Single Fresno County mom describes struggle as unemployed farmworker
Carolina Navarro is out of work, hasn’t paid rent in three months, and has been watching her utility bills slowly pile up.
But, on a recent Thursday afternoon, the 34-year-old single mother was mostly worried about the chewed-up pencils on her kitchen table.
“More than work or money, it’s the emotional health of my children that brings me sorrow,” Navarro said in Spanish during an interview at her home in rural Fresno County.
“My 6-year-old son loves school. He loves reading,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “But he’s biting his pencils until he breaks them.”
Navarro asked to be identified by her mother’s maiden name because she feared possible repercussions for her family.
Navarro believes her son, Cesar, is suffering anxiety brought on by a year in isolation. Their financial distress, immigration status, and her son’s other health issues are only making it worse.
Navarro’s situation isn’t unique — on average, one in eight Californians have been late on rent during the pandemic, and the majority of them are single mothers. But as an undocumented immigrant, she has been ineligible for most government relief efforts, and as a farmworker, she has been disproportionately devastated by a lack of worker protections and availability of work.
A recent study on the toll of COVID-19 on farmworkers found seven of every 10 farmworkers struggle to pay for food, while 63% reported difficulty paying rent during the pandemic.
In late November, Navarro lost all sources of income.
Her son came down with COVID-19 after staying with his uncle while his mother worked the fields at a nearby ranch. His illness worried Navarro because he also has a chronic heart condition. He had open-heart surgery when he was born and several surgeries after that. The valve that pumps blood into his body is now closing up, and he needs surgery.
His cough, fevers, and headaches lasted about a month. Carolina and her daughter caught the virus from him, too.
Sick and quarantined, Navarro stopped showing up for work, which, on a good week, would bring in a couple hundred dollars. She soon fell behind on rent, gas, and electricity and could barely afford food.
Navarro also failed to drop off her paperwork for limited government assistance available to undocumented immigrants through CalWORKS. In March, after visiting the county office in person, she recovered that assistance.
The slow winter season has dried up the work she could have returned to in January. Her labor contractor, who typically hires about 20 workers each week, only needs about five people these days, she said. She hopes to go back in April when the harvest season picks back up.
“That’s one more month of not paying my rent, one more month I owe the landlady, one more month of light and gas and water,” she said.
The owners of the old trailer Navarro and her kids call home are farmworkers themselves and have known her for over a decade. That’s why they haven’t given her an eviction notice for failing to pay $575 in monthly rent since December, she said. The owners declined to be interviewed for this story.
Limited COVID-19 relief for undocumented immigrants
Navarro applied for COVID-19 relief through Proteus, one of the few nonprofit organizations in the area authorized to distribute CARES Act funding to farmworkers, regardless of immigration status. But she remains on the waiting list, as there isn’t enough to go around.
Candelaria Caro-Hernandez, service center manager at the Proteus Kerman location, said nearly 600 farmworkers had applied for assistance related to COVID-19 losses. To date, her office has received about $335,000 to distribute, and the money has almost dried up. About 400 people had been served so far — but only in part.
“Some of them owe three months in rent,” she said. “Some get the three months, but a lot of them break my heart. They say, ‘I need this, but I only really need food and propane.’”
Armando Valdez, director of Fresno nonprofit Community Center for Arts & Technology, said the vast majority of rural undocumented families he works with have also been unsuccessful in attaining COVID-19 relief through similar community-based organizations.
“Most people have told me the same thing: ‘They take down all our information, and we never hear from them again,’” he said. “They’re discouraged.”
Valdez has been dropping off pantry goods for Navarro’s family. They have also been getting by with free school meals and Pandemic EBT, federal food program.
Caro-Hernandez said many landlords in west Fresno County have been understanding during the pandemic. She has yet to see an eviction notice from one of the farmworker families she assists, which she said might be due to the eviction moratorium over nonpayment of rent.
“I think it’s because no one has control of this, and even the landlords themselves have been affected,” Caro-Hernandez said.
However, given the shortage of available aid, Valdez said he expects to see a wave of evictions for undocumented farmworkers this summer, when eviction protections expire.
“How will they help these people stay off the streets?” he asked.
Sometimes, Navarro said, she wishes she could go back home to her family in Durango, Mexico. But she can’t, she explained, because her son needs the medical specialists and care that can only be afforded here.
“I stay because of my kids,” she said.
This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.