Carmen Hernandez lives in a small home on Chateau Fresno Avenue, one of the three streets that make up Lanare, a tiny unincorporated settlement in the San Joaquin Valley. The street’s name sounds more appropriate to an upscale housing development. In reality it is a potholed tarmac lane leading into the countryside from the highway.
In Lanare live the descendants of its original African American founders, excluded by racial covenants from renting or buying homes in surrounding cities. Here they rub shoulders with their Mexican neighbors – the farmworkers who make up the valley’s agricultural workforce.
Hernandez’s house sits behind a white-painted fence of bricks and wrought iron, and a neat lawn dotted with a few small trees. On the other side of the road are the pistachio trees that make her home almost uninhabitable four times each year.
Just before the nuts are harvested in September, a tractor drags a tank with long arms down the rows, spraying a thick fog of pesticide into the trees. Quickly the chemical travels across the dozen yards between the orchard and Hernandez’s house. During other times of the year, the spray rig lays down weed killer, or a chemical that causes leaves to drop from the branches after harvest. Fertilizer is another evil-smelling chemical the neighbors have to contend with. The families on Chateau Fresno don’t let their kids play outside much anyway, but when the spray is in the air, they make sure to keep them inside.
One might ask, why did Hernandez build a house across the street from such dangers? She didn’t. When Self-Help Enterprises helped Lanare’s low-income families to build homes they’d never otherwise have been able to afford, the field across the street grew cotton or wheat. Those crops also use a lot of chemicals in California’s industrial agriculture system, but when pistachio trees were planted eight years ago, the contamination grew by an order of magnitude.
Carmen Hernandez stands at her front gate on Chateau Fresno Road, across the street from a pistachio grove. Pesticides, fertilizer and dust from the grove drift into her house and yard.
“Why did the state or county let them do this?” Hernandez asks. “They don’t even put up notices to warn us.” She’s asked the tractor driver what the chemicals are, but he doesn’t know. “He doesn’t even know the name of the owner of the orchard. He’s just hired by a labor contractor.”
For farmworkers, Hernandez’s predicament is familiar. PolicyLink’s 2013 study “California Unincorporated: Mapping Disadvantaged Communities in the San Joaquin Valley” found that over 300,000 people live in small, unincorporated communities spread across rural valleys where California’s agricultural wealth is produced. For them, living in a town like Lanare is a double threat to their health. Farm laborers work and live in a chemical soup, a source of interrelated health problems. And because their homes are in remote rural areas, getting adequate health care creates additional obstacles.
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