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Many California Farmworkers Forced To Stay Behind During The Wildfires

Gabriela, 32, a strawberry picker from Oaxaca, Mexico, who lives in Oxnard, Calif., had to wear a bandanna to cover her nose and mouth to avoid inhaling smoke from a wildfire while working in the fields.
Gabriela, 32, a strawberry picker from Oaxaca, Mexico, who lives in Oxnard, Calif., had to wear a bandanna to cover her nose and mouth to avoid inhaling smoke from a wildfire while working in the fields.

Earlier this week, California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced that the Woolsey Fire in Southern California has been contained. But in its wake, the fire destroyed almost 1,500 structures across Los Angeles and Ventura counties. And while some residents are beginning to return home, thousands in Ventura County had to stay behind and face the risks of fire and smoke.

About 36,000 farmworkers stayed and worked outside picking strawberries and other produce amid the dangerous air from the wildfires. Many of those workers have limited access to proper protection or medical care.

Juvenal Solano, a former strawberry picker and now a community organizer with The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, MICOP for short, knows the perils of working in the fields. Solano says that despite facing conditions like smoke-filled air, many of the workers had no choice but to stay behind. "We need to stay there because we need money to provide [for our] families," Solano says.

Solano estimates nearly 20,000 farmworkers in Ventura County are members of the indigenous Mexican community who speak Aztecan languages and because of the language barrier, many of the workers don't know how to communicate their rights. "They don't even ask the supervisor to go home because they're afraid to lose their jobs or they don't speak the language," he says.

Juvenal Solano, a former strawberry picker and community organizer with the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project.
/ Ricardo Zaragoza
Juvenal Solano, a former strawberry picker and community organizer with the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project.

MICOP advocates for the rights of indigenous workers with a program called 805Undocufund, which raises money and to help workers financially if they lose their jobs.

But beyond financial help, Solano says, the most important thing the workers need right now is people on the ground.

"Those agencies that are here to protect farmworkers, they need to go to the farm area to see and to talk to those workers," he says. "When something like the wildfires happen ... those agencies are not there to see what the workers need."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 23, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio version of this story, as well as a previous Web version, Juvenal Solano says about 20,000 to 70,000 farmworkers in Ventura County are members of the indigenous Mexican community who speak Aztecan languages. According to the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, there are about 20,000 Mixtecs in Ventura County, about 17,000 of whom work in agriculture.