjected to violence. They are cheated out of the little money they have, they are caught and returned to Mexico over and over. Some people die in the process. People do whatever they have to do to get there. They keep trying until they make it, because they are moving, north, up the hill, to a better place.

Crops are grown and harvested year round in the valley with migrant farm workers arriving at various parts of the year for peak harvest season of crops like grapes, broccoli and cauliflower.

Once farm workers arrive in the Coachella Valley the first order of business– even before finding a place to live– is finding work. The work available to them is planting, tending to and harvesting the huge variety of fruits and vegetables grown there year-round. During the first days after arriving, many immigrants live in the fields or in their cars, and bathe in irrigation canals. The work is hard manual labor in the heat, sometimes up to 110 degrees, that lasts for hour and hours.

This is a vineyard directly east of the town of Mecca, California.

There is abuse of power. Unscrupulous corporations, farmers, contractors and foremen will exploit them. People without proper documentation or little education get taken advantage of because they can’t or won’t go to the authorities. Many farm workers are paid less than what they earn and told not to complain because there are ten people waiting to replace them. They make enough to eat, and to live in an unhealthy environment with little to no services of any kind. But it is something; it is a foothold in this new land. It is something that they hold on to dearly, despite the fact that there are people in the United States denouncing their way of life, resisting their efforts at parity and demanding that they go back to where they came from.
Imagine once again that this is you. You decide to stay and you discover that you have brought more than you realized. You have strength, knowledge, love of family, love of community, compassion and ambition. This is the seed that you have inside you. In this new place, the Eastern Coachella Valley, there is good soil, water, space and light, all of the things you need to plant that seed, to tend to it and watch it grow. You start to build. You figure out how to become a legal resident, it may take one year or it may take ten years. Fortunately, there are people that will help you even though you don’t have money to pay them. They do it because they too have love for community and they believe that a person’s worth comes from their service to others.

Retail outlets such as Whole Foods and Costco distribute the produce from the Coachella Valley throughout North America. The produce is increasingly being exported overseas to countries like China and Japan.

You don’t have to hide anymore. You don’t have to take abuse; you can stand up for yourself, as Americans do. You get together with ten other families and you build eleven homes. One of them belongs to you. It is a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood, like you never imagined. You build. You send your children to school. They speak the new language and they excel in school because they are new immigrants. They grow up and every year they are more aware of their rights as human beings and you learn from them. They go away to college and they learn about the world and about human capital, their own and their community’s. They come back home because there is a lot of work to be done. There are new people arriving, to plant their own seeds and tend to them while they live in their cars and bathe in canals. They have come from very far and their journey has been terrible. You have learned that it is not OK to be exploited and abused. Whether it is your boss, your husband, bigots, the American economy or your own weakness. You know that it is not acceptable so you are there to help. You do this because this is what gives your life value.

The Coachella valley produces virtually the entire United States date crop. Dates were imported to California from Algeria, Iraq and Egypt around 1900.
The variety of crops grown and harvested in the valley is enormous and surprising. This list includes: dill, citrus, carrots, celery, artichoke, green beans, potatoes, bok choy, strawberries, wheat, figs and many others.
Mecca is one of the towns in the eastern Coachella Valley; the other communities are Coachella, Thermal, Oasis and North Shore. These towns and the areas surrounding them are populated mostly by farm workers from Mexico. Some are newly arrived, many have been here for one generation and a few longer than that.
Jose Mario Lazcano in front of his home in Coachella. Born in Mexico City, Mario was present during the events of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. This contributed to him becoming a passionate advocate for human rights. He came to the U.S. in 1984 to work in the fields. During the Amnesty of 1986 his labor union trained him to assist people with the application and process. This experience taught him the value of having legal residency. He himself applied for and was granted legal status.
Out of his home in Coachella, Mario helps hundreds of people every year to navigate the process of becoming legal residents of the United States. He emphasizes honesty, honor and doing things the right way. He believes this is a way to move forward as a community.
Mario notes,“One of the things that I love about U.S. society is how its citizens demand, they don’t ask, they demand. They demand something as insignificant as ‘I am missing one cent. It is my money. I earned it.’ They have a right to demand it and if their government does not keep a promise they demand that it be kept”. By contrast in Mexico, he says, the culture of dictatorship has caused many Mexicans to not demand, to not dream, to not achieve.
Mario is and active and ardent advocate for immigration reform. He is involved in organizing people and events around the issue in the Coachella Valley. “I believe that a person’s life has no value if it is not in the service of others. One’s value as a human being is in direct relationship to what one gives to others”
Maria Rosales Aguirre de Bañuelos was born in Mexico in 1930. She married and had six children. Her marriage was troubled from the beginning. Her husband was physically and mentally abusive but her family and tradition demanded that she stay with him. She came to the U.S. around 1977, eventually settling into the valley and working for Peter Rabbit Farms, a job she kept for 20 years.
Once she was able to keep the money she earned, Maria started to realize her independence. This was not easy but it was a turning point in her life as she was able to separate herself from her relationship to her husband. She became an original member of and early activist for Lideres Campesinas, a grass roots organization created by and for women farm workers. Lideres Campesinas started in the Coachella Valley in 1988 and now has seven chapters throughout California.
Of her experience and Lideres Campesinas Maria says, “Now I have seen the fruit of the work that the organization has done over the years. I suffered and I learned and my eyes were opened and I am not ignorant like I used to be . . . I realize that I am not important, what is important is the people that have the needs that I used to have.”
Ramona Felix crossed through desert and hills on foot to get to the valley. She was caught four times in three months. She eventually made it and with her husband worked in the fields while living in their car. In 2002 her family, along with ten others, built a home through a USDA program. She became involved with Lideres Campesinas when a neighbor invited her to a meeting about having a supply of clean water for emergencies. At the meeting, the issue of domestic violence was also discussed.
Ramona Rosales is now the Assistant Coordinator for the Sexual Harassment/Assault and Human Trafficking Program of Lideres Campesinas Coachella Valley chapter. She said, “…there are other people in worse situations than mine that need help: housing, money, health, many things that I have learned through the organization. I believe that we have to continue with this fight for our people” “
Maria G. Machuca was born and grew up in the valley. After attending college, she returned to Mecca to work in the community. Since the age of twenty-four she has held a variety of positions in local administration and government. Over the last twelve years she has helped grow the services provided to families and farm workers. These services are offered out of a new complex of buildings that include a library, the Boys and Girls Club and the Family and Farm Workers Services building.
Maria and her father Simon Machuca. Maria’s father came to the U.S. at the age of 14 as a part of the Bracero Program of the 1950’s. Being the oldest in his family he worked in the fields with his father in order to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. Simon wanted to go to school but his father did not allow it. It saddens Maria that he wasn’t able to study. “He got stuck”.
Maria is a Community Program Specialist at the Mecca Family and Farm Workers Service Center. She also has been on the Mecca city council for 12 years. The last ten years there has been much forward movement and Mecca has become a bit of a model for the other unincorporated communities.
Pamphlets describing some of the many services offered by the Mecca Family and Farm Worker Service Center. The work Maria and the community council does is instrumental in bringing these services to the community. They include adult school for English as a second language, utility assistance, community mediation, counseling services, parenting classes, , pesticide risks and rights education, and programs for seniors and assistance with immigration procedures.
This overpass being constructed in the town of Thermal will allow easier access to the local airport as the valley is a world-class destination for tourism.
Painting on the front of the now-closed Thermal Boxing Club in Thermal, California.

@Noé Montes. This is the first in a four-part photo essay about farm workers in the Coachella Valley that photojournalist Noé Montes is completing under an Alicia Patterson fellowship.

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Noé Montes