Published Sunday, December 5, 1999

Wake-up call in Central Valley

For many, 'the dream' has already died

By Joe Garofoli

FRESNO - HERE IN THE largest city of the agricultural Central Valley, we're having a little trouble seeing the California Dream through the smog.

Yeah, smog. In Fresno, the sun just appears and disappears behind a white band that rings the horizon. Toward mid-morning, the Morning White Band is replaced by the Afternoon Brown Dome, which cracks open for about four hours of direct sunlight from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., only to be replaced by the Evening White Band. It's just like in L.A. -- but at least there's something to do in L.A. when the sun disappears.

For Fresnans, there is no life in the world's biggest truck stop beyond the incessant stench of manure and an unending string of chain restaurants and strip malls. The most original feature of California's sixth-largest city is that its Subway sandwich shop has a drive-through window.


If that weren't bad enough, a Fresno State professor recently concluded that the mental health of Mexican immigrants to Fresno County worsens the longer they live in America. Or, less diplomatically put: Living in the Central Valley drives people crazy. It's not hard to wonder why. Life is changing so fast for the worse down here that it's enough to make your head spin.

This is why, as soon as we get a glimpse of the city, photographer Jose Carlos Fajardo and I high-tail for the country. For signs of life. For signs of oxygen. And to find people who still think the California Dream can be lived here.

* * *

WE'RE TRADING stories about the old days with four farm workers in front of the Corona Bar in Huron, a dusty, one-stop-sign farming town an hour west of Fresno.

I can't stop looking at their giant hands. Outsized mitts with bent fingers that belong on the arms of larger men. Each man wears the weary, humorless stare shaped from years of collapsing on a lonely cot every night. Another day ending with his family thousands of miles away and a minimum wage in his pocket. None of the four has worked in a week, and the strain puts an edge in their voices.

In a few days, Huron's sidewalks will be filled with 500 other men, each hoping to hook up with a work party recruiting for the cotton run. Yet many will be left behind. Luis and Miguel grumble that the work isn't as plentiful as when they first came north nearly 30 years ago.

Back then, they could make so much in eight months that they didn't have to work for a month after they returned to their families. Not anymore. Now, 52-year-old Miguel Ramirez says in Spanish, "I tell the young ones, 'Don't go. There is nothing to find there.'' Miguel pauses, then jabs a zigzagged index finger to emphasize his point: "The only thing some find is death."

Their lives back in Mexico are desperate enough for them to risk traveling here. In 1980, they would pay a coyote $350 to smuggle them from Tijuana to Huron. Now, the trip costs at least $1,000, and that might get them dropped off a 12-hour walk from town, if that close. Still, some of these men have made the trip dozens of times.

Despite the mechanization of farm work that they say has taken many of their jobs, their labor hasn't become much easier. Toribirio Gonzalo, 39, displays his forearms. They're bowed from a lifetime of hacking at grapevines. Miguel can't stand up straight after 30 years of stooping in the fields 10 hours a day, but at $6.50 an hour, Miguel says he'll have to work until he's 72. Almost everything 54-year-old Luis Perez earns goes back to Mexico to support his wife and four children. Like the others, he pays $140 a week to live 40 men to a bunkhouse, meals included.

"We never imagined that if we came to the United States, we'd work harder than the people who are U.S. citizens," Toribirio says. "And yet we never get any of the benefit of citizens."

So why are they here? Is it worth the danger of traveling, the back-breaking work, the crowded conditions, the separation from their families?

The question brings the crease of a smile to Luis' face. A lifetime of field work has tightened his sinewy arms and torso more than most suburban gringos in their mid-50s, but the sun has varnished his face into an old man's.

It's simple, Luis says. He can make and save more here in a few months than he can at home. "But if I stayed here all the time, I'd waste all my money like everybody else who lives here."

* * *

CENTRAL VALLEY SNAPSHOT: Stop the car! We gotta go inside that one-story brick building here on Highway 198 in Hanford with the letters KIGS on top. Only in the valley do you see a radio station sandwiched between the stench of two dairy farms.

KIGS-620 AM is a 1,000-watt all-Portuguese station, its voice beaming as far north as Sacramento. As we enter, DJ/general manager Tony Vieira is spinning a dedication: It's from Paul, who's working at a dairy farm. Paul requests, "Hey, DJ," a Portuguese techno dance tune by the Tentacues. This one goes out to Paul's wife, who's at home today. Only in the valley.

* * *

BILL CHANDLER was born to be a farmer. He and his wife live in the Selma farmhouse that his grandfather built in 1904, cultivating the land that has been in his family for 100 years.

Geez, the guy looks like he was grown from a seed packet labeled "American Farmer," with sturdy, broad shoulders, faded blue jeans and hands that look like they've never been clean. His blue eyes dang near get misty when he talks about how long it takes to thin a peach tree or when he dives into the minutiae of surface irrigation.

To Bill, farming is about the thrill of bringing the crop in, about being outside, being your own boss. It's about pruning a tree a little bit different every year to get just the right flavor of peach.

That's why it's so painful to hear him talk about quitting. But his frustration level is at an all-time high. It's not hard to understand why as Bill shows us one of his almond groves. The one so close to a subdivision that you can hear phones ringing. Ever since the houses appeared a few years ago, his groves have become a target.

In one year, $1,200 worth of his sprinkler valves were stolen (the copper pieces are worth a few bucks melted down.) Now he paints them all black. There isn't much he can do, however, to stop the person who cut several of his irrigation lines, or the jerk who poured sand in his tractor's gas tank, "just for the hell of it."

Then there are the kids who roar through his groves on their all-terrain vehicles, playing what sounds like Central Valley polo, swinging big sticks and trying to knock off as many sprinkler heads as they can. Wonder if the kids' parents are the same ones who call the police as soon as Bill starts spraying pesticides on his crops?

But those aren't the only reasons that at 58, Bill wonders if this is still worth the hassle. He's still unsure if his two grown sons are interested in becoming the fourth generation to work this land. Maybe they see the future changing too fast.

Thirty-four years ago, there were 12 canneries nearby; now there are three. Even a good-sized farm like Bill's 480-acre spread has trouble competing when the Costcos and Wal-Marts of the world decide they want to sell grapes and peaches.

When Bill was growing up, a family of four could survive on a 40-acre farm if they did the work themselves. Now they'd need at least 160 acres. And don't get him started on the complex layers of regulations telling him when and what he can spray on his fields. Regulations that will only get tougher as ATV-riding neighbors move closer.

"After a while, I'll say the hell with it, and pull up all these trees," Bill says, his voice rising for the first time. "Some things you always worry about, like the weather, or about whether it's bloom time or not, or whether it's going to frost or not. But this is different."

Because unlike the weather, development isn't going to go away in a few days.

* * *

CENTRAL VALLEY SNAPSHOT: Paris has the Eiffel Tower. D.C. has the Washington Monument. And Bakersfield has a 7-foot bronze statue of longtime "Hee-Haw" star Buck Owens.

It's frightening to see Buck cast that large in a precious metal, but there he is, in the lobby of the Buckeroo's massive restaurant/club, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, preee-cisely at 2800 Buck Owens Boulevard. It's especially terrifyin' after knockin' back a couple of Voluptuous Blonde Ales and a helpin' of Bakersfield caviar (black-eyed peas), then lookin' around and seein' all them photos hangin' on the walls of Buck with important heads of state like Nixon and Johnny Cash.

Are we still in California? It feels like the dark side of the moon here, deep in the country part of California that's forgotten in all the jokes about this being the land of fruits and nuts. Jose and I are the only folks who don't know the words to "Boot Scootin' Boogie," and Lord knows what the good country folk thought of two guys with store-bought haircuts sittin' together all night.

Buck himself plays on Fridays and Saturdays when he's in town, but this bein' a Wednesday, the dance floor is filled with teen-agers and gray hairs line dancin' to the Brooks & Dunn covers being churned out. There's enough big hair in the room to fill a silo, and Jose's is the only brown face in sight. Can we go to L.A. now?

* * *

SOFIA SALDAÑA bends on both knees to gingerly tie her husband's shoes. As she does, her husband, Rogelio, looks up sheepishly, his large brown eyes betraying the wounded pride of a once-powerful man.

A few months ago, Rogelio wouldn't allow his wife to do such a thing. He was too angry to let anyone help him. Angry at Sofia, his children, at everyone who could walk. Ever since el accidente robbed him of his left leg, "I was afraid of living. I didn't know how to accept the new form I was given."

What is a 40-year-old farm worker with a sixth-grade education and limited English skills supposed to do for the rest of his life without a leg? What kind of man can't support his family, or fulfill his wife, or play with his children? When his family wasn't around, Rogelio would lock himself in a room and cry.

It was then, when Rogelio thought he would die, that he did something extraordinary in the Latino farm worker community: He accepted help for his depression. For two years, he has been seeing a psychologist. "If I did not go, I would have died," he says.

"Latin people think it is crazy to see a psychologist," Rogelio says. "Instead of recognizing that they need help, people say, 'Estoy nervioso.' (I'm nervous.)

Almost three years after he lost his leg, Rogelio stoically recounts el accidente. He was working at a cotton gin's weigh station when a chain wrapped around his left leg and began tearing it from the rest of his body. His leg had to be amputated about 6 inches above his knee. Pain still shoots through his arms and back from the violent way the chain contorted his body.

The pain was more than physical. Suddenly, Rogelio Saldaña felt that his life had no purpose. For 22 years, he had sacrificed everything for his family. Every year since he was 15, he had made the perilous journey north from his home near La Piera, Mexico, to spend 10 hours a day hunched over grapevines and lettuce plants in Central Valley fields. He sent home everything that he earned, even after he was married and had two children. Did he have a California Dream? A vision of eventually earning a better life here?

Rogelio shrugs. No, that was just his life. When you're the oldest child and your father is sick, you work for your family. You don't dream.

* * *

IF SERGIO AGUILAR-GAXIOLA has his way, Rogelio's acceptance of mental health treatment would be the rule, not the exception.

The Fresno State professor is working on a proposal to get mental health treatment for needy Mexican-Americans. The proposal, which he plans to submit to Fresno County officials early next year, is based on Aguilar-Gaxiola's finding that recent Mexican immigrants suffer less frequently from mental illness than Mexicans who have lived in America longer than 13 years.

Think of what that means. Thousands of Mexicans travel north in search of the California Dream, but the longer they stay here, the worse it is for their mental health.

In fact, Aguilar-Gaxiola's four-year study of 3,012 Fresno County residents of Mexican origin found that Mexican-born folks who had been in this country longer than 13 years had the same rate of mental illness as native-born Americans.

Why? It's a slow build. New immigrants are far from their extended families, which offer so much support in Mexico. Add to that the discrimination they face every day, and the stress induced by their back-breaking physical work. They also must overcome language and cultural barriers to survive.

Some new immigrants drink or take drugs to numb themselves from their depression, which only begins a concurrent downward spiral into substance abuse.

This brings us to Aguilar-Gaxiola's most frightening stat: 72 percent of those who need mental health services aren't receiving them.

* * *

CENTRAL VALLEY SNAPSHOT: We pull into Bakersfield and follow the bright stadium lights that illuminate a four-block area of town. There, we stumble upon a Norman Rockwell scene inside the stadium of 106-year-old Bakersfield High School.

The field is covered with parents and students building this year's homecoming floats, each class in a different corner of the gridiron. Gotta love a school whose nickname is the Drillers (there's a two-story oil rig in the corner of the stadium.) Many of the parents here are alums. As they proudly say, "Once a Driller, always a Driller."

I ask Betty, mother of a Bakersfield High senior, why she lives in Bakersfield. Naturally, like everyone we asked this question of in the Central Valley, she replies, "Because it's close to everything." It's a familiar refrain, one we've been hearing for three days.

Oh, come on, I shoot back. Close to what? You're two hours from L.A., a half-day's drive from the Bay Area and a good two hours in any direction from a lung full of oxygen. What exactly are you close to?

Betty lets me finish my rant, smiles a knowing smile and looks me in the eye. "We're close to everything we need to be."