SACRAMENTO — Imagine a place where people turn on their faucets and the pipes spit out contaminated water. Or the air pollution is so thick that it causes asthma. A place where the top grossing industry pays its workers wages so low that many struggled to survive.
For many living in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, they don’t have to imagine. It’s the crushing reality they face every day — and policy makers and state advocates are beginning to notice.
Organized by The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents — hundreds of them from Kern County — rose early, loaded onto buses and took the long ride to the state capitol in Sacramento Thursday, demanding lawmakers begin passing policies that improve health outcomes in their communities.
The point of the rally, advocates said, was to tell the often ignored stories of those living in the San Joaquin Valley.
They shared stories of the migrant field-hands who work the land and are responsible for the record profits of Kern County’s agricultural companies, but return home without enough money to put food on their own tables; stories of families living in rural agricultural communities that have been dusted with dangerous pesticides, sickening children; and tale after tale of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, living in fear of deportation.
“Everybody wants things to change,” Sierra Health Foundation CEO Chet Hewitt said before a policy briefing Thursday at the state capitol. "The things we're asking for are not utopian. We want clean drinking water, clean air, sidewalks and parks. Things that are achievable."
The foundation, which has partnered with 72 organizers in nine counties, developed a policy platform this year that emphasizes immigration, health, education, the environment and land-use planning.
But the rally was just as much about sharing stories from the San Joaquin Valley as it was a rejection of Trump Administration policies.
The San Joaquin Valley Health Fund’s legislative platforms have never been so important as they are amid this political climate, State Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said.
“These are very historic times in our nation. They are very dangerous times as well,” de Leon said, referencing Donald Trump’s victory as an “electoral aberration”
People living in the San Joaquin Valley have much to lose, de Leon and State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, said.
As perilous of times these are, de Leon said, they’re also exciting “because this is when we break down those barriers and walls and realize how much more we have in common with each other.”
San Joaquin Valley residents — the majority of whom are enrolled in Medi-Cal under the Affordable Care Act — should not lose access to quality healthcare, or have an emergency department as their first point of access, de Leon said.
Hernandez, a doctor by trade, chalks that up to what he describes as a two-tiered healthcare system in the country.
“We have one for wealthy people who can afford healthcare, and one for poor people who don’t have access,” Hernandez said, decrying the social injustice and lack of equality in the region.
He was shocked to tour the valley and visit a woman who turned on her faucet to have contaminated water sputter out of the pipes.
“She has to pay for water that comes into her home and that is contaminated, and she not only has to pay for that water, but the bottled water she drinks,” Hernandez said, describing it as a “third world condition.”
“This is unheard of. We should be yelling from the mountain top because no other country would allow its citizens to have unsafe contaminated drinking water — and it’s in the San Joaquin Valley,” Hernandez said.
If lawmakers hadn’t heard concerns from the valley before, they did Thursday when residents from Kern County trekked to the capitol and spoke on a smattering of issues ranging from insecurities felt in the LGBTQ community to environmental issues.
Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who boarded a bus at 3 a.m. from downtown Bakersfield with other community advocates, said that the power in bringing constituents to the state capitol forces lawmakers to realize the importance of their roles.
“It’s important for state officials to see ordinary people from the poorest parts of California — from Weedpatch, Lamont, Arvin — people represented here,” she said, gesturing in the bus toward the fieldhands, community advocates and people who live in those rural towns surrounding her.
They’re the same towns that suffer the most from pesticide drifts and oversprays — especially when it comes to Chlorpyrifos, a toxic chemical the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump Administration lifted protective regulations on, Eriberto Fernandez, an organizer with the United Farm Worker Foundation, said.
Just weeks after regulations were lifted, Kern County experienced an overspray, sickening a group of farmworkers south of Bakersfield.
At the Equity on the Mall rally, before policymakers and community members, Fernandez made himself clear: “Ban Chlorpyrifos. We’re calling on California to take the lead banning this pesticide once and for all if the federal EPA refuses.”
Meanwhile, Valerie Gorospe, an organizer in Delano with The Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, took aim at poor air quality.
“We know where the pollution comes from. It comes from oil and ag production and hazardous waste facilities,” Gorospe said, sharing that her daughter attends elementary school across the street from grape vineyards and almond trees constantly sprayed with pesticides. She fears a Chlorpyrifos overspray.
“If farmworker adults are getting sick from pesticides, what’s happening to our children?” Gorospe asked.
Yet she knows that getting the pesticide regulated or banned could be an uphill battle.
“Ag interests are so powerful economically and politically,” Gorospe said. “Especially in Kern County.”