California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.
Early in the morning on May 5, approximately 50 farmworkers were in the midst of harvesting cabbage for Dan Andrews Farms in Bakersfield, at the southern end of California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, when they suddenly felt nauseous. “We started getting an odor, pesticide odor, coming in from the mandarin orchards west of our field,” supervisor Efron Zavalza told local news channel KGET.
The previous evening, an orchard next door had been sprayed with Vulcan, an organophosphate-based chemical that is highly toxic. “I’m not pointing fingers or saying it was done incorrectly,” Zavalza said. “It was just an unfortunate thing, the way it was drifted.” One person was immediately taken to the hospital and farming operations came to a halt. More than half of the others took ill and headed home before medical aid made it to the site.
This is a common scenario in California’s agricultural fields. “Pesticide drift is not something that happens sometimes — it’s an issue for farmworkers every day,” says Suguet López, executive director of Líderes Campesinas, a statewide organization led by female farmworkers. It’s the kind of issue her organization is taking on, part of a broader movement of women farmworkers in California. These campesinas, as they’re called, take on issues that affect women farmworkers, from pesticides to sexual assault, and they do so by encouraging this largely vulnerable and undocumented population to organize for better working conditions.