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Bottled water on Thanksgiving menu in tainted region

A Central Valley family shuns tap water except for bathing and gardening. They live in one of the many areas where the supply is contaminated by nitrates, arsenic or bacteria from agricultural runoff.

November 23, 2012|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Jessica Sanchez, left, and her sister Marabel, who is blind, live in East Orosi, Calif., where water quality is so poor that they drink bottled water. In the stroller is Jessica's son Jordan.
Jessica Sanchez, left, and her sister Marabel, who is blind, live in East… (Diana Marcum, Los Angeles…)

EAST OROSI, Calif. — This was to be the first year Jessica Sanchez was in charge of Thanksgiving dinner.

She began preparations Wednesday, crossing through her family's small kitchen to a bottled water dispenser in the living room and filling a pan to wash the turkey.

She couldn't use the tap water because East Orosi is one of many Central Valley farm communities where the supply is tainted — by nitrates, arsenic or bacteria traced to decades of agricultural runoff.

Jessica's mother, Bertha Diaz, makes about $7.50 an hour picking grapefruit and lemons in the winter, grapes and blackberries in the summer. The cost of the tap water they use for bathing and gardening, plus the bottled water for drinking and cooking, is about 30% of her income.

On Wednesday, Diaz left for work at 4:30 am. Later in the morning, as she picked lemons, she called 19-year-old Jessica to tell her to be sure to finish washing the turkey with a vinegar rinse.

Jessica said her mother has a certain way of doing everything: folding laundry, holding a baby, washing a turkey.  Sometimes the two squabble.

"We're way too much alike. My grandmother says we are on exactly the same plane, so we hit heads,"  Jessica said as she applied the vinegar.

The Sanchez family didn't always live in East Orosi.

Before Jessica's baby brother Mannie died, home had been in Orosi proper. In the town of 8,000, the water warnings come and go, depending on the level of chemicals from contaminated groundwater making it into wells.

Jessica's family lived there in a little house. They could see their neighbor's swimming pool through a hole in the fence. One day, when Mannie was 1 1/2 , he sneaked next door. Six-year-old Jessica found him floating dead in the pool.

The family moved. Three years later, sister Marabel went blind at the age of 13, a complication of diabetes. Multiple studies have linked poor drinking water to the disease.

In the 1970s, Tulare County released a report  identifying 15 "non-viable" communities, East Orosi among them, where it would be a waste of money to concentrate water and sewer resources. The reasoning was that the communities were made up of farmworkers, and mechanical harvesters would be replacing them soon.

By the time Jessica was in sixth grade, her mother had started holding community water meetings at their house.

One night Jessica's father, a Mexican farmworker, got a call from the lawyer working on his immigration papers, asking for a meeting.

"The next thing we got [was] a call saying he had been deported," Jessica said.

Last year, when she called her father in Michoacan, Mexico, to tell him she was pregnant, she broke down and asked him to forgive her for failing him.

"You're not the first girl this has happened to," she remembers him saying. "You have your family. You're not alone. You are one of the lucky ones."

She named her son Jordan. She wanted a "J" name. She didn't think until later that she had named him after sacred waters.

This Thanksgiving Day, Jessica woke to find her mother at home. The packinghouses were closed, so there was no picking.

Diaz said she was sad about losing out on the paycheck, but happy for some "rest" as she bustled around the kitchen making pork tamales — always walking over to the dispenser for water.

She sang a Mexican children's song about stirring chocolate. Jordan, now 7 months, clasped his hands and seemed to move them to the melody. Diaz and her four children laughed.

Jessica's idea for the 13-pound Butterball turkey was to heat up sugar until it was syrupy, then add the package of turkey seasoning and glaze.

But her mother got up first and ground spices in her molcajete and rubbed them on the turkey. The modest home, decorated with pictures of flowers and Jesus, filled with a sweet, spicy smell.

Jessica ground California chilies for the tamale sauce. As she worked, she talked about the Community Water Center, a coalition organization pushing for regional solutions.

From ages 12 to 17, the center was her second home. She overcame shyness and became one of its outspoken advocates.

Then she disappeared. She met a tall boy from Hanford, who she said got angry when she went to water meetings. After they broke up, she found out she was pregnant.

It wasn't until after Jordan was born that Jessica told Susana De Anda, her mentor and the water center's co-founder, why she had stopped volunteering.

"She told me: 'Life put you through a lot and it didn't stop you before. It won't stop you now,'" said Jessica, who dyes her hair the color of red wine and punctuates stories with expressive eyes.

Jessica returned to organizing neighbors and speaking at presentations. Last month she celebrated when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Human Rights to Water Bill, stating that "every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water."

It was Jessica who pushed for a Thanksgiving dinner.

"We won't go around the table and say things out loud or anything. But inside, in my own little world, I can say thank you that I'm alive. I'm still breathing. And for the gift of my son and the way my family loves him," Jessica said.

"I can say thank you for the food, and give a prayer for water."

diana.marcum@latimes.com

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