An Extraordinary Summer of Crises for California’s Farmworkers

Rosa Villegas woke up at two in the morning on a late August Monday to make her way to the lettuce fields in California’s south Salinas Valley, where she was scheduled to start bagging heads of romaine at 4 a.m. The sky overhead wasn’t its usual dark, star-dotted self as she walked to her car. Instead, it glowed a sickly red, colored by the fires burning on the flanks of the Santa Lucia mountains, just a few miles west.

“It was like a volcano,” she said in Spanish. “Like there was lava everywhere, so close.”

The fire snaked quickly through the mountains bordering the wide, flat valley, the self-proclaimed “salad bowl” of the world. By the next day, so much smoke hung in the air that Villegas couldn’t see the edge of the romaine field, let alone the mountains.

Villegas is one of the thousands of farmworkers in the state, many of them undocumented, who have been working through a summer of increasingly brutal conditions. A heat wave brought record-breaking temperatures to the western United States. Then, fires laced the air with lung-aggravating smoke. And underneath these stresses lurks COVID-19, which has infiltrated Monterey County’s agricultural communities at three times the rate of the rest of the state’s population and caused massive cuts in jobs and hours for people who are already living on the edge of poverty.

For many, there is no choice but to keep working. This is the height of the picking season for many crops and the time of the year when farmworkers earn the bulk of their income. With few legal, health, or financial protections, but an “essential worker” designation that forces them to choose between being fired and working and risking exposure to the coronavirus, many farmworkers face pressures far beyond what they’ve had to deal with before.

“There’s just no option to not work,” says Sarait Martinez, the organizing director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. Her parents are both farmworkers in the Salinas Valley. “In heat, COVID, or fires, you just have to keep working.”

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