Huron, California May not Exist in a Year
As you drive down Highway 198 toward the tiny Central Valley city of Huron, yellow-and-black signs poke out from parched fields with a message that harkens back to the days of the Great Depression: “Congress Created Dustbowls.”
The signs, believed to be the handiwork of the Central Valley’s agricultural industry, reflect a collective cry of desperation from a community of about 7,300 Mexican immigrants, who have made this Fresno County town their home, with hopes of realizing the American dream.
That dream, many of them are finding out, is increasingly getting more and more elusive.
It certainly is for Maria Ramos, 57, a widow and mother of three, who was laid off a few months back after working for 25 years, sometimes as a farm hand and sometimes on the assembly lines of an onion packaging plant. At the time she was let go, she was making the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. She’s not sure she’ll find another job any time soon, given the current water crisis Huron and many other Central Valley communities are experiencing.
“There are a lot of people in my situation,” Ramos said in Spanish through an interpreter, adding: “We don’t know where to go; there are just no jobs.”
“No water, no jobs,” is the dismal mantra you hear everywhere around Huron these days, as a combination of a long-standing drought and a federally enforced diminished supply of water from nearby lakes has turned this once bustling city half way between the giant metropolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles into a land of the hungry.
Huron’s economy has for years been powered by agriculture. Acres and acres of tomatoes, melons, onions, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cotton and garlic were once the pride of this rural community. In fact, 95 percent of the processing tomatoes in the United States were grown in Huron.
But the economy is now shredded by a three-year drought, and, to a greater extent, by a round of safeguards for threatened fish imposed late last year by the feds that has diminished the transfer of water from lakes up north through the delta and into the state’s system of aqua-ducts.
Those restrictions were to prevent a little fish called the smelt, which has no commercial value, from being sucked into the pumps.
Additional federal regulations were imposed last month to protect such migrating fish as the Chinook salmon so the water levels would be sufficient for them to migrate.
Many farming communities were told they would get only 10 percent of their allocation this year. Huron faces zero allocation, according to Police Chief Frank Steenport.
The feds’ action has fallowed farms in “one of the richest agricultural regions in the world,” said Carol Whiteside, president emeritus of the Great Valley Center, a non-profit that was set up to promote the economic, environmental and social wellbeing of the Central Valley.
It has left scores of farm hands like Ramos jobless. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 agriculture-related jobs will be lost in the Central Valley this year, said Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, R-Herndon, whose district includes all of King’s County, and portions of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties.
Governor Schwarzenegger decried the feds’ action of putting fish “above the needs of millions of Californians.” And on June 28, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, noting that “the human suffering here in California is all too real,” said at a town hall meeting in Fresno that he wants to direct $160 million in Recovery Act funds to ease the toll of the state’s water shortage on Central Valley farmers.
Huron typically gets only about 5.7 inches of rain each year, far from adequate to support its agricultural industry, according to Don Villarejo, founder of the Davis-based California Institute for Rural Studies, a non-profit that works towards a rural California that is socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically balanced. The water situation has cut the growing season of many of the vegetables in half.
For a town whose majority of residents face language barriers and have few options other than working in the fields, such restrictions imposed by the feds can only be devastating. Nearly 98 percent of Huron’s population is Hispanic, and although it is hard to know exactly how many of them are undocumented, Chief Steenport ventured a guess: between 60 and 70 percent, with some of them possibly awaiting an “adjustment of status.”
“Yes, there are a lot of them who are undocumented,” agreed Mayor Pro Tem Hilda Plasencia.
The unemployment rate in Huron in recent months is “off the charts,” Gilmore said, driving people to hunger and desperation. Plasencia estimated that around 35 percent of the residents are unemployed, even higher if you count all the undocumented who are out of work. California’s unemployment rate in May was 11.5 percent, while Fresno County’s was 15.4 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department.
The situation in Huron is so grim that Chief Steenport is pessimistic about its future.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, tapping his desk. “A year from now, we may not be here.”
He said that over the last few months, while the city was trying to fill the vacancies created by the departure of the city manager and public works director, he agreed to fill in, as well as oversee the city’s finances. He said he declined any increase in his salary so two other city employees’ jobs could be saved.
“Frank thinks Huron will turn into a ghost town in the next year or two,” said Assemblyman Gilmore. “I agree with him.”
Indeed, Huron, all 3.5 square miles of it, appears to be a town on the brink of a precipice. Its harvests, which even until a couple of years ago, rose and fell like an inchworm’s back, seem unlikely to rise much longer. Where once outside farm hands poured in for work during the peak of the two lettuce seasons, doubling the city’s population, the town now finds its own labor going to Salinas and other neighboring communities in search of work.
“The lettuce seasons are shorter here, and there are fewer farms growing them,” said Huron native Rey Leon, associate president of the Central Valley region of the Mexican American Political Association. “So farmhands go wherever there’s work. They follow the harvests.”
Huron city officials say the nomadic lives of its residents isn’t helping local businesses. Westamerica Bank, Huron’s only financial institution, for instance, gets very little business from the farmhands because many of them are undocumented, said Huron Police Sgt. Robert Herndon, who has been on the city’s police force for eight years. He said Huron’s economy is mostly “cash driven.”
“They just stash their earnings away in jars in their home, or carry it on their person, instead of banking it,” Herndon said. “And because it’s not reported, there’s no benefit to the city, county or state.”
To make extra money, many residents sublease whatever additional space they have in their homes, often packing in as many as 25 people into a garage, in violation of building codes, Herndon said. And it’s not uncommon to find around 35 people sharing a three-bedroom house, he said.
“During the harvest season, just a bunk bed in a garage could cost you $180 a month. And if you provide amenities like a shower, a commode, a washer and dryer you could get $100 a week,” he noted.
On a recent day, about 25 farm hands worked a cotton field on Highway 198. Headscarves, baseball hats or sombreros protected them from the relentless midday sun. A few wore masks to protect themselves from the pesticides sprayed on the plants.
Hoes in hand, they trudged up and down between rows and rows of cotton plants, removing errant weeds. They kept their eyes glued to the earth. A few cast furtive glances at visitors.
Farm Supervisor Martin Diaz said through an interpreter that he makes $110 a day, plus he gets health insurance. His workers, nearly all undocumented like him, make $8 an hour each, but have no health insurance.
“There are people who are 70 years old and still working in the fields,” observed Leon. “There is no retirement age for farm workers here. They work hard and barely have enough to eat.”
Even before the present crisis began, Huron was a city that cried out for great improvement. While the southeast side of the town sports new apartments and spacious single-family homes, most of the rest of the town looks rundown. Pockmarked roads, peeling storefronts, few fresh produce stores, no fire department, no high schools, no hospitals, and high levels of pollution from pesticide spraying have made Huron of the most challenged towns in California.
Two weeks ago, nearly 1,200 Huron families stood in line outside the John Palacios Community Center to pick up a free box of canned beans, rice, pasta and frozen chicken, handed out by the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC), a non-profit organization that runs social programs for low-income families in the county. EOC’s monthly food distribution in the Central Valley towns of Huron, Firebaugh, San Joaquin and Mendota has been going on since March.
“We have even done two a month in some towns,” depending on how much food the EOC is able to purchase through donations, said EOC’s rural services coordinator Gabriel Romero.
Catholic Charities, corporations and individuals had donated most of the food this day, according to Romero. An anonymous person had donated boxes of socks, shoes and undergarments.
Some in line pulled their sombreros and scarves over their face when a video camera was pointed at them. Others turned away, looking embarrassed.
“People tell me, ‘I don’t want handouts, I want work,’” Romero said.
She said the food lines have grown longer since the distribution first began three months ago – that the number of families has almost doubled. But “there are people who just won’t come because of their pride,” she added.
Laura Garcia, 18, swallowed hers to join the line. Wheeling her 8-month-old baby in a stroller, she said she had no choice but to come because her farmhand husband had been laid off from his job three weeks ago and was finding it hard to snag another because of the water situation.
“Had my husband been working, I wouldn’t have come here,” she said. “Without water, there’s no work. I don’t know when he’ll find another. My baby needs food.”
Laura Cervanto, 20 and the mother of a toddler, said she had come because her husband’s monthly salary of $1,400 barely covered their food and rental costs, plus the small remittance he needed to send his family in Mexico.
Assemblyman Gilmore is convinced that if the federal and state-controlled water supply is restored to Huron and the rest of the Central Valley, Huron will eventually bounce back again.
“We need those pumps turned back on,” he said, otherwise the United States will have to turn to foreign sources for its food supply.