Saturday, August 06, 2005 | Three camp beds. Four filing cabinets. An ornate, carved wooden clock whose hands don’t tick. Cardboard burning on the floor to keep out the mosquitoes. Two teddy bears. A stovetop with a gas canister. Bags of tortillas and flour hanging from the ceiling. A map of the United States. An ab-rolling machine. Plastic sheets on the roof. Packed mud on the floor. Three men.
The cobbled-together shack that migrant workers Jose Cauich Batún, Raoul Carreón Rivera and Carlos Carreón Rivera share sits five minutes from the freeway and a far-removed reality. Nestled in some of the only undeveloped land in North County and surrounded by the ominous skeletons of half-built million-dollar homes, the migrant workers’ modest hut is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of such dwellings in the North City area.
The scattered homes, some of them little more than a mattress strewn under a couple of sheets of wood, are home to a large proportion of San Diego’s migrant workforce. Attracted here by wages that are five times what they can earn in their native countries, the migrants are willing to trade family life for a carrion existence that relies on infrequent work and brotherly companionship. The hard times are worth it, they say, for the dollars they will be able to take home to their families.
But times are hard. Living in their temporary shelters, the men – and they are all men – survive either by working as minimum-wage-paid farm hands or as day laborers, picking up work wherever they can get it. This usually means sitting in the sun at the side of the road for hours at a time, waiting for a local resident to pull up looking for some cheap hands for hire.
At night, the migrants scrub their clothes clean or sit around ancient radios listening to the soccer results from their homeland. To fetch water, they ride their bicycles a couple of miles to a hidden faucet and ride home balancing containers between their knees.
“In God’s grace, the weather has been good,” said Raoul Carreón Rivera, pointing to the sky with one hand and placing his other palm gently over his heart. “We have not had rain. It has not been cold.”
Rain would ruin the shack and its modest contents. Raoul Carreón Rivera, a skilled carpenter from the city of Puebla in Mexico, has gradually been gathering sheets of plywood from nearby dumps and waste containers. He’s planning to build a roof for the hut. He’s been waiting for wages from a day’s work so that he can buy a $10 box of nails to start pinning together something a bit more permanent than the tarps that currently flap in the breeze above his head at night.
There are makeshift migrant settlements like this one in Carmel Valley all over the county, providing residence to the laborers who do the heavy lifting for agriculture, the region’s fifth-largest economic sector. Finding available help to tend flower nurseries and harvest avocados and tomatoes isn’t much of a challenge in San Diego County, but seeking affordable and humane places to house this low-income workforce in such an expensive housing market can be.
Councilman Scott Peters, whose district includes several spots in Rancho Penasquitos and Carmel Valley where these migrant camps exist, successfully asked the council Monday to seek state funds to develop housing for agricultural worker households. City officials will now apply for the Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant, a state program approved by voters that makes $200 million available to cities and counties for the sake of developing farmworker housing.
The city of Carlsbad also has a Serna housing grant in the works and an 80-unit apartment complex in Fallbrook – that used Serna money – opened in September.
The city is hoping to secure the grant and start building the settlement within a year, Peters’ aide Rich Geisler said.
Sharon Johnson, the city’s homeless services administrator, said that neglecting agricultural workers’ housing needs threatens to become a health risk for not just the laborers and their families who settle in the riverbeds and canyons, but the public as well.
Because these makeshift villages have no running water, workers who are exposed to pesticides in the fields, nurseries and orchards are more susceptible to contracting diseases, she said. Johnson said lack of proper water infrastructure also forces the settlers to use surrounding landscape as a toilet, tainting the groundwater used by the community.
There’s mixed reaction when the housing proposal is put to a group of migrant workers. Some of the older workers react with contempt at the suggestion. “We’ve been told this before,” one said with disgust. “We’ve been waiting for years, and all this time nobody’s done anything.”
Other members of the group are thoughtful, quiet. They mull over the possibilities and float concerns and ideas. What sort of houses? Would they have running water? What about rules? Would they have to pay rent? Who would clean up?
Back at the workers’ shack, the attitude has changed from one of doubt to hope. Cauich Batún, a short, ambling 42-year-old from the Yucatan Peninsula, says the need for proper housing is dire. Workers do what they can, but theirs is a difficult existence.
“The way we live is inhuman,” he said. “But it’s necessary, to get the funds to live better.”
However, for many of these men, comfortable and safe housing is not their first priority. It’s impossible to know how many of these migrant workers are documented, and many say their biggest concern is just being left alone.
That’s not likely to happen. T.J. Zane, president of the Rancho Penasquitos Town Council, said he is constantly hearing complaints from local residents about the prevalence of migrant workers in the community.
Zane and his fellow council members arranged a community forum last month to discuss how best to address residents’ concerns. Present were representatives of the police department, fire department and county and city legislatures.
Residents’ complaints ranged from concern about security to worries about fire hazards and environmental damage caused by the transient community.
“There are several aspects,” he said, “and I think they all just culminate into a community unease that this is an issue that needs to be taken care of.”
Asked how he feels about the housing proposal, Zane said he needs to get more details before deciding whether it’s a good idea. He wants to know where this housing is going to be built, for one.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to it,” he said. “Anything that comes in the form of a grant is a good thing, because it doesn’t necessarily cost citizens of San Diego any additional tax revenue.”
Those pushing the idea of some permanent housing for North City’s migrant workers admit that there will be challenges to overcome. One such challenge is convincing the state that the housing will be used by a large proportion of farm workers. Serna housing grants are very specific in who they target, and applicants must guarantee any housing will be used primarily by agricultural workers.
For migrants like the Carreón Riveras and Cauich Batún, the dream of trading their soggy beds and filing cabinet closets for something just a touch more glamorous remains a long way off. Even if the grant is secured, they still have to get a job on one of the neighboring farms, a task they say is made all the more difficult by a cartel-like organization of Oaxacans that keep the jobs within a certain pool of applicants.
Looking on the bright side, however, Raoul Carreón Rivera points out that a new housing project might at least make the most of the skills he has to offer.
“If` they just give us the materials and the land and plans, we could all help to build it,” he said. “There’s a lot of artisans and craftsmen here that would help.”
Cauich Batún shrugs as he points out what’s on the minds of most of his fellow migrants.
“I just feel real good that there’s someone that’s looking out for us.”
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