Los Perdidos: Migrant Housing Conditions In the U.S


Migrants who harvest the fruits and vegetables are
indispensable to the agricultural industry in the U.S.
However, they are people caught in an unfair and sometimes
cruel system. "Migrant farmworkers have been called the
invisible people. They work apart and they live apart. They
are invisible to the larger community and to the
government. Migrant labor camps are usually located deep
inside large farms where the workers are not likely to be
seen by outsiders.[1] If they live in towns near their work
they live in rundown houses in parts of the community most
people try to avoid. These "colonias" are sometimes the
outgrowth of labor camps. When new migrant housing is
planned, it runs into opposition from growers who are
willing to hire Mexicans but do not want to live near them.
An article in the Sept. 22, 1990 issue of the Fresno Bee
cites the experience of Ben Barunda who tried to build 28
units in Burrell, near Carruthers. Nearby farmers convinced
the planning commission to deny a use permit. He did
finally win on appeal. The issue of migrant housing caught
my attention because as I drove in the rural areas near
Madera and Dos Palos, I saw terrible rundown shacks and
wondered how anyone could live there. A second reason this
issue attracted me is because I feel it is at the root of
many of the other problems that plague the migrants.
Materials available on this topic seemed to be weak in the
area of current statistical data. Several books consisted
of pictures that seemed to have as their goal an increased
awareness of, and sympathy toward, the situation. Most
books were published before 1980 so the data is not
current. Two good sources were an essay that appeared in
the New York Times in 1971 by Donald Jansen, and Heap's
"Wandering Worker". The local Fresno Bee had a couple of
articles in 1990 which were good current sources. In that
same year there was some coverage of the results of a
winter freeze on farmworkers, but it was quickly pushed to
the back pages by the Gulf War. Nevertheless, it seems in
an agricultural area there should be more coverage of this
issue. Before giving my opinions and recommendations I
would like to include an overview of what I believe to be
the main factors in the issue of migrant housing. Later, in
my recommendations, I will address each of these factors.
First, enforcement of existing housing requirements is
central. The United Nations Department of Social Affairs
Handbook of International Measures for Protection of
Migrants and General Conditions to be Observed In Their
Settlement, published in 1952, states in Article 21,
section 5-36a regarding migration of refugees states, "The
competent authority of the territory of immigration shall
ensure that hygienic and suitable housing is made available
to settlers and their families." If the U.S. can't do even
as much as the United Nations wants for its refugees and
displaced persons this tells us something. Eleven years
later (1962) in California, a report by a special
Governor's committee stated the "80% of farmworkers lived
in grossly substandard housing, one third of the houses had
no flush toilet, nearly one third had not bath, and 25% had
no running water at all..That year the state, using seven
million in federal funds, built 26 seasonal farm labor
camps. The camps, ranging from 50-150 units each, are
called 'flash peak housing'; they are boxlike cabins that
have two partitions, 'bedrooms', a tiny living
room-kitchen, and a bathroom that contains a toilet bowl
and a shower. These 20 x 25 foot cabins have no form of
cooling and become unbearable ovens in the 100 plus degree
San Joaquin Valley summertime temperatures."[2] Most states
and the federal government have codes, but due to lack of
adequate financing and staffing they are poorly enforced at
the state level by the Department of Health and the federal
level by the Department of Labor. At the local level, the
problem is conflict of interest. Out of friendship, local
enforcers just look the other way. A second by related
factor is the overcrowding and substandard nature of the
housing. These poor living conditions lead to poor
physical, mental, and social health. For example, a 10 x 12
ft room is home to a whole family. There is one bed for six
people, a 12 x 12 room for a family of eight, four families
sharing a trailer. Fire, poor drainage, poor water,
garbage, and broken down outhouses all are concerns.[3]
Next, the factor of racism and prejudice cannot be ignored.
The proud migrant who prefers work to welfare is seen as
dirty, unskilled, and lazy by many growers. Not all growers
are prejudiced. Many have learned that attractive, clean,
well maintained camps can attract workers who are careful
and will care for the housing. Others still argue that it
is useless to have clean housing because migrants are dirty
and will ruin it. Others argue that the trend toward
automation will make it a waste to fix up housing that will
be useless in a few years. These farmers look forward to
getting rid of their migrants. Racism is certainly a factor
in many cases. Finally, fear of retaliation by powerful
growers is a factor that keeps housing substandard.
Negative action may cost farmworkers their job and whatever
housing is available. Also it is costly to go to court even
though it does work. Further scams are put over on the
workers. For example, to avoid a suit over poor conditions,
an owner signed over the housing to the worker for the
season. Then he wasn't owner and couldn't be held liable.
This was ruled illegal by the state courts. Local agencies
sometimes set fines on owners artificially low so it is
worth it to pay fines and maintain the substandard housing.
The situation here in the San Joaquin Valley provides a
good example of these factors. In 1990, Efraim Camacho of
the California Rural Legal Assistance said, "I've seen
things this year that I haven't seen in the past five."
There are no toilets and they're sleeping on the ground;
for this they pay the grower $12 a week.[4] The San Joaquin
Valley's housing situation is worst during the raisin
drying season. There are too many workers competing for too
few units. There are 563 state run housing units, but over
10,000 workers. These units rent for $3-$4 a day and are
clean and well run. They always fill up the day the camps
open.[5] Next, cheap apartments and sheds fill up. It's not
uncommon to find twenty persons living in a two bedroom
house. A person paying $60 a month for use of space in a
barrack with no toilet or cooling is quite normal. The
Fresno Bee reporter found one family of six living in a
shed smaller than a normal sized garage for which they paid
$100 a month. He also found a woman who lived rent free but
had to rent a portable toilet. "Farmworkers rarely complain
about housing because they end up not with improvements,
but with eviction notices." When gathering information for
the Bee article, workers had to be promised that their
living site wouldn't be revealed for fear that they would
be shut down and have no housing at all.[6] An incident
appearing in the April 15, 1990 Fresno Bee, while not
relating directly to housing, does show a common attitude
toward migrant laborers. The Griffith-Ives Ranch, 50 miles
north of Los Angeles, hired workers for $1 an hour for a 16
hour day. They had to purchase goods at the company store
at inflated prices. One of the workers, Fernando Maldonado
said, "It was slave labor." The workers were forbidden to
leave until monies owed the smuggler, for bringing them
across the border, were paid off. Basically they were
imprisoned and taken advantage of. Even after paying the
smuggler off, usually within two months, they were kept
from leaving by seven foot high barbed wire fences and the
constant threat of being fired and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) being alerted. One of the
things I did for research that made this paper a unique
experience for me was to observe conditions, both good and
bad, firsthand. I visited and interviewed Luis Mendez, and
irrigation foreman at the Wolfesen Ranch in Dos Palos,
California. He lives in a fairly modern tract house about a
stones throw from a barracks style mini-labor camp; one of
many spread throughout the 15,000 acre ranch. I had a
chance to see these buildings up close and get personal
impressions from Mr. Mendez. First he recalled living in
the solos (men only). They lived seven to a house; "it was
hard times." Mr. Mendez added that they "were both men and
women." At first I didn't understand; he explained that
they worked all day and then came home and did their own
cooking and cleaning. The workers living in the solos on
this ranch pay $20 per month; it's deducted from their
paycheck every fifteen days. The rooms are cleaned every
day, have heaters and coolers, bathrooms with indoor
plumbing, and showers. He says it's not overcrowded, but to
me seventy people in such close quarters sounds like a lot.
Not only his workers live in these camps. Workers with
different areas of expertise make up the camps. For
example, although some of his people (irrigation) may live
there, there are also workers from other divisions such as
cotton, tomato, tractor, alfalfa cutters, and so on. His
crew all live on the ranch, but may be widely dispersed. I
asked him if there were any hard feelings over the housing
situation. "There is always jealousy, but it doesn't affect
our relationship; it's more envy. I have no bad feelings
toward them, nor do I see them as less." Mendez emphasized
that, "The person who comes first gets the house, but
there's only so much to give." An issue that he raised,
that I found nowhere else, was that workers have
preferences; many don't like to live on the ranch. Reasons
cited were living in too close quarters and being "on call"
for their employer if anything should go wrong. Mendez
praises his current situation but says, "Many ranch owners
won't give Mexicans a chance to live on the ranch because
they consider us dirty Mexicans, and we wouldn't take care
of their property." Mendez states the reason he was able to
live rent free, utility free--paying nothing was, "because
they wanted me near, but mainly, it's position that gets
you a house." When comparing other ranches to this one, the
main difference cited is the workers here are treated as
equals. For example, when something breaks it's fixed right
away; the workers in return take good care of the housing.
Mendez says, "This man (the owner) cares about his people.
He makes sure it gets done. He encourages his employees to
take pride in their work/living areas. He basically expects
of his employees the same that they expect of him." Mendez
said, "I'm happy with what I have! The workers realize that
they have it better than most (they've worked at other
ranches also)." To get the best housing possible, "you have
to have the will. A lot depends on luck. For example, if
there's a house that's empty, if you're there first--you'll
get the house. This is possible even if you're not a
supervisor, foreman, etc. It all depends on luck." The
solution, in my opinion, must address each of these
factors. Lack of code enforcement, overcrowding and
substandard units, racism, and grower power. Responsibility
for migrant housing must be transferred from the growers,
except perhaps from those who are doing a good job of
providing housing. Government migrant housing must be
supported by government funding and meet minimum standards,
both in the home base and stream states. There must be an
adequate supply of units. A major problem is overcoming
resistance to this low cost housing. Stereotypes cause it
to be seen as contributing to welfare and education costs.
As Lee P. Reno of the Rural Housing Alliance states,
"Running throughout these fears is the racism which follows
most farmworkers throughout their lives, since they are, by
and large, minority group members."[7] The federal
government in 1989 built only one-sixth the number of
housing units it did ten years earlier here in the
valley.[8] In addition, something must be done to control
illegal immigration. Amnesty and immigration reform has
ironically led to worsening of housing problems. More
immigrants continue to come, and many of those granted
amnesty now wish to bring their families. This worsens the
pressure on the limited existing housing. More are
competing for the few units. Solo barracks do not fill the
needs of families. Undocumented people will not complain
out of fear of deportation. Since no complaints are made,
no improvement occurs. Growers resist building housing for
two reasons: strict government codes and a desire to have
less direct involvement with laborers. The growth of labor
contractors has allowed this to occur. These contractors
are often unprincipled people who take advantage of the
workers. Once again, until the problem of illegals are
solved, contractors will have people who cannot complain
when they're taken advantage of. A very controversial idea
would be to provide, through the government, a guaranteed
minimum income. It would provide income support to
guarantee a basic standard of living for migrants. In times
of such budget deficits, it's unlikely that funds would be
available for this. Alternately, the union, if it's strong
enough may be able to provide pressure to provide better
wages and housing. Again, uncontrolled immigration keeps
the union from increasing its power. As long as growers
have alternate sources of labor they can break strikes.
Perhaps, even though it is the most difficult of all,
prejudices, stereotypes and racism must be attacked.
Education and more contact between the "invisible people"
and the mainstream must lead to more good will and trust
between the two groups. Laws and money are important, but
beneath it all a belief in the humanity and value of all
men is necessary for true solution of this issue.
Works Cited
Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America. New York: Harper Collins,
Ashabranner, Brent. Dark Harvest. New York: Dodd, Mead and
Company, 1985.
Beatty, William C., Patricia Pickford and Thomas m.
Brigham. A Preliminary Report on a
Study of Farm Laborers in Fresno County From January 1,
1959 to July 1, 1959. Fresno: 

Rosenberg Foundation, 1959. Duran, Livie Isauro.
Introduction to Chicano Studies: A Reader 

New York: Macmillan Company, 1973. Grebler, Leo, Joan W.
Moore and Ralph C. Guzman. The
Mexican-American People: the nation's second largest
minority. New York: The Free Press,
1970. Heaps, Willard A. Wandering Workers. New York: Crown
Publishers Inc., 1968.
McWilliams, Carey. North From Mexico. New York: Greenwood
Press, 1968. Moore, Truman. The
Slaves We Rent. New York: Random House, 1965. Stewart, Jo
Moore and Shirley M. Sandage. 

Child of Hope. New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1968. Taylor,
Ronald B. Sweatshops in the
Sun. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. Wiener, Sandra. Small
Hands, Big Hands. new York: 

Pantheon Books, 1970. Handbook of International Measures
for Protection of Migrants and
General Conditions to be Observed in Their Settlement. New
York: United Nations Department
of Social Affairs, 1952. "Farmworkers Claim Imprisonment At
Ranch." The Fresno Bee, 15
April, 1990, p. A-2. Podger, Pamela J. "Freeze Victims Are
Told To Persevere." The Fresno
Bee, 3 May 1991, p. B-3. Pulaski, Alex. "Laborers' Housing
Worsening." The Fresno Bee, 23
September 1990, pp. A-1 and A-8. "Always With Us, Always
Us." The Progressive, August
1982, p. 12. Eder, Martin. "Encinitas Workers Fight City
Eviction Notice." The Guardian, 

12 April 1989, p. 4. Mendez, Luis. Irrigation Foreman,
Wolfeson Ranch, Dos Palos,
California. Interview 12 April 1995. [1] Brent Ashabranner,
Dark Harvest ( New York: Dodd,
Mead, and Company, 1985), p. 10. [2] Ronald B. Taylor,
Sweatshops in the Sun (Boston: 

Beacon Press, 1973), p. 109. [3] Alex Pulaski, "Laborers'
Housing Worsening, " The Fresno
Bee, 23 September, 1990, pp. A-1 and A-8. [4] Ibid. [5]
Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Donald Janson,
"Migrant Workers: Worst-Housed Group in the Nation", The
New York Times, 27 November,
1971, (reprinted on p. 502 in Introduction to Chicano
Studies). [8] Alex Pulaski, "Laborers'
Housing Worsening," The Fresno Bee, 23 September, 1990, pp.
A-1 and A-8


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