I felt a combination of nausea and heartache when Biden approved the Willow Project earlier this week. A day later, it wasn’t even on the front page, subsumed by banking fiascos and downed drones. But it was the news of a levee breaking in Pajaro, CA, inundating the small farm community, that focused my sadness and heartache.
I was born in Watsonville and grew up very near Pajaro (which means ‘bird’ in Spanish), an area renowned for its agriculture. Apples and strawberries and artichokes and more. During the harvest, thousands of migrant workers are employed to pick the crops. Some of them became residents, others lived in makeshift shanties on the edge of town.
Our school district was called the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, but the ‘unified’ wasn’t a completely accurate term. There was an unspoken racial and class divide between many of the schools, with most of the Hispanic children going to one school, most of the whites to another. Racism was casual and implicit, even among the teachers.
A handful of my grades school classmates — Aurelio and Maria and Carmen — were children of migrant farm workers who spoke very little English, if any. They were pretty much on their own when it came to learning the language. One shy (and likely terrorized) girl didn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom and peed in her seat. After an earthquake or heavy rain, some kids would simply disappear from the school. It was understood that they had moved away. It didn’t occur to us that they were displaced.
Decades later, it seems little has changed. When the levee broke last weekend, nearly 2000 people, many of them farm workers, had to leave their homes in the night. It turns out, officials have known the Pajaro levee needed repair for some time,1 but because it was a low-income area, it wasn’t prioritized.
The same morning the Pajaro River was starting to seep through the levee, I was on a field trip to Coyote Hills Regional Park with my classmates in the Master Bird Program I’m taking this year. While chatting with a classmate about bird sightings, it came up that I’d grown up in Corralitos, where I recalled seeing American Dippers in our creek (a creek which eventually feeds into the Pajaro River).
“Wow, how idyllic,” he opined. And I thought, yes, for me, in many ways, it was. But I doubt Carmen or Maria would say the same.
Some ways to help Pajaro from afar:
Donate to Center for Farmworker Families HERE
Donate to Santa Cruz Co Disaster Relief Funds HERE
Understand and help combat social injustice: 15 Ways to Advance Social Justice
“To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” — bell hooks