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Bitter Taste in the Grape Fields

Farm worker says his father, 53, didn't have to die of heatstroke.

August 30, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

PIXLEY, Calif. — Unlike many farm workers who come from Mexico to toil under the San Joaquin Valley sun, Luis Angel Valdivia wasn't pushed north by desperation.

He had a decent job back home and the comfort of a tight-knit family. But he was the youngest child, an adventurer from age 12, and so he handed $1,500 to a coyote last winter and headed to his "great vision" on this side of the border.

What he regrets now is not the decision to come north but that his 53-year-old father followed in his path, tracing his footsteps from Jalisco to Pixley and then shadowing his son into the Kern County grape fields last month.

Five days later, the father was dead, the victim of heatstroke after working a 10-hour day picking grapes in the 100-degree sun. These fields during harvest are mostly off limits to the outside world, but the July 28 death of Asuncion Valdivia has forced the nation's biggest table grape grower, a privately held company not accustomed to answering questions, to explain a tragedy that farm worker advocates say was avoidable.

The death not only offers a peek into a hidden zone that produces nearly all of the nation's sweet table grapes, but it has underscored the hazards of what many here regard as one of the most brutal jobs in America. That father and son were here illegally and presented fake documents to the grower, Giumarra Vineyards, has only complicated the picture.

For the 21-year-old son, who sent his father's body back to Mexico to be buried and then returned to work last week in these same fields -- for the same grower -- the taste is a bitter one. Just after the stricken man collapsed, a Giumarra employee called 911 to request paramedics but was unable to provide the vineyard's location, county records show. As a result, no ambulance ever responded. He died in the car as his son tried frantically to reach a hospital.

"I watched my father die, and he didn't have to," Valdivia said. "Yes, I blame the grower, and each day I walk into that field the bitterness comes back." Valdivia said he tolerates his bitterness because he needs the job to survive here.

John Giumarra, the company's vice president, called the death a "super-aberration. We've been growing grapes for 75 years, and we've never had someone die in the fields. We have 4,000 workers harvesting for four months, and this just doesn't happen."

Giumarra acknowledged that the work was backbreaking, especially during the months of July and August when the temperature here can reach 110. "We give them a break in the morning and a break in the afternoon and half-hour lunch in between. We make ice water available right there. We do everything within our power to make sure the work environment is safe."

Farm workers succumbing to heatstroke in California may be unusual, but it isn't rare. In 2002, , three farm workers died of heatstroke, and in 1998, four fatalities were tied to the heat, state statistics show. But because state and federal monitoring of field-related deaths and illnesses is plagued by holes, government statisticians say the real numbers aren't known. No records, for instance, are kept in years when farm worker deaths from heatstroke number fewer than three.

But grape growers say that even the handful of heat-related deaths each year must be put into context. From June to November, more than 40,000 pickers and packers harvest 700,000 tons of table grapes -- red flames and green Thompsons and crimson seedless -- across 110,000 acres.

"When you consider that tens of thousands of employees work millions of hours each year preparing and harvesting California's fruit, nut and vegetable crops, the incidence of heat-related reactions is extremely low," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, a trade association that recently called on farmers to review procedures to safeguard against heatstroke.

But the United Farm Workers is demanding that growers do more, such as providing salt tablets to workers and training crew bosses to better recognize and treat heatstroke.

"Foremen and supervisors should be properly trained in identifying and treating symptoms and knowing when to call for help and where to send it," said Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president. "If that had happened when Asuncion Valdivia was stricken, he might not have died."

Growing up in the countryside of Jalisco, the younger Valdivia was not yet a teenager when he began plotting ways to get to the U.S. "It seemed like an adventure to me," he said last week, giving an account in Spanish inside a wooden shack in Pixley. "I just had to know the United States. I just had to come."

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