Death in the Fields

     The United Farm Workers of America is suing California and its Occupational Safety and Health Department in Superior Court for allowing field workers to drop dead from heat exhaustion. It’s about time.
     Six workers died last summer because they kept working and were not treated when they started feeling sick. The labor contractors they worked for were fined a few thousand dollars which they sometimes never paid, and it was business as usual.
     So many workers don’t speak English and have no idea how to file a complaint. They are scared of getting fired from their below minimum wage fruit and vegetable picking jobs, so they won’t stick up for themselves.
     Working in agriculture in California is one of the hardest jobs in the county. I speak from experience.
     Before making my way to the racetrack, from age seventeen to nineteen, I worked in the hot dry dusty hills that cover central California as an exercise rider, stall cleaner, and groom for California beef king and racehorse owner John Harris.
     Harris Ranch, just outside of Coalinga, CA, is a huge training and breeding facility that has housed some historic runners like Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, who made over 6,000,000 in his racing career before retiring to stud.
     Coalinga, a town of I think three stoplights, two grocery stores, and now about 18,000 residents, is made up predominantly of Mexicans who work in the fields that surround the area. At least it was so when I lived there nearly ten years ago.
     I lived on Harris Ranch in a cardboard double-wide trailer with the floor falling through in one room, and the counter tops and linoleum peeling and curling like the sole of an old shoe. I was paid in pennies but I was allowed to live there for free and I considered myself lucky because I was riding horses “professionally.”
     The summers were oppressively hot in the hills with temperatures soaring as high as 110 degrees on some days. My coworkers at the time were among the hardest working and poorest people I have ever known. They toiled in the sun all day, pouring their sweat into someone else’s fortune and then felt guilty asking for a glass of water. I witnessed first hand how people are exploited, and how easily and often it’s done.
     As a young white woman from a middleclass family doing the same jobs as Mexican men who had been living in poverty for most of their lives, I was both favored and exploited. I was seen as not as replaceable as many of my coworkers but still exploitable because of the weakness of my status. Had I not come from a family that valued and had access to education, I think I would have been completely at the mercy of the opinions of those who signed my measly paychecks.
     I don’t want to be unfair, though. I remember once being invited to John Harris’s River Ranch for dinner. It was beautiful there. There were immaculate barns and huge grassy spreads of land. There were ponds, and bridges, and gazebos. I was thankful for the opportunity to be included. After all, I suppose I had broken, exercised, and cared for many of the horses on whose backs this magnificent place had been built.

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