A New Dawn

On an early Saturday morning, along with a group from Slow Food Portland, I drove down the familiar I-5 corridor to visit a large, local community that few Oregonians have ever considered. It is a community in which 7 languages are regularly spoken, and where residents hail from multiple countries. It is also a community that was built with sweat equity and has struggled over the years for support. And yet, for as complex and as little understood as this community is, we are dependent on its work. Nuevo Amanecer is a farmworker community and its residents are the people who harvest our food.

We met up with the staff of the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation at their Cipriano Ferrel Education Center in Woodburn. Along with the FHDC team, we were joined by a number of their community organizers and property managers, as well as by Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), who is also the FHDC founder and board Chair. Created in 1990 by a coalition of farmworker advocacy groups, FHDC began operations with the construction of 50 affordable housing units at Nuevo Amanecer. The participating organizations realized that in order to fully address worker rights, they needed to also confront housing injustices. As Ramirez explains it, “Health conditions are directly related to working and living conditions – this led us to housing.”

Jerry Ambris, the Community Development Coordinator led us on a tour of the Nuevo Amanecer complex while explaining their current construction projects.  Since the first phase of the development in 1992, FHDC has expanded their management to over 200 units in Marion and Polk Counties. In their current rehab projects and upcoming construction, FHDC has begun to embrace eco-friendly building materials, rainwater harvesting, community gardens, and culturally-sensitive construction. As an example, Ambris told our group how they’ve updated the units’ ventilation systems to accommodate the Latino residents’ dependence on boiled and steamed foods.

These choices are informed by FHDC’s incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic staff, most of whom have personal or family experience with more typical farmworker housing. Additionally, the group relies heavily on the work of their resident property managers to help make decisions about facilities and new projects. On our tour, we were introduced to one of these managers, José Alvarez, who explained the community recycling initiative that he began for Nuevo Amanecer. This kind of positive resident involvement truly sets FHDC’s developments apart from other subsidized housing.

After exploring Nuevo Amanecer, FHDC and PCUN led us out into the surrounding fields to visit two farmworker camps – one caneberry operation and one nursery. From reading and hearing about labor conditions, I thought I knew what to expect, I thought I was prepared for what I would see. There was nothing that could have readied me for the conditions that exist in these camps.

In the first – a complex of four trailer units covered in horrible black mold, with little insulation and no plumbing – there were fewer than 50 beds. In less than a month, those beds will host up to 140 workers and their children. For a space indoors, workers are charged $40-60 a week, while those who have vehicles may pay $5 a day to sleep inside their car. The shocking reality is that the developments run by FHDC are comparatively cheaper, with the most expensive apartments running between $465 and $565 a month for a three bedroom unit. Sadly, many workers living in camps don’t believe that they have any agency to change their situation. While they aren’t forcibly held, they are effectively trapped by a lack of knowledge about their rights. Ramirez told us, “Many [workers] don’t know where they are at, only that they are in the North – they are a captured work force.”

PCUN ran informal tests of the property and found 21 chemicals in use on the crops, which are planted to within 5 yards of the housing. The workers hang their clothes on the vines and their children play in the fields. According to Community Leadership Director Laura Isiordia, the incidence of miscarriage and other health problems is dramatically higher in these populations than in the rest of the county. In response to these conditions, PCUN has tried to close this camp down, only to watch as the owners re-open it. Ramirez made it clear that good state regulations do exist, but there is virtually no enforcement of the standards; with looming budget cuts due for Oregon’s government, screening teams for these labor camps will likely be cut.

As we approached one farm, our road was blocked with an abandoned truck left by a wary farmer. When I asked FHDC’s Executive Director Roberto Jimenez why farmers were willing to let us visit the camps at all, he laughed darkly with his reply: “They aren’t.” The two complexes we visited happened to be some of the few without guards to deter trespassers. Ramirez explained that when visiting many camps, PCUN’s organizers have to decide whether or not they are willing to be arrested by the guards in order to inform the workers of their rights. This is the reality that makes their nascent radio station so important – they can speak directly to the farmworkers without going into the camps. KPCN Radio has been broadcasting for a little over 2 years, covering 6 towns in 3 languages: Spanish, Mixteco, and Trique. Their programming is all community-run, and ranges from music to health information to news updates on immigration policy. Ramirez proudly told us how the station has become a great tool in training future community leaders; for many of the volunteer hosts, the radio offers their first experience presenting their ideas to a wider audience.

Driving out of the camps, it was startling to round a bend on a rural road and see technicolor fields of the annual Tulip Festival, only a few hundred yards from such degrading conditions. Thousands of visitors will see the beautiful Willamette Vallery farmlands, without ever thinking about the communities that make them possible.

“How agonized we are about how people die.

How untroubled we are by how they live.”

- P. Sainath

After coming home from the tour, I came across this quote in Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved and was struck by the realization that FHDC and PCUN are two groups that are uniquely concerned with how people live. FHDC’s goal for these projects is not simply to provide housing, but also, as Ramirez shares, to help “in developing and empowering farmworkers to play a role in their own lives.” Through their community center, FHDC runs youth programs, as well as adult courses on financial literacy, job skills, healthy lifestyles, and community organizing. As a result, they have remarkably strong high-school graduation rates and an engaged group of residents who are committed to bettering their community.

The need for their work is clear. FHDC estimates that they could build 50 to 75 units each year for the next 10 years to meet the demand in Marion County, yet they only have the means to build 40 to 60 units every 5 or 6 years. Funding for low-income housing developments is incredibly competitive. In spite of this, FHDC has been a trailblazer in the field of farmworker housing: Nuevo Amanecer was the first federal tax credit farmworker housing project in the country, requiring two separate acts of legislation to secure the future of similar developments.

After a long and emotional morning of tours, we were happy to be invited back to the community center to join the residents for a potluck lunch. As we talked over our meal, a trio of musicians regaled us with song, while the children painted ceramic pots and planted flowers. It was incredible to think that this vibrant community began out of an effort to remedy the sort of conditions we’d witnessed at the farm camps. Earlier in the day, Renaldo, the guitarist from the potluck, had graciously invited us inside his family’s apartment. As we looked around at his home for the past ten years, he said to us, “I’m very happy and very comfortable here. The name [Nuevo Amanecer] means ‘new dawn,’ and that is what it is.”

Thanks for sharing

  1. Peter de Garmo
    Peter de Garmo05-06-2009

    Your synopsis is as moving as were the visits to Nuevo Amanecer and the two labor camps. Thank you for so eloquently capturing the essence and the spirit of the day. As I write this I’m shedding tears of appreciation for the amazing work done by PCUN and FHDC, and tears of anger that the conditions we observed in the fields still exist.

  2. Patricia
    Patricia05-19-2009

    Hi. I have been trying to find out where slowfood is located in Portland, OR. CAn some one let me know?

  3. Orion Lumiere
    Orion Lumiere05-20-2009

    I had heard about the deplorable farmworker housing conditions, but I not heard about Nuevo Amanecer; thank you for sharing this beautiful and important story. I attended the KPCN radio barnraising a few years back and their work is incredible; KPCN and Nuevo Amanecer are examples of how truly powerful the community can be and how we can solve problems through mutual aid.

  4. Rose M Ojeda
    Rose M Ojeda05-29-2009

    Thank you for this moving example of the living and work conditions for too many farm laborers.