Irma Medellin left Mexico in 1988 to find work in the San Joaquin Valley. When she first arrived in Lindsay, she says she mostly kept to herself. She picked olives and apples, she worked in restaurants and as a seamstress.
It wasn’t until Medellin joined The Immigrant Photography Project at a local school a decade later that she started really interacting with her community.
“That job gave me the opportunity to see that there’s a lot of us here who are just like me, who came with the same expectations of a better life,” she said in Spanish.
The goal of the project was to capture the stories of migrants through photos. She took black and white photos of families, farm workers, houses, and animals. Medellin said, for her, it was important to change a narrative she’d often heard.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh well the immigrants come to take our jobs or they’re dependent on services like food stamps,’ but it’s not like that,” the 55-year-old said. “We come here to work hard.”
One thing Medellin said she noticed right away was that a lot of young people in her community who spoke Spanish as their native language couldn’t actually read it or write in it.
“So that made me, well I didn’t like it because for me I went to school. I can read and write, and if it was hard for me to be here with all the changes, for someone who can’t read or write in their own language that’s difficult,” she said.
Medellin started teaching reading and writing classes. Soon people in the community recognized her and told her about other concerns. She didn’t always know the answers to people’s problems but she tried to figure it out, she said.
“That’s how I became a community organizer,” Medellin said. In 2003, she took it a step further and founded El Quinto Sol de America.
“For us, the most important thing is civic engagement, that’s our goal,” Medellin said. “We work closely with people in the community and in unincorporated areas. More than 15 years ago these communities were totally invisible.”
El Quinto Sol works with places like Tooleville, Tonyville, Plainview, El Rancho, and Farmersville to get basic infrastructure needs like drinkable water, paved roads, street lights, and speed limit signs.
These communities are lacking “basic features many people enjoy like water and sidewalks,” said Veronica Garibay, co-executive director of Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. “This didn’t happen by chance. It was intentional in many ways.”
The county's 1973 General Plan specifically said to “withhold money from non-viable communities,” meaning unincorporated communities, Garibay said. Part of the reason why these communities don’t have gutters and sidewalks, she said, is because there wasn’t any investment in them.
“Had that intentional policy not been in the books, these communities wouldn’t have been made invisible,” Garibay said.
Medellin’s life work has been to make sure the communities El Quinto Sol works with are seen and heard. A typical day for her is just talking to people and asking them what they need. With the help of her daughter, Isabel Arrollo-Toland, now the executive director of the organization, she has worked with the county to get bus stops, street lights, and paved roads.
“We facilitate, we provide the leadership, the resources,” Arollo-Toland said. “We are not the experts, we know that, so we partner with the experts. Whatever the issue is, we try to bring those resources to the community and then facilitate the process and the discussion.”
Putting in stop signs and population signs may seem like small victories, Arrollo-Toland said, but they help frame a community, give it relevance.
“Because then it makes you visible,” she said. “It makes you like, ‘Oh that’s my community.’ People kind of see it and ‘Oh that’s Plainview, that Tonyville, that’s Tooleville.’ That’s why these population signs were so important for community members.”
El Quinto Sol’s work has been “invaluable,” Garibay said, because it works with community members to give unincorporated areas the “attention they rightfully deserve.”
Since the 1970s, county investments in unincorporated areas have improved. The county has developed and updated community plans in unincorporated areas. The focus of these plans has been to update zoning ordinances, said Tulare County Supervisor and Chairman Kuyler Crocker. Some zoning regulations haven’t been updated in decades, he said.
Crocker said he’s “confident the board will be making major investments in unincorporated communities. They aren’t going to be forgotten because we live there, too.”
The community plans also identify the needs of each area like issues with sewage systems, drinkable water, transit, and mobility, said Crocker, who represents District 1 where El Quinto Sol’s focus is.
Working with El Quinto Sol has been a “great partnership,” Crocker said. Together they’ve held community forums and discussions, fixed potholes, drainage ditches, and added signs. Crocker said the board has focused on using transportation funds to put sidewalks in unincorporated communities like Woodville, Earlimart, and Allensworth.
“We’ve heard loud and clear sidewalks are important to these communities,” he said.“These may seem like basic needs but it’s what these communities need.”
El Quinto Sol has emphasized the importance of staying engaged with what’s happening at supervisor meetings, Crocker said, especially in communities where talking to elected officials about their problems isn’t common.
“El Quinto Sol is time for transformation, to be human, to be better,” Medellin said.
El Quinto Sol translates to The Fifth Sun, the age of the Aztecs. Medellin said the name resonated with her because it’s important to transform places and help each other find solutions, instead of feeling alone.