December 29, 2006

Migrant Workers: A Tough Time Surviving This Winter

By Mark R. Day

Near the border between Rancho Penasquitos and Rancho Santa Fe, real estate agent Terry Holladay has posted leaflets listing a five bedroom home “with magical waterfalls and numerous fire pits” for $2,500,000. But for someone with a bigger budget agent Ann Brizolis offers a 6,000 sq. ft. home with a separate guest house. This one sells for $5 million.

Not far from here, a farmworker named Luis from Oaxaca (not his real name) has carved out a tiny campsite in the scrub brush and chaparral bushes. He is one of a hundred workers evicted from McGonigle Canyon a few weeks earlier by the Minutemen and the City of San Diego. It is Christmas Eve, and Luis has decorated the bushes with empty soda pop cans.

From the campsite, one can see brand new luxury condos on nearby hillsides, new construction projects, and rows of tomato fields where Luis has been working. The winter harvest is nearly over now. This is the place where encroaching urbanization exists side by side with dwindling space for agriculture and zero tolerance for migrant workers. Landowners even ordered the destruction of an outdoor Catholic chapel near a squatters camp. Father Frank Faucett, pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church said he would “follow the migrants wherever they go.”

This morning, Luis stands with about 50 of his co-workers near a catering truck owned by Honorino Villa. Migrant advocate Jose Gonzalez of the Frente Indigena (F.I.O.B.) and a couple of friends have just passed out some new blankets, socks and other clothing items donated by MEChA students from the University of California at San Diego. Gonzalez tells a few jokes to his countrymen in the Mixtec language, and offers them words of encouragement.

“We feel tired and sad,” says Luis, when asked about the current plight of the workers. “We don’t understand why people treat us like this. We are not criminals.” He waves a hand toward the tomato fields. “They buy the tomatoes we pick. They depend on us, and we depend on them. Right now we can’t work as we did before. At least we had a degree of comfort. We were warm. The cold is intense. We can’t even sleep well.”

Jose Gonzalez distributing basball caps

Honorino Villa, also from Oaxaca, shakes his head. “The tomato growers should be taking care of these men,” he says. “The only thing they care about is having the men show up and do their work. Nothing else interests them.”

Several evictions of migrant squatter camps have taken place during the last 15 years in San Diego County. The latest, at McGonigle canyon, was accelerated by the activities of the Minuteman and aided by KFMB talk show host Rick Roberts. Migrant activists have accused the Minutemen of harassing the workers and taking their belongings such as propane gas canisters and bicycles.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders spoke out on the Rick Roberts show, joking with Roberts and promising swift action regarding the evictions. Sanders later apologized to a group of Latino activists, vowing that he would establish a group to monitor vigilante activities in San Diego. The group was encouraged by Sanders’ remarks, but some remained skeptical. “Let’s hope he’s not just blowing smoke,” said one participant.

Reactions to the evictions have been mixed. Filmmaker Juan Carlos Frey, at a recent screening of his film, The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon, accused the Minutemen of deriving “perverse pleasure” from the evictions. He compared the Minutemen rallies and “campouts” to the festive atmosphere of a lynching in the deep South, when members of the Ku Klux Klan held picnics and sold postcards to spectators.

Meanwhile, despite Minutemen announcements that they have reduced day labor sites and expelled workers from McGonigle Canyon, their leader has been apparently discredited by a newspaper article revealing an email he wrote that was blatantly racist and misogynist. The North County Times reported Dec. 24, that in a Sept. 7 email, San Diego Minutemen “founder” Jeff Schwilk called a human rights worker “an anorexic, Korean, ACLU slut.” The subject line read: “Lying Commie Bitch Exposed.”

La Prensa San Diego reported on the same email in its' Dec. 8 issue, but when North County Times writer Edward Sifuentes confronted Schwilk on its contents, he said he stood by what he wrote: “She works for the ACLU. She is a Korean and she dresses and looks like a slut.” Stung by Sifuentes’ report, Schwilk urged his followers to defend him on the NC Times blog.

Several responded: “Good luck to you in the New Year, my friend,” wrote one blogger. “Don’t let the illegal lovers keep you from doing a great job defending this great country.” But other respondents, especially women, found Schwilk’s comments offensive. “Racism is alive and we are all guilty,” wrote a female blogger. “But to call another woman a slut, that’s the part that gets to me. “Crimes against women I cannot tolerate. Tell your boss to apologize, not explain away his actions.”

Looming over the evictions and current controversies surrounding the Minutemen is the immigration debate facing Congress in its next session. The new Democratic majority in Congress along with pro-business factions of the Republican Party could foster legislation favoring a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers and their families.

But the recent I.C.E. raids on five Swift meat packing facilities and the deportation of thousands of workers, including U.S. citizen children, shows that the current climate is not favorable to immigrant workers. The struggle will be a tough one.

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