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These Migrant Workers Travel 1,000 Miles During Pandemic To Provide For Families

Madi Bolanos
Juan Alvarez and Fidencio Torrez Martinez stand with the other migrant workers employed by Elkhorn Packing in Delano, California.


Small groups of men sit outside a Motel 6 just off Highway 99 in Delano. For more than half a year, this is their home. They sit on the stairs or on the grass. One group leans against a fence, surrounding an empty pool. They’re chatting or taking in the sun; some with phones to their ears talking to loved ones back home in Mexico. 


Fernando Castillo reaches the motel parking lot after a 30-minute walk from the laundromat. He’s headed towards his room on the first floor of the two story building. His phone is in one hand and a suitcase filled with clean clothes in the other. 


“Right now I’m coming from church too,” he says. “I spent two hours there in prayer.”


He is a man of the evangelical faith, he says. So when he came to the United States to work it was important for him to find a church. 


“During the week I can’t make it but on Sunday I go to distract myself for a few hours and I run my errands like washing my clothes at the laundromat because there’s no place to wash it here,” Castillo says. 


Sunday is for church and chores. The rest of the week he and the others are picking oranges and other crops for Elkhorn Packing, a company that provides labor through H-2A visas to big ag farmers. He heard about the program through his job back in Tamaulipas, Mexico. It’s a good way to make more money, he says. 


“Because here the salary is a bit more than over there, and to help the bosses,” he says. 


The bosses he’s referring to are his parents. The 29-year-old sends money to them and his siblings. 


“To buy food to buy whatever they need in Mexico. Because in that country the salary is not enough to do certain stuff,” he says. “And the American money over there gives people better benefits.”


He says the company takes precautions to keep the workers safe like spacing them out on the busses that take them to the fields and emphasizing hand washing and mask wearing. 


KVPR reached out to Elkhorn packing several times to find out more about its COVID protocols but did not receive a response.


Castillo, however, says the company also provides COVID-19 tests every 15 days.


“At first some people did get contaminated but it’s because they weren’t being careful, but now it’s mellowed down a lot,” he says. 


Castillo hasn’t gotten sick. Juan Alvarez, another worker from Tamaulipas, says he’s glad he came to California and he’s not more worried about catching COVID here. The threat is everywhere and at least he’s earning money.


“Well, here we make more money,” Alvarez says. “The money from here is worth more where I’m from.”  


He’s not married, he says, but he does send money to a teenage daughter. As he continues talking, one of the foremen, Fidencio Torrez Martinez, walks over. He’s also made the thousand mile journey from Tamaulipas to provide for his wife and three young kids.


Elkhorn Packing handles the paperwork for their visas, and pays for their housing, he says. But the pandemic has made this trip different from the other two times he’s done migrant labor. 


Before we get on the bus they tell us to wash our hands, put the hand sanitizer on, When we get off of work it’s the same thing,” he says.


He says the company has also asked them if they are interested in getting the vaccine. 


“A lot of people said yes and a lot of people said no,” Torrez Martinez says. “I said yes because I know it's a protection, and that's good for us and our families.” 


Families that these workers hope to see safely in a few months. For Castillo, the man who goes to church every Sunday, the thought of seeing his family provides another incentive to protect himself against the virus.


“I take care of myself here and they take care of themselves there and when I return everyone is happy and we can return to normalcy,” he says.


The men say they will return to Tamaulipas in three months.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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