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Farm Workers Say Church Isn't Doing Enough to Assist Them

September 18, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS — Inside a battered three-room trailer, in a dusty labor camp at the edge of a cauliflower field, Carmen Moreno and her seven children watched on television as Pope John Paul II, in nearby Monterey, celebrated California's farm workers.

Moreno, who has picked lettuce in the Salinas Valley for a decade, said she was unable to share the Pope's enthusiasm for farm labor. Conditions for farm workers during the last few years in Monterey County--which produces more vegetables than any county in the United States--have steadily worsened, she said.

Five years ago she made $7.35 an hour and paid only $175 a month rent for her trailer. Today she makes $4.50 an hour, has lost her benefits and pays $390 a month rent. The grower she used to work for went out of business last year, and now she works for a labor contractor who hires out crews to growers.

"I wish this Pope would talk about the low pay we are earning," said Moreno, who recently left work because she is pregnant. Her husband also works in the fields. "They're pushing us harder and harder in the fields and we're making less money."

Many other farm workers in this rich agricultural valley and throughout the state say they face the same struggle. Some recent studies support their claims and show that the living standards for farm workers have deteriorated in recent years. While the Catholic Church assists farm workers, some advocates contend the church has not done enough in these difficult times.

Farm workers today need more than "just spiritual guidance," said Cruz Gomez, coordinator of the Migrant Education Project in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. "I don't think the Pope's visit is raising the hopes of the field workers," she said. "The church has a responsibility to take a more active role in helping its people."

Some of the estimated 30,000 farm workers in Monterey County feel "alienated and disenfranchised" from the Catholic Church because it is not making enough of an effort to aid them, said Claudia Smith, migrant regional counsel for the private California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA).

"The diocese hasn't really emphasized migrant ministries or devoted enough resources and staff to go to the migrant labor camps and try to minister to the needs of the workers," she said.

Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda of Monterey has assisted the CRLA in some important suits, group attorneys said. And the church sponsors a successful project to aid Latinos who have immigration problems and are seeking legalization under new laws.

But because crops are harvested year-round in the Salinas Valley, housing is an acute problem, said Cynthia Rice, directing attorney for the CRLA's Salinas office.

"I can't refer a Catholic who's been going to Mass for 20 years to the church if they need money for a housing deposit, but I can refer them to the Salvation Army," Rice said. "For those farm workers who have lost their jobs and who need temporary shelter or a reliable soup kitchen--same thing. The church doesn't have the same type of reliable facilities."

A number of Protestant clergy have been visible in building ministries and reaching out to the farm workers, Smith said. Because they have been "supportive," she said, they have begun luring farm workers away from the Catholic Church. The Episcopal Church, for example, has been particularly active in the Salinas Valley.

The diocese is doing "everything in its power" to respond to the needs of the farm workers, said Ted Elisee, the diocese's director of communications. The diocese sponsors five immigration offices to aid Latinos, an outreach program to Latinos, which includes aid to political refugees from Central America, and a migrant ministry program in which lay volunteers visit the migrant camps. Priests are not involved in the ministry program, he said, because of a "priest shortage in general and particularly a shortage of Hispanic priests."

Throughout the state, living standards of farm workers have worsened during the last five years, said Don Villarejo, director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a nonprofit research organization in Davis.

Five years ago, the average wage for farm workers was $3.50 an hour, he said, quoting a UC Davis study. Today the average wage is about $4.20 an hour for those who work for labor contractors--about half the work force--and $5 an hour for those who are employed by the growers.

Villarejo noted that contractors also don't provide fringe benefits workers could expect if working directly for growers.

Although wages have not increased significantly during the last few years in the Salinas Valley, "they are still higher than any place in the world," said Ed Angstadt of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Assn. of Central California. Growers, he said, are faced with increasing competition from other countries who have much lower labor costs.

The workers pick vegetables in the shadow of some of the wealthiest cities in the state, places like Carmel and Pacific Grove.

"The priorities in these wealthy parishes have to be reviewed," said Mary Corralego, an advocate for the Legal Aid Society of Santa Cruz County. "Any kind of help given is strictly hit or miss, depending on who the priest is. The church needs to step in and make ministering to the poor a bigger priority."

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