It was still dark outside when 65-year-old Antonio Jacobo woke up for work at around 4:30 a.m. one Thursday morning. He typically tries to save enough time for breakfast before heading to the farm.
On this day, he and the other farmworkers could choose from a spread of bagels, eggs, toast, and a Mexican breakfast called Machaca in the cafeteria of La Posada de Guadalupe, a homeless shelter in Carlsbad.
After eating and getting ready for the day, Jacobo headed to work with one of the other farmworkers. It took them about an hour on foot, and the sun didn’t come up until after they arrived at Valdivia Farms in Carlsbad.
Most of the other farmworkers rode their bikes, a much quicker alternative to walking. But Jacobo recently had knee surgery, so walking is his best option. He’s been thinking about getting an electric bike, he said, to keep up with the younger guys and give his knees a break.
He started work at around 6:30 a.m. and spent eight hours harvesting heirloom tomatoes for $15.50 an hour, the minimum wage in Carlsbad, which he’ll send back to his family in Tijuana. He’s been doing this every weekday for 12 years.
At around 3 p.m., Jacobo and his friend finished their shift, grabbed a snack from a nearby 7-Eleven and walked back to La Posada. There, they can rest before doing it all again the next day.
La Posada de Guadalupe is a homeless shelter operated by the nonprofit Catholic Charities. But since 1992, half of the shelter has been used to house temporary farmworkers working on H2-A visas.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, Carlsbad and other cities in North County were littered with farms, and farm owners often hired temporary agricultural workers from outside the country to work for them. This was made possible through the Bracero Program, which issued temporary U.S. work permits to millions of Mexicans.
Workers were supposed to be guaranteed minimum wage and free housing through the program, but farm owners frequently failed to live up to these requirements. Housing, if provided, was often unsafe and overcrowded, and workers were paid extremely low wages or, sometimes, they weren’t paid at all. So, many of the workers lived in tents in canyons, on the streets and in abandoned vehicles.
“There weren’t many places for farmworkers and day laborers to go,” said Operations Supervisor Joaquin Blas. “They were homeless.”
In 1987, a new program emerged for U.S. employers to hire temporary foreign farmworkers called the H-2A visa program.
To hire foreign farmworkers, employers must show that they first tried to hire U.S. workers for the positions. They must also prove they can provide housing or cover housing expenses for the temporary farmworkers they hire.
It wasn’t until the H2-A program began that many temporary farmworkers could truly guarantee housing for themselves. Those who didn’t qualify for the H2-A visa because, for example, they worked year-round instead of seasonally, found it nearly impossible to afford the high rent prices in the region.
Still, the opportunity to have a consistent job and earn higher wages than they could in their home countries was too good to pass up – it drew thousands of farmworkers to the United States every year. And it still does.
On top of the increasing rate of homelessness among temporary workers, was the dangerous levels of racism these workers were facing.
In the early 1990s, there was a string of racially motivated attacks on temporary workers in Carlsbad. At least four temporary workers were allegedly abducted, beaten and held for hours against their will by owners of a Carlsbad grocery store.
In a couple of cases, the attackers put a brown paper bag over the temporary workers’ heads. On the bag, they wrote “No Mas Aqui,” or ungrammatical Spanish for “Don’t Come Back,” the LA Times reported back in 1990.
“That created kind of a groundswell from residents there asking for how we can create an environment for these people to be housed,” said Catholic Charities CEO Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor. “You know, instead of them living and hiding in the canyons and living in unsafe and unhealthy locations.”
Catholic Charities emerged as the best choice for a program that could accomplish that.
The nonprofit received a grant from the state that would allow them to house 50 male farmworkers at La Posada who were working on H2-A Visas. Valdivia Farms, which employs the farmworkers, pays for them to live at the shelter, a representative for Catholic Charities said via email.
Most who are staying at La Posada are from Mexico, and a handful of them are from countries in Central America, like Guatemala and El Salvador, Blas said.
Today, there are significantly less farms in North County than there were 40 years ago, so the risk of homelessness among temporary farmworkers in North County has decreased. Still, the need for La Posada’s services hasn’t gone away.
The program, which provides farmworkers with safe shelter, free meals, unlimited access to showers and other basic needs, is always at capacity and provides an opportunity for workers to safely earn money that they can send back to their families.
Jacobo, like the other farmworkers at La Posada, is doing just that. He’s been working at Valdivia Farms for 12 years, and he’s been living at La Posada for 10.
He sends almost all his money back to his family in Mexico, specifically to help pay for his son’s medical school tuition. Occasionally, he goes to Tijuana to visit them, but otherwise, he tries his hardest not to spend money on anything.
“I asked them once, ‘what do you do for fun?’” Pajanor said. “And they told me, ‘I come back to the shelter, and I get on the phone and talk to my family back home or I watch whatever is free on my phone, and then I go on long walks just for recreation.’ They don’t go to restaurants or movies; they save all their money up to send it back home.”
As Jacobo walked back into La Posada after a long day’s work on that Thursday, other farmworkers had already started trickling in. Some were resting in their living quarters, others were playing basketball together and a few were helping trim the tree branches in front of the shelter.
Jacobo was exhausted from the day. The hardest part for him is the walking, he said. Not only does he walk two hours for his commute, but he stands and walks all day at the farm.
And, he said, not being able to see his family is difficult. It will be several months before he can go back home for an extended period.
Before his son started medical school, Jacobo used to go home during the winter months, but during the last four years, he’s been staying and working most of the year. Though the work drastically slows down during the winter months, he knows the money will help his family.
After this year, once his son finishes medical school, he is planning to retire.
“I’m just waiting for him to finish,” Jacobo said in Spanish. “I’m cheering him on, but I’m very tired, and just waiting for him to finish.”