In Huron, an innovative electric vehicle ride-sharing program opens doors for elderly farmworkers
It’s one of the first programs of its kind in the country.
This story is featured in the Huron episode of The Other California, KVPR’s podcast all about small towns in the San Joaquin Valley.
David Mercado is sitting patiently in a car outside a dialysis clinic in rural Fresno County. He’s been waiting for close to a half an hour when a slim man in a baseball cap emerges out the front door. “Oh here he comes!” Mercado says, then switches to Spanish. “Como estás, Enrique?”
Mercado is one of the drivers for the Green Raiteros, a ride-sharing program that shuttles low-income residents of the small City of Huron to medical appointments in a fleet of electric cars. It’s the flagship program of the non-profit Latino Equity, Advocacy & Policy (LEAP) Institute, which aims to improve the quality of life of Huron’s 7,000 residents with programs including the installation of grant-funded air monitors throughout the town, and free camping trips to nearby parks.
Today, one of the two patients Mercado is picking up from dialysis is Enrique Contreras. Contreras has lived in Huron for more than 40 years, ever since he landed here from the Mexican state of Michoacan as a teenager.
“All my life I was a lettuce worker, a good worker,” Contreras says in Spanish. In fact, the 60-year-old says he’d still be in the fields today if it weren’t for his kidneys. “My kidneys don’t want to work anymore,” he jokes. “They’re taking a break.”
Contreras needs dialysis three times a week. But the clinic is far from Huron, 20 miles away in the neighboring City of Coalinga. Neither he nor his wife has a license or a car to make the drive. Their four grown kids can’t help, either – they live nearby, but they work the fields six days a week. “You know how work is,” he says. “You don’t show up, they fire you.”
Gregorio Hernandez doesn’t have many options, either. He’s Mercado’s second passenger today, and the cheerful driver hops out of the car to help the elderly man into the passenger seat.
Hernandez was one of the first drivers with the Green Raiteros when the program began in 2018, but he became reliant on the program himself after a stroke last year left him unable to drive and largely unable to speak. Mercado makes small-talk by asking yes-or-no questions, and offering up his own stories to share.
Like Contreras, Hernandez’s wife is also unable to drive. And although his daughter has been able to give him a ride for an occasional weekend appointment, she’s only a last resort – she lives in Bakersfield, a 90-minute drive away.
This driving conundrum is why Hernandez and Contreras are getting a ride today with Mercado. They’ve scheduled their dialysis appointments at the same time each week so they can share rides together.
The Green Raiteros is the flagship program of the LEAP Institute, and one of the first programs of its kind in the country. It’s received national media attention, and Mercado says the Institute’s director, who also happens to be the mayor of Huron, has received calls from communities around the country looking to model their own ride-sharing programs off of Huron’s.
And the best part: “It's a free ride-sharing program, totally free, we don't charge them,” says Mercado. “We understand their position and how they are, and we love to do this for them.”
Many clients say the program has literally been a lifeline. “It’s incredibly important,” says Contreras. “There’s nothing else like it.”
“Raiteros” is a Spanglish term for people who share rides, while the “Green” refers to the environmentally friendly cars. The program has been paid for by a patchwork of grants and donations, and half of the cars are on loan. Mercado’s lift today is a shiny black Chevy Bolt, one of eight cars in a fleet that includes Volkswagens and a BMW.
The program is mostly used by seniors, farmworkers, or both. They call the Institute office to arrange rides a few days in advance, or they just walk into the office in person. It’s an alternative to medical transportation vans which, when loaded up with passengers, could stretch a 30-minute drive into two or three hours. Plus, they’re not always covered by insurance. Meanwhile, not all locals have smartphones to make use of Uber or Lyft, which could end up being pricey anyway.
Then there are taxis. While Mercado’s waiting outside the clinic, a bright green taxi pulls up from Reedley – a city 60 miles away. “That's far, he had to come from all the way over there? Wow, that's going to be pricey,” he whistles. Indeed, the rates are printed on the door: $2.50 per mile, and another 45 cents for every minute of wait time.
Mercado is new to the Green Raiteros, but driving has been a thread throughout his life. He grew up in Huron, but he left in his 20s, first exploring the country as a trucker, then as a commercial driver in the Texas oilfields. After two decades away, enough time to raise four kids, he moved back to Huron in 2020. The homecoming “felt great, I felt like I was home, and it’s time for me to start helping out the community where I grew up,” he says.
After returning, the then-47-year-old began looking for a job, and one of the first calls he made was to an old high school buddy: Mayor Rey Leon, who also runs the LEAP Institute. “I came back home, met up with Rey, ended up starting working here, and I love it,” Mercado says.
Mercado’s officially the transportation coordinator of the Green Raiteros. But he doubles as an occasional driver. And when he’s behind the wheel, it’s obvious he’s a pro: never exceeds the speed limit, hands stay at ten and two. He even seems fond of the drive from Huron to Coalinga, which he’s made too many times to count.
The route is a cross-section of Valley life, passing some of the area’s largest employers. There’s the state prison and a psychiatric hospital, but the biggest of course is ag: the sprawling pistachio orchards and the rows and rows of lemons, oranges and mandarins. “You see the cycle - you see them get picked, you see them grow,” he says. “That's what I love about the San Joaquin Valley, there's a lot of growth here, you know.”
The route even passes a ranch where Mercado’s dad used to work, driving a motor grader. “I worked here as well when I was in high school, so this brings back a lot of memories,” he says. Like his parents, he used to be a farmworker too. His specialty was laying irrigation lines.
Mercado feels this program has helped him reconnect with his home, while also opening his eyes to the needs of the town. “I take it real serious, I take it to heart, because they've worked hard all their lives out here in the farms,” he says. “They did their time, and now it's time for us to take care of them.”
After 20 years away, Mercado moved back into the home where he grew up. When he’s not working his day job with the Green Raiteros, he’s looking after his aging parents.