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Harvesting Hope

Farm Worker Families Build Own Low-Crime, High-Pride Community


RANCHO SESPE — Tiburcio Juarez arrived at the nation's largest lemon ranch a few days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932.

For the next five decades he pruned, sprayed, picked and irrigated the groves that surrounded his family's plywood shanty on old Rancho Sespe.

"Oh, that place was just a little wooden house. The wind blew through. It was cold," said Juarez, 83, a stooped, smiling man who still dresses like a field hand in a red plaid shirt and blue cotton pants.

He rummages through his closet and pulls out a rusty camp stove. "This is what we cooked on," he said, shaking his head.

The days of deprivation are gone forever for Juarez and 99 other farm worker families who have constructed their own New Deal amid 20 serene acres of orchards in the Santa Clara Valley outside Fillmore.

Their home now is a pastel-colored laborers' commune, owned and managed by the 550 residents themselves. Today, the children of the farm workers are schooled in the county's only all-day Head Start center. Tutors teach English to the adults and a nurse stops by regularly to check on everyone's health.

The new Rancho Sespe is a lasting monument not only to the unyielding spirit of a group of men and women who fought for the right to make a better life for themselves, but to the man who inspired them to believe in their power--Cesar Chavez.

"Before, I lived in a little old house that was just a bunch of standing boards," said Isabel Gonzalez, 70. But on the picket lines with Chavez, Gonzalez learned he had a voice, and how to use it. "We would fight for things like this development."

A decade after farm worker activists broke ground amid mariachi music and Mexican dances, the new rancho project is a low-crime, high-pride model of what can come from a struggle when it is fought to the very end.

Without their fight, the old-timers say today, their families would still be crammed into cheap rentals in crowded slums, and praying for a better life.

But now, laborers retire here. The pickers and packers of Fillmore and Piru wait in line for years to move here. The children of the fields stand a better chance of learning a language their parents hardly speak and moving up an economic ladder their families never climbed.

"I used to know the old Rancho Sespe. And I know this one. The difference is great," said John Zermeno, a teacher of migrant children since 1974. "Nowadays, you talk to parents over there and they're saying, 'Yeah, my child is going to go to college.' Before, they wouldn't even imagine it."

Rancho Sespe is one of a kind, and not just because it is surrounded by green orchards and purple mountains, miles from the nearest city. It is a place of peace and tranquillity that is in short supply for poor people today.

During the three years that Sheriff's Deputy Luis De Anda has patrolled the rancho, he recalls only one incident of violence, when one young man struck another over the head with a bottle. Drug use is minor. Graffiti is rare and quickly painted over. A youth's gang membership can tip the scale toward his family's eviction.

"I would say they have 1% of the crime they would have if this community was in Fillmore or Santa Paula or Camarillo or Oxnard," De Anda said. "The joy I have with these kids is that they're always looking out for the other. So if one kid is starting to get in trouble, they might come to me and say, 'Could you talk to him?' "

"I also like this place because I'm Mexican, and it has that flavor--the same customs and festive days, foods and music," added the 39-year-old De Anda. "I would want my own kids to grow up in an environment like this. To me, it's pretty close to paradise."

Battle Over Whether Project Should Be Built

If Rancho Sespe today stands as a model for poor families building their future, it wasn't long ago that a battle raged over whether it should be built at all.

It was going to be a slum. It would attract crime. Its squalid conditions would pollute the agricultural fields around it. That was what critics said after Rivcom Corp. bought the largest lemon ranch in the world, the 4,300-acre Rancho Sespe, in 1979.

The new owner fired about 200 workers who had voted to join the United Farm Workers, and about 500 families were ordered out of two camps along the Santa Clara River.

Some workers refused to move, linking hands to block bulldozers.

Activists argued Ventura County was obligated to replace the labor camps for the residents. Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., which had saved another farm worker camp in Saticoy, formed the Rancho Sespe Workers Improvement Assn. and bought the 20-acre orchard of a Santa Barbara gentleman farmer three miles east of Fillmore and nearly two miles south of Piru. But area farmers fought to keep the new project from being built in a farm belt.

Critics claimed farm worker children would vandalize farm property or be poisoned by pesticides. It was even said the local cemetery would not accommodate farm workers.

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