Photo by David Bacon

ORANGE COVE, CA — The name of this town of 9,000 souls describes its life and landscape precisely. Nestled in a finger of the San Joaquin Valley, carved into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, it owes its existence to a single fruit.

“That’s all there is here — oranges,” says longtime resident Diana Contreras. “That’s how we survive. There’s no other way.

This winter, heavy reliance on a single crop proved Orange Cove’s undoing. Here, and in dozens of farm towns stretched along the skirts of the Sierras, temperatures sank below freezing in late December. Tiny ice crystals formed inside the fruit on the trees, and when the crystals melted, the oranges were so badly damaged they could no longer be sold.

Two thousand people in Orange Cove have jobs picking citrus. Suddenly, there was no work at all. In the middle of the busiest time of year, the town’s 10 packing sheds fell silent. Groves normally alive with laborers, climbing ladders and filling huge boxes, were deserted.

Since the freeze, workers have grown increasingly desperate as they’ve sought to pay rent and buy food with no paychecks in sight. “Normally, I make $300 to $350 a week,” says Esther Nunez, “and this is the best time of the year. I pay $425 for rent, and I’m two months behind.” Nunez is echoed by her neighbor Maria Andiano, who’s picked oranges here for eight years. “I owe two months as well,” she explains. “Plus, I have to feed myself, my husband and my 10-year-old son, and I have nothing to feed them with.”

“We were the poorest city in the U.S. in per capita income before,” laments Orange Cove mayor Victor Lopez. “Think of what our situation is now.”

Natural disasters in America normally excite broad sympathy. Officials fly over the devastation in helicopters. Congress quickly appropriates emergency funds, while federal and state agencies organize food distribution and get paperwork started on loans for rebuilding.

But disasters affecting farm workers don’t make it so readily onto the radar screen. Two months passed before President Clinton finally declared five San Joaquin counties disaster areas. The Department of Labor is still waiting for the state to tell it how many people need relief. And the protocol for delivering aid will probably disqualify as many as half the people affected before they even get in line.

In the meantime, food is being distributed here at the local Catholic church, but there hasn’t been nearly enough. The only relief food available has been surplus cheese and other commodities from U.S. Department of Agriculture warehouses. Last week there were 450 people in line and only enough grocery bags for 180.

“I leave my house to get in line at the church at 5 in the morning,” Josefa Mendoza complains bitterly. Mendoza, whose weather-beaten face testifies to 13 years picking oranges, is no stranger to discomfort. But waiting for food that doesn’t arrive gives discomfort a tinge of humiliation. “At 8 a.m. they come and tell us there’s not enough for everyone. Meanwhile, we’ve all been standing in the rain for hours, getting wet and cold for nothing.”

Even when disaster aid does come through, large segments of those in need will see none of it. The biggest obstacle is legal immigration status, which federal law requires of anyone receiving aid. Almost all farm workers in California are immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America. While there are no accurate statistics, as many as half have no immigration documents.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state disaster-relief programs are planning to open 15 one-stop centers where disaster-area residents can apply for federally financed help with rent and mortgages. “But people can only qualify for programs if they’re here legally,” according to Eliza Chan, FEMA spokesperson in San Francisco. Similarly, lack of papers keeps undocumented families from receiving unemployment benefits, welfare, MediCal or food stamps.

Moreover, while many workers in Orange Cove are legal residents themselves, they are worried because they’re in the process of applying for visas for other family members in their countries of origin. They fear that those applications will be invalidated if they receive any form of public assistance. “I have a 23-year-old son in Mexico,” says Maria Andiano. “If I accept help, he’ll never be able to come here. I have to choose between uniting my family and getting evicted.”

Whatever their citizenship status, very few California farm workers receive unemployment benefits. As seasonal workers, not many manage to accumulate sufficient hours to qualify. Others have to work one day per week in order to keep their jobs, also rendering them ineligible for benefits.

To date, the state Employment Development Department has processed only 5,164 claims related to the citrus freeze. By contrast, surveys by local committees of the United Farm Workers (UFW) document that in Tulare and Fresno counties alone, more than 28,000 workers are unemployed or underemployed because of the freeze. Counting family members, the number affected could climb over 100,000, with additional tens of thousands in other affected counties.

None of the Orange Cove growers have themselves offered any relief to their employees. And workers say that at least one large grower is responsible for another basis for disqualifying them from obtaining relief: Harding & Leggett no longer employs its own workforce directly. “The company sent us to Manpower [a temporary employment agency] in Visalia,” Contreras says. “Then we came back to work, but as Manpower employees. Now we can’t get help with rent and bills, because they say we weren’t working for Harding & Leggett.”

The only organized relief has come from the UFW, and from Von’s markets here in L.A., which has donated six semi-trailers stocked with food. Last week, the UFW distributed 11 tons of food through organized committees of workers in each of the towns affected by the freeze, but the union says the need is four times that.

Early this month, as the crisis in the San Joaquin Valley deepened, federal and state officials spent three days touring the agricultural towns, getting their fill of stories from hungry workers.

In Orange Cove, more than 500 families gathered in the town plaza, spilling into its single main street, lined with taquerias and Mexican grocery stores. A cold rain drizzled over angry men in work clothes and women holding infants wrapped in blankets, standing on the muddy grass in front of the band shell to meet the visiting dignitaries. Mayor Lopez took the opportunity to warm up the crowd, first recounting a prior trip to Washington to plead with President Clinton personally, then urging his town’s workers to let the officials have it. “You jumped on me the other day,” he declared. “Now jump on them. We don’t need cheese and stale bread, or to get in line anymore. We need money to buy our own food. It’s our money. We pay taxes like everyone else.”

The delegation arrived, escorted by UFW vice-president Dolores Huerta, and for two hours the local ag workers described the failure of relief efforts and the dire situation they still face.

Most undocumented people live in the shadows, shunning public exposure that could lead to deportation. But desperation and anger pressed one undocumented woman forward. Holding a baby in her arms and trailed by a small boy pulling at her skirt, she climbed to the stage to confront the government officials. “We pay taxes,” she declared angrily. “My rent is $292 a month, and seven of us — me, my husband and five kids — live in our apartment. Why can’t we get relief? I’ve been living and working in Orange Cove for eight years. Two of my children were born here — they’re citizens. But I still can’t get help.”

While Marta Lidia Orellana, who came from El Salvador 13 years ago, has legal status, she also feels abandoned. “My husband was assassinated during the civil war,” she explains, “and I had to come here as a refugee. I left my children behind, and for months I haven’t been able to send any money home. I don’t even have enough to pay rent or buy food. They say they can’t help me because I don’t have a regular residence visa.

“All of us need help,” Orellana adds, “documented and undocumented. It’s the poor who make the growers rich. If we don’t work, they don’t eat. Now when we need something, where’s all the money we made for them?”

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