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After a Life in the Fields, Farm Workers Looking for a Place to Call Their Own


INDIO — After long seasons of stooping in the fields and rising ahead of the Coachella Valley sun to gather grapes and pluck tomatoes, 90-year-old Maria Rodriguez still gets up each morning itching to work the harvest.

But the harvest these days is gleaned from a backyard garden behind her apartment building, a housing project where she and other retired farm workers putter in the triple-digit heat just like other desert retirees.

In the middle of the sunbaked scrubland on the outskirts of Indio, the Desert Gardens Apartments is one of only a handful of developments in California dedicated to those who have spent their lives cultivating crops for others.

Nearly half the 88 units at the peach-colored project are reserved for retired field hands, providing a low-cost haven for people who in their old age often tend to be among the poorest of the poor, unprotected by such safeguards as pension plans or retirement packages.

"After all of their years in the fields, it is important that elderly workers have a place to live," said Rodriguez, who is the oldest resident and one of the first at Desert Gardens. She moved to the complex when it opened 3 1/2 years ago.

There has been a long tradition of immigrant farm workers from Mexico and elsewhere returning to their homeland or moving in with family after leaving the fields for good.

But that is beginning to change, labor leaders and housing advocates say.

Many retired laborers are choosing to stay near the farms where they toiled, having raised their children and planted roots in this country. And many end up living alone, some by choice and others by necessity.

"In another 10 to 20 years, there are going to be hundreds of thousands of Latinos entering their golden years," said Paul Chavez, son of the late United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez. "It's going to be a critical issue and one we've got to be prepared to deal with head-on."

Chavez is president of the UFW's nonprofit National Farm Workers Service Center, which has overseen construction of 600 single-family homes and more than 2,000 rental units in California, Arizona and Texas.

The UFW, in fact, helped pioneer the concept of housing for elderly farm workers, opening the Paulo Agbayani retirement village in 1974. The 58-unit project in Delano was built for retired Filipino laborers who worked the fields and manned the picket lines during the Central Valley grape strikes of the 1960s.

That project has all but shut down now as the original residents have died, but the UFW housing group opened another project in Delano in 1999. While not exclusively for farm workers, most residents at the 80-unit senior housing complex have worked the fields at some time in their lives.

The same is true for a 75-unit senior housing project in Fresno opened in 1988 by another nonprofit, SER-Jobs For Progress. A third of the units are set aside for retired farm workers. But because the complex is surrounded by farms, more than half the residents are former field hands, said Rebecca Mendibles, executive director of SER's Fresno office.

"We operate that project as a true nonprofit because we know the people are on true fixed incomes," Mendibles said of the complex, where rent is $420 a month and hasn't gone up in more than a decade. "We just recognize that the need is so great."

A national study revealed the problem more than a decade ago, chronicling an elderly population plagued by poverty and largely hidden from public view.

The study, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Housing Assistance Council, found that older farm workers were often ineligible for federally subsidized housing because of their immigration status or the rules governing such projects. And many were found to be ineligible for Social Security benefits, a dilemma officials attribute to the practice of paying farm workers in cash.

The study also found that older farm workers were frequently too frail to join their families on the migrant work trail, likely to earn less in the fields than their younger counterparts and often forced to retire early because of the hard work and health problems associated with stoop labor.

Joe Belden, deputy executive director of the Housing Assistance Council and the study's principal author, said he is aware of little updated research on the subject since the study was published in 1990. But he doubts much has changed.

"Some of the old cliches, like we saw in 'Harvest of Shame' 40 years ago, are still true today," said Belden, referring to Edward R. Murrow's groundbreaking 1960 television documentary on the dismal conditions facing the nation's farm workers.

"We go to the grocery store to put fruit and vegetables on our tables, but we don't always stop to think that there is someone responsible for harvesting our food," he added. "Why shouldn't there be some consideration for the people who have spent their lives doing that?"

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