2020-06-09
Story

Jose Garcia, 53, has been traveling to Palisade, Colo. from Guanajuato, Mexico for the last 30 years to work in orchards on the Western Slope. This year, he was unemployed within weeks due to a spring frost and the coronavirus pandemic. Photographed in Palisade on June 3, 2020.

Photos by Luna Anna Archey

By Sharon Sullivan

Guadalupe’s job as an agricultural worker at a Palisade, Colo. greenhouse is considered essential, which has allowed her to continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the market for the greenhouse produce she harvests in the spring has dropped significantly.

Typically, 75% of the lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula and basil are sold to restaurants in the Grand Valley, Vail, Aspen and Denver. But with many restaurants closed for the past two months—and some just now starting to reopen at reduced capacity—much of that market has disappeared.

As a result, Guadalupe’s hours have been cut in half to roughly 20 hours a week, which is stressful for the 41-year-old undocumented immigrant. (Because of safety concerns due to their immigration status, only first names are used for some of the people interviewed for this story.) With four children still at home, plus a newborn granddaughter, Guadalupe is currently the family’s main breadwinner. Her husband lost his farmworker job after an April 14 freeze wiped out most of this year’s Palisade peach crop.

Guadalupe moved from Mexico with her family to Colorado more than a dozen years ago because of the gangs, drug traffickers and lack of jobs. “I wanted a better life for my kids,” she said.

In Palisade, the double whammy of the coronavirus outbreak and the bud-killing spring freeze has hit seasonal farmworkers particularly hard. Many migrant farmworkers have left the area, while those who live in the area year-round scrape by with the help of food banks, and mostly part-time work.

A monthly food box distribution from Central High School in nearby Fruitvale, with provisions of eggs, canned goods, meat and a bag of apples, helps somewhat. Still, rent and utility bills are compounding for families like Guadalupe’s.

“It’s been stressful. You feel that pressure knowing you need to pay bills and you just can’t,” Guadalupe said.

During the off-season, many migrant and immigrant Hispanic farmworkers take jobs in restaurants or housekeeping—industries that have also been affected by COVID-19. When those jobs largely disappeared due to Colorado’s stay-at-home order, people thought they at least had farm work as essential agricultural workers, said Karalyn Dorn, executive director of Child and Migrant Services, a nonprofit based in Palisade that provides services to farmworkers and their families. (Child and Migrant Services is a Colorado Trust grantee.) Unfortunately, the spring freeze eliminated many of those jobs this year as well.

“It was an additional, huge shock,” Dorn said.

Despite paying taxes, many undocumented immigrant families do not qualify for the 2020 stimulus checks (up to $1,200 per individual, plus $500 per child) that were mailed to millions of Americans to soften the economic blow caused by the pandemic. If there is one undocumented person in the household, the entire family is disqualified for assistance—including full-time residents with legal status to work in the United States, or children who are American citizens.

“I’m really worried about the economic impact on Latino people,” another Palisade-area farmworker, Maria Elena, said. “We pay taxes every year but don’t have a Social Security number, [although] we have kids born here. It’s not fair that we file taxes and pay every year but won’t get [a stimulus check].”

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Maria Elena, photographed on June 3, 2020.

Maria Elena joined her husband, Angel, in Palisade four years ago. He used to travel back and forth between Mexico and Colorado, from where he’d send money home each paycheck. This year, due to the freeze, the farm work has disappeared, although his employer is trying to keep him somewhat busy with construction projects. Both Maria Elena and Angel are undocumented.

Although it’s fewer hours, thus far, his earnings have been enough to cover the $380 rental fee for the space to park the family’s mobile home.

Maria Elena is currently unemployed, although in September she expects to harvest grapes as she’s done in the past; grapes weren’t as severely affected by the freeze like the peaches and cherries. Typically, she’d also sort and pack vegetables during the summer, but she’s afraid to do that work now because she said it’s impossible to keep six feet apart in the packing shed.

“It’s such a hard time. It’s getting worse and worse,” Maria Elena said. “It’s so hard for the family in every way—even to go to the store. In the store, there are so many people that don’t care and don’t use masks or do social distancing.”

During normal times, Maria Elena earns additional money from the sale of homemade tamales. Every three weeks, she spends three days in her kitchen making tamales Oaxaqueños, a recipe from Mexico’s Oaxaca region. She and her husband then drive to Denver to deliver the tamales to people who’ve placed orders. She earns roughly $300 after expenses.

“Because of the contagion, the virus, I stopped,” Maria Elena said. “It was a significant loss of income.”

A halt to community meals

Traditionally, Child and Migrant Services serves supper three times a week throughout the growing season to farmworkers and their families at its Hospitality Center in Palisade. The meals at the end of the workday are meant to help farmworkers—many of whom are apart from their families for several months each year—feel welcome and at home.

The program was suspended this spring due to the pandemic.

“It’s a small dining area,” Dorn said. “We have people, including staff and volunteers, who have a hard time social distancing. It’s hard to stay safe in such a small area.”

Starting in mid June, Child and Migrant Services will offer to-go meals instead. Since April, the organization has focused on another important service: gathering health care supplies and food staples for farmworkers.

“We have requested people call and make appointments to pick up boxes,” Dorn said. “If they don’t have transportation, we can have our driver go out [once per week] and deliver. We hope people are going to other food pantries as well. They couldn’t possibly be getting by on their very limited hours and what’s available from us.”

Dorn said she hopes to start opening up the Hospitality Center safely to continue providing services and a “calming atmosphere.” She misses the conversations and camaraderie with farmworkers who used to come for the thrice-weekly meals.

“It’s hard to be a hospitality center when you can’t welcome groups in and make them feel at home and comfortable,” she said.

Founded in 1954 by a small group of Palisade farmers’ wives, Child and Migrant Services is set to receive less public financial support this year now that its biggest annual fundraiser has been postponed until 2021. The Boulder-based band Quemando Salsa has performed a benefit concert for the nonprofit organization each summer for the past 14 years at Grande River Vineyards in Palisade. Child and Migrant Services staff and volunteers prepare and sell plates of frijoles, rice, tamales and salsa at the outdoor concert.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to make up for it,” Dorn said.

Child and Migrant Services also sells tamales as an ongoing fundraiser. Volunteers join staff members for several hours filling corn husks with the chicken, pork or vegetarian masa mixture prepared earlier that morning at the center. Tamale-making was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic, but recently resumed, with the volunteers adhering to social distancing and wearing masks.

As a result of suspending the meal program, and nearly three months without making tamales to sell, Maria Frausto, a Child and Migrant Services employee and Mexican immigrant herself, has seen her hours reduced.

“I lost a couple of jobs,” Frausto said. “I have a cleaning company, but now people are afraid of us going into their houses.”

Unequal barriers to online schooling

Ever since Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order closing school buildings in March, Guadalupe’s three youngest children have been attending classes online. That has presented additional challenges for the family.

“It’s been hard. I don’t understand technology much to be able to help them,” Guadalupe said.

During the online schooling phase, Mesa County School District 51 loaned Chromebooks to families without home computers. In order to log in to online classes, Guadalupe’s family had to sign up for internet access—a new, $67 monthly household expense. Although a local internet service provider offered a free trial of connectivity, not everyone qualified for the service.

Migrant or immigrant students have unique needs beyond learning, which can be hard to address when educators and kids are unable to be together in person, said Tracy Gallegos, director of migrant education for the school district, a regional position that serves west-central Colorado. Chief among them are language barriers and the typically inflexible work schedules of farmworkers.

“It’s a lot harder for immigrant families to get the support they need to close the educational gaps right now,” Gallegos said. “Schools are doing the best they can. It’s hard to offer language and educational support to make sure learning continues at home. And farmworkers—who are considered essential—are still working so they’re [often] not at home to help.”

Schools operate on schedules that don’t always accommodate farmworker families, Gallegos said; thus, a lot of families are not enrolled in the migrant education program. School district office hours right now are 9-11 a.m., and 1-3 p.m.: “If you can’t contact them then, you’re out of luck,” Gallegos said.

National policies communicate a lack of respect for farmworkers, believes Gallegos, and that attitude affects immigrant children, who are already lacking confidence and self-esteem due to language barriers and frequent moves. Calling the work “unskilled labor is not true,” he said.

In April, the Trump administration sought to cut farmworker wages for foreign guest workers to help landowners during the coronavirus crisis—sending another signal that the work is not valued, Gallegos said.

“Some of the work we try and do is instill pride,” Gallegos said. “My grandfather was an orchard worker. It’s in my blood. I love this population; they’re doing extremely important work.”

Risky travel

For the past 30 years, in early spring, Jose Garcia, 53, travels from Guanajuato, Mexico to Palisade to work in the orchards, pruning, thinning and harvesting peaches. Garcia possesses a Green Card, which means he can permanently live and work in the United States.

Like most of the farmworkers who travel back and forth, he sends money home to his family each paycheck. Garcia earns roughly $11 per hour after the owner deducts a portion for provided housing.

This spring, Garcia had the mobile home to himself—normally, he’d be joined by two or three brothers and a son, and sometimes his wife. But this year, he came alone because there’s not much work available.

He arrived on May 1; usually, he’d come in March or April. Because of the frost and the pandemic, Garcia's employer ran out of work for him by the end of May. In early June, Garcia boarded a bus to New Mexico, where a friend promised him a job harvesting green chiles.

With fewer farmworkers around, Garcia didn't have to worry about social distancing out in the orchard for his few weeks of work. However, the bus journey from the U.S.-Mexico border to Palisade felt risky, especially the leg from Denver to Grand Junction, which he said was crowded, with most passengers not wearing masks.

In Mexico, he said bus passengers were required to wear masks. In the United States, while passengers from Mexico wore masks, most of the “gringos” did not, Garcia said. (Greyhound eventually adopted a policy on May 13 requiring all passengers to wear face coverings while on board one of their buses.)

“I’m taking a risk for a small amount of work,” Garcia said of the coronavirus. “The main thing is the uncertainty of whether I’m going to come down with it. If I do, maybe it won’t be serious. I don’t know what to think or feel.”

Gallegos said people are still learning what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on migrant and immigrant farmworkers.

“I have families enrolled in my program, who, after the pandemic, felt they needed to be close to family and went back to Mexico,” he said. “And now they can’t come back because the border is closed.

“There are families who are based in Mexico who come and go; they follow the crops. There are definitely going to be long-term impacts, especially with the border shutdown policy.”

Sharon Sullivan
Freelance writer and editor
Grand Junction, Colo.