On a cool December afternoon, Luis Alberto Echeverria Melchor approached a dusty corral on the western outskirts of Turlock, a city in California’s Central Valley. Several young cows ambled over to greet him. “They are very intelligent,” he said, reaching out to stroke the face of an animal. “Sensitive, too.” Melchor should know. The 38-year-old has spent half his life milking and feeding the cows of Stanislaus County, a mostly rural region whose landscapes are dominated by sprawling dairy farms that produced half a billion gallons of milk in 2016 worth more than $600 million.
During the 20-minute drive south from Melchor’s Modesto apartment, we had passed more than a dozen dairies, including several where he had once worked. From the passenger’s seat, Melchor, whose soft oval face is framed by a neatly trimmed beard, narrated the experiences in a sort of Cliffs Notes of labor abuses: The boss who stiffed him a week’s pay; the boss who refused to give breaks; the boss who yelled too much. But it was this Turlock dairy that Melchor remembered best, for it was here that he finally decided to complain about labor abuses, and those complaints would eventually result in his deportation to Mexico.
He had worked at the dairy for eight months when, in March of 2008, a cow kicked him in the chest. He didn’t remember the kick, only that he woke up staring at the barn’s ceiling while a coworker fanned his face with a shirt. His chest throbbed and he was unable to speak above a whisper. Melchor alleged that the dairy owner, Joe Sallaberry, took a glance at him and told Melchor to go back to his trailer, located on the property, and rest. “You’ll be fine,” Sallaberry said. (Sallaberry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Melchor didn’t feel fine. His wife drove him to the hospital, where he said he learned that his rib was fractured. That night, he handed Sallaberry a doctor’s note that stated he couldn’t work. The next day, Sallaberry fired him. “I only had three days to move out,” Melchor recalled. On the third day, as he struggled to pack his things—the injury made even the slightest upper-body movement painful—two officers from the Sheriff’s Department drove up and reminded him that he needed to vacate by sundown.
Stories like Melchor’s are familiar to Esmeralda Zendejas, an attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) who has represented numerous dairy workers over the years. She told me that wage theft is routine in the dairy industry, and that employer-provided housing, often onsite, tends to be less than optimal. There can be serious safety hazards for children, like open manure lagoons, and injuries are common. “We’ve had workers who have been smashed by cows,” she said. “The response from employers is often, ‘Walk it off.’ Many people won’t complain, because they fear retaliation.”