In California Wine Country, Undocumented Grape Pickers Forced to Work in Fire Evacuation Zones

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    • #356240
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      As wildfire smoke billowed into the wine-producing region of Sonoma County, California, workers continued harvesting grapes, day and night. Even in evacuation zones, where the safety threat from flames was severe enough for officials to ask residents to leave the area, the county agriculture commissioner invited workers to continue laboring in the fields, doling out evacuation-area access passes to dozens of agricultural producers. With undocumented immigrants — many of them workers from Latin American Indigenous communities — already economically drained after surviving months of the pandemic with virtually no government support, workers were in no position to decline an offer for work.

      For the workers, their hands were forced by a combination of circumstances as toxic as the ash that falls over the region’s famous vineyards: the economic drive to keep the wine industry going; the lack of resources for non-Spanish-speaking workers; a near-total dearth of economic support; the economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic; and a climate of fear around immigration enforcement that prevents the workers from asking for help.

      What’s needed more than anything, advocates say, is an economic safety net in times of disaster so that people don’t have to accept perilous work and changes to immigration laws, so they don’t have to fear offers of help.

      “We work when there are rains, we work when there is fire, we work in whatever conditions. It isn’t the most viable, but it is a necessity to provide for our families here or the parts of our families that stayed in our place of origin,” said Gervacio Peña Lopez, a board member of the local Indigenous workers’ group Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, who is Mixtec and worked in the fields for years. “There is no resource we can count on, so there’s nothing left but to work.”

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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