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Ventura County

Daughter of the Fields Returns to Her Roots

June 23, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yissel Barajas grew up in a farm-worker haven, but it wasn't until she started pursuing her master's degree at UCLA that she learned that the lemon pickers of Cabrillo Village practically invented the term self-help housing.

In her coursework on urban planning was a chapter on the birth of the east Ventura community, a testament to the period nearly three decades ago when laborers--their grower-owned shanties condemned by health officials--stood arm in arm to block an army of bulldozers intent on knocking their houses flat.

What happened next was a textbook case of affordable-housing activism.

Together, the villagers raised $80,000--$1,000 from each of the original families, including Barajas' parents--to purchase their land and formed a cooperative that today owns the entire community at the edge of the Santa Clara farming valley.

It is believed to have been the first time in the nation's history that Mexican American farm workers rallied to collectively buy their homes from a grower. And it helped inspire Barajas to continue in that tradition.

The 28-year-old newlywed is the newest project manager for the Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the association formed in 1975 to pluck the old labor camp from the brink of demolition and transform it into a pioneering housing cooperative.

She will oversee two projects to provide the first large-scale farm-worker housing built in Ventura County in nearly a decade.

"I know better than most exactly what these kinds of housing opportunities mean to farm workers," said Barajas, whose parents still live in the Latino community, now made up of stucco homes and peach-colored apartments.

"I know how hard these laborers work, and I know they deserve decent housing," she said. "It's exciting to be able to give somebody the same opportunities I had."

Her timing couldn't be better.

With skyrocketing housing prices and soaring rents making it tougher than ever for agricultural workers to find affordable places to live, growers, labor advocates and elected leaders are in the midst of an unprecedented campaign to shelter those who supply the muscle for the county's $1-billion farm industry.

Those efforts could receive a boost this fall, when California voters weigh in on a $2.1-billion housing bond that would funnel $200 million into the state's primary farm-worker housing grant program.

If approved, the money would become available at a time of increased local attention to rural housing conditions, spurred in part by a growing belief that in order to keep farmers in business, steps must be taken to house those who work the harvest.

"I can't think of anyone [other than Barajas] in a better position to help farm workers find housing," said Rodney Fernandez, executive director of Saticoy-based Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the county's largest private developer of low-income housing.

"Here's a person who could have gone anywhere and done anything she wanted," Fernandez said. "Yet she decides to come back and give back to her community."

Barajas wasn't sure at first she had found her calling.

Although born in Ventura about the time her parents were staring down bulldozers, she was raised in Mexico from about age 5. By the time the family returned to Cabrillo Village for good, she was 12 and settling into a community that had been utterly transformed.

From a 1930s-era farm labor camp had sprung a bustling community complete with a church, market, laundry room, community center, library and playground. State grants helped families refurbish existing homes and build adjacent apartment complexes.

The farm-worker struggle and subsequent successes captured national attention and were the subject of a TV documentary.

"Just to have had the luxury of having a house, when so many families are struggling to put a roof over their heads, I think helped me in getting an education," said Barajas, the oldest of four children. "It meant I didn't have to stop school and go to work to help support my family."

She earned her bachelor's degree in political science from UCLA in 1995 and, after a year off from school, returned to pursue a master's degree in urban planning. She took a particular interest in community development work.

Leo Estrada, a UCLA demographer and professor of urban planning, said he believes the turning point came when Barajas enrolled in a class on nonprofit housing development.

"I remember when her intellectual, social and personal passions all came together around the topic of affordable housing," Estrada said. "Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. is a place that is allowing her to develop into a young professional, to practice her craft and to channel her passions for housing and justice."

Barajas went to work in 1998 for a nonprofit housing developer in Los Angeles and landed the Cabrillo job late last year after she and her husband of one month, Ventura engineer Jaime Fernandez, found a home in Fillmore.

Two of Barajas' projects cover familiar territory.

She will oversee construction of 54 rental units, specifically targeted to farm workers, near the River Ridge Golf Course in north Oxnard.

And she has inherited a project in south Oxnard, where Cabrillo is preparing to raze a 1930s-era collection of shacks and replace them with single-family homes and apartments exclusively for farm workers and dedicated to the late labor leader Cesar Chavez.

As with the fight at Cabrillo Village, the south Oxnard project was made possible after former tenants won a three-year legal battle over the slum conditions that had existed at the property.

Those similarities have not gone unnoticed, especially by her pioneering parents, Olga and Ramiro Barajas.

"We are very proud of her," her mother said, "because she is helping families who are in the same situation we were in."

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