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Migrants No More

Mexicans used to come to California's San Joaquin Valley to work the harvest and go home. But now the migrants are settling in -- and so is a stark, new kind of poverty.

In California, the settling of farmworkers and the growth of immigrant families have reshaped an entire landscape. The San Joaquin Valley -- 240 miles of the nation's richest farmland, stretching from Bakersfield in the south to Stockton in the north -- has doubled in population, to 3.3 million, in the past three decades. Small farming towns that were largely Anglo for more than 100 years are now as much as 98 percent Latino, and bulging at the seams. In Arvin, where Vicente and Isabel live, the population has tripled in the last 30 years. Sixty miles farther north, the community of Lost Hills -- overrun with dilapidated trailers and almond groves -- has grown by a full 60 percent in just 10 years, becoming the most crowded community in all of California, with an average of 5.6 people in every home.

With the booming population of farmworkers has come a deep-seated poverty. Observers have dubbed the Valley the "Appalachia of the West." Actually, the per capita income in Appalachia is $24,000, about 80 percent of the national average. In Arvin, whose statistics are typical of small farming towns in the region, the per capita income is less than $7,500.

Juan Vicente Palerm, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has surveyed 200 rural farmworker communities like Arvin, says it's important to realize that the towns are "not overgrown labor camps, like some people believe," but real communities where people are making their homes and putting down roots. Still, he warns, with more and more working families subsisting far below the poverty level, the San Joaquin Valley is becoming home to "a new rural underclass."

Though it is just 105 miles north of Los Angeles, Arvin feels like a sleepy Mexican town, not altogether different from where Vicente and Isabel grew up in Oaxaca. Tumbleweeds roll across the small strip of storefronts, where the former Safeway is now a supermercado and Los Jarritos restaurant serves the best local tortillas. Each December the city celebrates the Festival of Guadalupe with a parade down the main street. And at Arvin High School, where the loudspeaker crackles with a mix of Mexican and American pop during lunch period, soccer is the top sport. "Ten years ago you could count the people on two hands who attended the games," says Blanca Cavazos, the high school principal and the daughter of a migrant worker. "Now we get 1,500 to 2,000 people at the semifinals." Shops that were once boarded up now sell tacos and tamarindos, and along the edge of town, new low-income housing developments offer some families their first shot at homeownership.

But alongside the pockets of hope, there is a deepening pool of need. During the winter months, when field work becomes scarce (and when migrants used to return to Mexico), requests to local social service agencies jump by as much as 400 percent, says Mona Twocats of the Community Partnership of Kern in Bakersfield -- and that figure doesn't even reflect the depth of the problem. "Farmworkers are less likely to ask for help than others at the same income level," she says. "They rely on extended families. If they are undocumented, they are terrified of getting involved in any government program."

Many cities can't afford to build new schools, so lunches are held in shifts, and modular classrooms have sprouted everywhere. At Arvin High School, 72 percent of the 3,000 students qualify for the federal subsidized lunch program, compared with 44 percent statewide, and the student body is growing by as many as 100 children each year. The school now has seven modular buildings and has converted nine offices into classrooms. "We keep adding and adding," says Ana Maria Arreola, a support services worker for the school district's migrant program. She lists the area's elementary and middle schools: Every one has a dozen modular buildings or more. About 300 kids are on the waiting list for Little League because there aren't enough ball fields.

Arvin's main streets are lined with tidy, single-family homes that house the city's teachers, health care workers, and some longtime farmworkers who have saved money or found jobs at the local packing plant. But behind those houses sit dilapidated garages and shacks converted to rental units, with tinfoil for curtains and power that comes from electrical cords trailing out of the main house. Along the back alleys and dirt streets where the poorer families live, kids swerve their bikes around potholes the size of tire wheels. Pick any plywood shack or rusted trailer and you're likely to find two or three families sharing a bathroom, a couple of bedrooms, and a few hundred square feet. Arvin's rental vacancy rate is zero, notes city manager Enrique Medina Ochoa; he estimates that some 600 people in the town of 13,000 are waiting for a place to rent. If you're a newly arrived farmworker, he says, "you've got to live in a shack. Or with a family member."

Vicente's family is luckier than some. Their one-room house is no bigger than a single-car garage; some nights his daughters sleep on the floor under blankets, other times the entire family piles into one bed. But the rent is a still-manageable $280 a month. Down the road, in the town of Weedpatch, a field worker named Isabel lives in a house about the same size as Vicente's. Her rent is about to jump to $510. Families often sublet a room, or just a bed, to help pay the rent, but Isabel, a single mother of three, can't pack anyone else into the 300-square-foot house. Already, two of her sons share bunk beds, and her oldest sleeps in the car; four other relatives sleep on the floor, and she stays on the couch.

Still, a crowded house is a big step up from a trailer park like Sycamore Gardens. Ochoa says one of the trailers there doesn't even have a floor: "People walk on the two-by-fours." One woman at Sycamore pays $650 a month for a small trailer that, when she moved in, had rats' nests in the couch, a broken toilet, and blood stains on the bathroom floor. In the next trailer over, a 24-year-old woman named Flor, her husband, and their four children rent the living room -- only the living room -- for $290 a month. Plywood, duct tape, and Pacific Grape stickers patch the broken windows. Another piece of plywood divides the room from the rest of the trailer, where another family lives. Flor would like a bigger place: "I'm hoping we can buy something next year," she says. But she and her husband make minimum wage in the fields -- when they have work -- and they still owe thousands of dollars to the coyotes who brought her and the children across the border at a cost of $1,200 each. So for now, the family of six shares a room furnished with two beds, a refrigerator, a few shelves, and several boxes piled high with clothes.

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