IT'S 2 P.M. IN this family-owned apple orchard near Sunnyside, and the temperature has...
IT’S 2 P.M. IN this family-owned apple orchard near Sunnyside, and the temperature has climbed to 100 degrees. Juan Marin, who crawled from Mexico into the United States through a storm-sewer pipe 31 years ago after paying $2,000 to be smuggled in, now snaps open a cellphone and speaks rapidly in Spanish to his foremen. In minutes, dozens of Mexican laborers emerge, like a hidden army, from the trees.
The apple thinning doesn’t stop because it’s too hot for men to work. Washington’s minimum wage of $7.63 an hour is as much as many of these field workers could make in a day in Mexico, and they’ll pick as long as they can, even when a day can start as early as 3 a.m. for asparagus.
But it’s too hot for the apples: The fruit can be damaged in high temperatures. In fact, to meet the magazine-perfect appearance expected in urban markets, some trees are sprayed with kaolin clay to prevent sunburn.
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Dozens of well-used cars rumble to life as the field workers set off for home. For most, legal or not, home is not Mexico. It is the Yakima Valley.
Marin, now an American citizen because his first wife was a “gringa,” is fluent in English and proud of how far he’s come. When owner Jeanette Evans called him from the orchard one day in 1981, he feared he’d done something wrong. But instead of scolding him, Evans made the tireless worker a foreman.
The farm he helps direct is a marvel of science and efficiency. Orchards that were once planted 40 trees to the acre now hold 1,200. Apples hang thick as grapes.
Yet something is odd in this Eden: its relative stillness. There is little insect or bird life. While pesticide spraying is slowly being reduced in Eastern Washington, the Evans family still spends up to twice as much on chemicals as field labor. Immaculate fruit requires sterile groves.
This is why Gloria Coronado, a Ph.D epidemiologist from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Lake Union, has brought one Caribbean-American and two Latino medical interns across the mountains to meet Marin and to see these orchards.
The chemicals, many of them organophosphates descended from the nerve gases developed during World War I, do more than kill bugs. They are picked up by skin and clothing, and ultimately tracked to the homes where children play in the dirt yards and on the thin carpets inside.
Coronado doesn’t want her fellow Latinos poisoned for our cheap, pretty food.
Only one generation of assimilation separates Coronado, a Mexican barber’s daughter who grew up in Moses Lake, from Marin. But the 34-year-old Coronado is a cultural light year from him. She has an office with a lake view, degrees from Stanford and the University of Washington. She could have put farm fields, where her cousins still work, far behind her.
Instead she’s brought her expertise back to her roots, striving to document the impact of pesticides and educate farmworker families with meetings, calendars, comics and donated soap.
“I think there’s a lot of fear,” she says of Mexican communities in Washington. “My father worked the fields and was concerned years and years afterward about the health effects of having to drink dirty water from a canal. It’s not just a farmworker problem. It’s everybody’s problem.”
In a Fred Hutch survey of 571 valley adults, hundreds reported burning eyes, blurred vision, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness and joint pain. Three-quarters of the workers had less than an eighth-grade education, 88 percent made less than $25,000.
Question to Juan Marin: How many of the 1,200 harvest workers will be white?
How many are illegal immigrants?
What would happen if they were barred from the U.S.?
Laughter. America go down!
WHILE ESTIMATES and definitions vary, probably at least 13 million illegal or undocumented immigrants are in the United States, 81 percent Latino. At least a million do farm labor. In Washington, a 2000 study estimated 185,000 seasonal farmworkers, of which 64,000 were migrants. Yakima County has the state’s highest total, with about 52,000.
There are two ways to look at seasonal farm labor, a tradition that dates back to the Civil War when the consolidation of small family farms began.
One is that its low pay, long hours and chronic health problems amount to modern-day slavery. Its domination today by Latinos — after earlier workforces of Native Americans and poor whites — make it appear racist.
The opposite view is that farm labor is a way for America to gain hard workers for jobs its own citizens don’t want, and a way for immigrants like Baldomero (Bob) Coronado to come to America, start a business, invest, and produce four highly educated children like Gloria. Not only do farmworkers have jobs that can pay 10 to 20 times what they could earn in Mexico, they have access to health care and other benefits unknown at home.
The complex reality is that there is truth to both perceptions.
Maria Chapina, her husband and three children live in a stark, concrete-block home they rent for $300 a month. Her husband works full time, she works six months a year, and together they earn only about $15,000. Still, they’re much better off than they were in Mexico.
Migrant Rafael Hernandez is a middle-class success, earning enough to support 11 children by working three jobs, including one as an assistant for the Hutch projects. His wife works in the vineyards for Chateau Ste. Michelle. While orchard and dairy work might bring in $300 to $600 a week, his family can make up to $2,000 a week cutting asparagus. But his wife has headaches and allergies all the time, Hernandez says.
Recent state tests showed 20 percent of pesticide-spray applicators had serious drops in an enzyme called cholinesterase essential to proper functioning of the nervous system.
Seattle shoppers take for granted industrial-scale farming that produces food in almost incomprehensible volumes. Jeanette Evans, 75, and her husband, Bill, 76, started with 10 acres in 1949 and lived briefly in a chicken coop. Today they still work six days a week, own more than 6,000 acres, employ up to 1,200 people, and produce up to 200 million apples a year.
Most of the apples are exported — ironically, many to Mexico — and must meet pest standards so stringent that a single surviving coddling moth in a box of apples can mean export restrictions and economic catastrophe.
“We need people to do the work,” Jeanette says, standing in a mammoth warehouse as workers furiously pack an unending stream of apples into boxes. “We don’t know how else to get them.”
It seems a precarious system. Washington’s farmers are aging, their replacements unclear. They are dependent on illegal labor the government largely turns a blind eye to. Competition requires massive investment in chemicals, irrigation and machinery.
Now the system has worked in a different way, producing a bilingual woman who is a bridge between two worlds, and two world views. Gloria Coronado is smart, hard-working and personable, and would probably have been successful regardless. But it was a series of encouragements she received that led her out of Moses Lake to the Hutch, and it is her success that is inspiring other Hispanics, and making the research center relevant not just in the hospital but in the fields.
MOSES LAKE IS a Columbia Plateau farm town so flat it lacks an inspiring horizon, and some kids can’t see much future. The Coronados did.
Gloria’s father, Bob, came across the border at age 9 to start field work, landing in Washington to pick tomatoes and asparagus. With just a fourth-grade education, he went to barber school, opened a shop and became a community pillar in Moses Lake. He and Gloria’s mother, Marilyn, who is white, were only the second “mixed” couple in town and ran into their share of prejudice. But their hard work and good kids earned them acceptance.
Gloria, the youngest, was quiet, determined and carried a 4.0 GPA.
She applied to only two colleges, Stanford and Reed. Both accepted her, but she was gripped with apprehension. Her parents were leery of California after watching TV crime shows. It didn’t help that one teacher told her, “You only got into Stanford because you’re Hispanic.”
Meanwhile, the cost of Stanford was daunting. Two people intervened. Charlene Aguilar, a Stanford administrator, called to encourage Gloria and put the Coronados in touch with a financial-aid counselor. Moses Lake school Superintendent Ben Edlund coached the family through the academic bureaucracy. The cost was lowered, and she left for Palo Alto.
What followed was an eye-opener.
“My father didn’t talk a lot about Mexico,” Coronado recalls. “It wasn’t until I went to Stanford that I developed more personal pride in my roots.”
After graduating with a degree in psychology, she got a job as a research coordinator at the University of Washington’s Department of Orthopedics, where she began to learn about epidemiology, or the study of disease and its prevention. Meanwhile, in 1993 the Hutch’s Beti Thompson, who works in cancer prevention and is a professor at the School of Public Health at the UW, had been struck by census data showing how poor, uneducated and sick Yakima Valley Hispanics were. By 1995 she was looking for an intern who spoke Spanish.
“When I interviewed Gloria, I knew I had a winner,” she recalls.
Thompson became the new mentor, encouraging Coronado to get her master’s and doctorate degrees. The pair realized there was a vacuum of information about pesticides in the valley. Most pesticides have no Spanish labeling, most workers have no training in hygiene, and many don’t want to slow their picking by washing up.
Thompson and Coronado won grants to assemble programs to test and educate workers, then recruited staff in Sunnyside to do interviews, give lectures and draw blood.
Washington growers are slowly converting to integrated pest management, which uses “softer” chemicals, pheromones that confuse mating coddling moths, and beneficial predatory insects. The Evanses have tried pheromones with encouraging success.
“There’s a lot of people who want to do the right thing,” says Tim Evans, the couple’s foreman son. “My kids are out in the orchard, too. I don’t want to poison them.”
Coronado’s work is part of the solution. Her job is not just to shed light by testing families, but to teach workers to protect themselves by washing, doing laundry and staying out of recently sprayed fields. Her style is to collaborate instead of dictate, laugh frequently and stick to it.
Her Yakima Valley work is expanding to take a look at the rates of cancer and diabetes. She mentors Hispanic students in Seattle, to the point of having medical interns John Maranos and his wife, Yelena Bird, live in her basement for the summer.
She runs, bikes, eats organic produce, avoids wheat because she has Celiac disease, and tries to simplify a hectic life. One decision was to give up her car. She rents one to visit the valley.
FOR THOUSANDS OF years, agriculture did without pesticides, and four rather lonely farms in the Yakima Valley still do. Are they an alternative?
Japanese-born Katsumi Taki and his wife, Ryoko, operate Mair Taki Farm in Wapato, where he farms 16 acres with vegetable and fruit crops.
Without chemicals, the crops demand much more hand labor, and he loses more food to birds and insects.
As a result, his organic peaches, can cost $70 a box. That’s cause for derision in the Yakima Farmers Market, where conventionally grown fruit goes for $3 to $7. Accordingly, he drives to Seattle twice a week to sell at the Pike Place and University District markets.
“When the masses decide to eat organic, and pay for it, then the farmers will provide it,” says Tito Rodriguez, a state Health Department representative who advises Coronado’s research group. But most consumers can’t, or won’t. Which leaves us with chemicals, migrants and a new generation of Latinos pressing for change.
“Not a lot of us get out of the valley,” says Ruby Godina of Toppenish, a 22-year-old UW graduate in sociology. “If not for Gloria, I never would have.”
The daughter of a farmworker father, she says her goal was to do something for the Hispanic community, and in high school she won an internship to work on the Hutch studies. Coronado helped convince her parents of the possibility, just as her own parents had been convinced. These days, Godina wants to do graduate work in medicine and then return to the valley.
It’s a story as old as America. Wave after wave entered at the bottom and climbed up. Now there are the Mexicans, forming with other Latinos the biggest minority of all.
Already so many are moving into better jobs that farm jobs could go begging. There have been proposals to import Taiwanese or Thai workers at harvest time.
Just temporarily, of course.
So Coronado’s subjects are the new Americans; their health problems become our problems, their success our success.
As she crested a desert ridge on the way back to Seattle, the green glory of the Kittitas Valley spread out below, she was asked what she believes in. Characteristically, she thought before answering. “Your life has to be meaningful,” she finally said. “Your work has to be a work of art.”
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.