Family Works To Build A Life On Farmerworker Wages

Dec 22, 2017

Agriculture is a major industry in a number of counties in the North State. In Yuba, Sutter, Glenn, Colusa and Butte counties agriculture brings in millions of dollars each year, as well as thousands of migrant and seasonal workers. But while the industry is a huge boon for the North State’s economy, it often struggles to sustain those arriving to help bring in the harvest. Rosa and Jesus Vargas are a young Orland couple, both in their 20s, who are building their lives together, in part, on farmworker wages.

"My mom told me something really like important that I'll never forget, she's like, ‘If you really love someone, you know, you will find a way to get him here."

Rosa Vargas first met her husband while visiting her parents’ hometown in Mexico. At the time, her family was living in California, but would return to Mexico to see relatives. She and Jesus became close during that time, and eventually started dating. They wanted to get married, but they weren't sure how they would because they were citizens of two different countries.

“It was kind of hard at first cause I was like how’s this gonna work out, your over here I'm over there, how's this gonna happen, and my mom told me something really like important that I'll never forget, she's like, ‘If you really love someone, you know, you will find a way to get him here,’" Vargas said.  

She took her mom’s advice and the couple married in Mexico. She petitioned for her husband to move to the states with her. Their application was approved within eight months and he found a job pruning trees and doing general labor on an orchard in Orland. It seemed things were going well, so they decided to have a child together, but it soon became apparent that her husband’s job was not as reliable as they had thought. Vargas said that sometimes he’d show up to work, only to be sent home without any pay.

“When it's hot, when it’s above 101 they send him home,” she said. “When its raining, they send him home, or if its starts raining. When, if it’s too wet for them to work, they send him home too.”

Farmwork is also seasonal, and if there’s nothing on the farm that needs to be done, the workers are laid off. Several months into Vargas’ pregnancy, that’s what happened to her husband.

During this time, the couple lived in an apartment complex off Nord Avenue in Chico. The layoff left them without enough money for rent that month so they had to get emergency monetary help for their housing. A nonprofit called California Human Development gave them a grant. They have an office in Chico, but you can only receive the aid once. It took her husband nearly a year to get a new job and Vargas said thankfully, it was perfect timing. She had just given birth to their daughter.

“The day after she was born, they told him he was hired, so that was kind of good, because, you know, we’re like ‘You’re our good luck charm, because you were just brought to this world, and we were so scared to not be, you know, efficient parents to provide for you,’” Vargas said.

The new job was on another orchard in Orland where he was hired to do similar work as before. It paid $10.50 an hour. Vargas really wanted to move out of the apartment they were in but they couldn’t afford to. She said the upstairs neighbors had loud parties and the downstairs neighbors smoked pot, which circulated through her heater and into her apartment. She said it gave her headaches. And there were other problems too.

“The cops were there every other day,” she said. “So it’s like, crazy —  I mean, it’s stressful for an adult to witness it, imagine a child. You know it’s, I didn’t want her to see that.”

A migrant housing complex in Gridley, run by the Butte County Housing Authority with funding form the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Vargas ended up finding an apartment complex that offers subsidized rent for farmworkers. It’s called La Vista Verde and is an average-looking apartment walking distance from Bidwell Park with a playground and community center. In order to qualify to live there, the head of household has to make $5,750 or more a year through farmwork. Vargas said she spent a year on the the waiting list before her family could move in.  The complex is run through the nonprofit called Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP. The organization owns a number of complexes that are reserved specifically for farmworkers. There’s one in Hamilton City, one in Orland, and the one where Vargas lived – La Vista Verde in Chico. The rent in these complexes is based on annual income, and ranges from $266 to $689 per month.

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offers both public and nonprofit organizations grants to build housing for farmworkers. Like CHIP, Butte County also receives USDA funding for this type of housing and operates a 130-unit property in Gridley.  

Vargas said that CHIP’s complex felt far safer than their first apartment off Nord. The community is tight-knit, and neighbors keep an eye out for each other. Chico State students come once a week to play with the kids. There’s a Zumba teacher that hosts classes in the community center. Overall, she liked the place, but she said it didn’t come without its problems.

“This is going to sound funny, but they have like, a roach problem,” she said. “Like, a lot of roaches are there. The carpet, the flooring. The cabinets are not the best.”

It would have been tolerable for her alone, but she didn’t want to raise her daughter, now a toddler, in that apartment.

“I didn’t want her to put a roach in her mouth one day like, ‘Oh that looks good,’ and just put it in her mouth. I means it’s, it’s really disgusting, and that was the hardest part.” Vargas said.

Tina Rose was a supervisor for that property up until June of this year. She said that she doesn’t remember there being a roach problem and that they have pest control for all of their sites. She said it would be the tenant’s responsibility to report the issue. Vargas said her apartment was sprayed, but the roaches were still a problem.

Vargas and her family stayed in La Vista Verde for two years. Through the staff there, they learned of CHIP’s self-help program. It allows first time home owners who make below 80 percent of the median income to buy a home with no down payment. The mortgage is decided on a case-by-case basis and is based on income. CHIP has facilitated this program in Butte, Tehama, Shasta, Sutter, Glenn, Lassen, Yuba and Colusa counties. Participants have to commit 30 hours a week for at least 10 months to help build their home.

“I never even like thought it was possible. I just said, ‘Oh gosh, well I guess we're gonna rent our whole lives.”

Vargas and her family participated in this program and moved into their new CHIP home this November. She said there’s a backyard and an extra room for her parents, who are going to move in with them soon. It’s a happy ending after a number of difficult years.

“I never even like thought it was possible. I just said, ‘Oh gosh, well I guess we're gonna rent our whole lives,” she said.

But Vargas’ family is an exception to the rule. She has a degree in early childhood education and teaches preschool, so the family doesn’t have to survive solely on a farmworkers’ wages —  as many other farmworker families do.

The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that 25 percent of farmworker families earn below the federal poverty line. That number also doesn’t take into account any dependents living in another country. Vargas said she’s heard stories from her husband about farmworkers living in dorms provided by their employers. In the dorms, she said she’s heard they sleep ten to one room. The Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for inspecting employer-run farmworker housing here in California. In 2016, the department inspected half of the regions 31 privately run facilities. They found a total of 131 violations during their inspections.

Inspections for the complex where Vargas lived are done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are currently waiting on a Freedom of Information Act Request for more information about any violations with their properties.

For some farmworkers, quality of housing isn’t their biggest concern. Vargas said that one of their family friends is currently homeless and has been living out of his car for almost a year now.

“My family is moving in, so we won’t have any room,” she said. “So it’s like, we want to help and I just, my hands are tied, I don’t know how to help him out.”

I’m like, ‘You need to think about this, mi hija — there’s a lot of people that don’t have a place to live, that are living in the streets, and they are cold, they’re colder than you are.’”

To receive subsidized farmworker housing, the primary occupant has to provide proof of legal residency, or at least be in the process of obtaining it. So for those who are undocumented, this type of housing often is not an option.

Forty-eight percent of farmworkers who responded to the National Agricultural Workers Survey in 2013 said they were undocumented. Rachael Riggs with CHIP says they turn a lot of families away because they aren’t legal U.S. residents or citizens. She said that some families submit falsified documents with their application.

Vargas said she feels her family is fortunate and wants her daughter to know this too.

“That’s why I tell my daughter everyday in the morning, she’s like, ‘I’m cold, I don’t want to get up to go to school,’ and I’m like, ‘You need to think about this, mi hija — there’s a lot of people that don’t have a place to live, that are living in the streets, and they are cold, they’re colder than you are.’”