Hidden in the Ashes: Migrant Farmworkers Are Invisible During California Wildfires

Migrant farmworkers in Santa Maria, California, need to wear masks at work to protect themselves from the smoke of the fires. Photo credit: Yahir Mena, MICOP-Mixteco-Indigena Organizing Project, Oxnard- Ventura County
  Date: Friday, December 29, 2017
By Konane M. Martínez, Associate Professor of Anthropology, California State University San Marcos

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Migrant farmworkers in California contribute to an economically profitable agricultural system. Yet they are among the most vulnerable communities. Most migrant farmworkers are members of the working poor with limited to no access to health care. Anti-immigrant sentiment partnered with racism make life for migrants in the State difficult at best. Migrant vulnerabilities are amplified during times of disasters and their risk of experiencing negative consequences are disproportionately higher.


When the wildfires broke out throughout the state of California, I immediately thought about migrant workers and their families and how they are faring through the emergency.


My experience during the 2007 wildfires taught me that crises like these usually affect the migrant community disproportionately as they tend to not have access to information, resources or support in times of disaster.


Ventura County on fire. Wildfires broke out throughout the State of California since early October 2017  


I can almost predict how news media will cover a disaster like wildfires in California ahead of time. First, reports will focus on what houses are burning and how much they are worth, how resilient evacuees are, and how close the community has become in the face of adversity. Human interest stories gathered at local evacuation shelters will be followed by a huge interest in the fate of pets and horses in the wake of disaster.

Coverage of the recent Lilac Fire that began here in San Diego California is of no exception. The abrupt evacuation and unfortunate death of several thoroughbred horses from a local ranch received ample news coverage nationally. The news was devastating, but I find the way media overlooks groups of humans, like migrants, in times of disaster very disheartening and frustrating.

Most of the information I have about issues faced by migrant farmworkers during wildfires across the State of California over the past three months have been provided via the social media channels of community based organizations and activists within local communities. These reports are similar to those that I heard 10 years ago: migrant farmworkers continue to work in evacuated zones, often without access to face masks, because they are afraid to lose pay and employment. Migrants only receive evacuation information in English and don’t know where the nearest shelter is. Many migrants choose not to evacuate for fear of being deported by Immigration Services. Police presence near and inside shelters can also intimidate migrants, who fear police cooperation with immigration services. After the flames dwindle, migrants often lose work, possibly their home, and struggle to make ends meet. Already strained financially, this community finds themselves even more disenfranchised.


Santa Maria, California. Despite the smoke, migrant farmworkers continue with their work in the fields. © Yahir Mena, MICOP-Mixteco-Indigena Organizing Project, Oxnard-Ventura County.


For the past 10 years, our coalition, the Farmworker CARE Coalition (FWCC) has been working to establish a system by which we can respond to wildfires more effectively while being able to partner productively with first responders, the local office of emergency services and the American Red Cross. When the Lilac fire in San Diego started two weeks ago, our coalition leadership were quick to act, organize and reach out to our contacts at the American Red Cross and the Office of Emergency Services. The coalition also worked to communicate with the community leaders from the migrant farmworker networks we have been collaborating with for close to 15 years. Volunteers from the coalition and other networks of activists immediately jumped into action, helping to evacuate migrants without vehicles, gathering masks to distribute at farm work sites, and volunteering at the local shelter to help with Spanish-English interpretation and to monitor civil rights of migrant evacuees.


Community based organizations that work with migrants are the groups that get involved to make sure that the community receives attention and information so direly needed during a wild fire.


While the fire here in San Diego County is now fully contained, the Thomas fire continues to burn north of Los Angeles in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The fire has burned 272,000 acres. The Mixteco-Indígena Organizing Project (MICOP) based in Oxnard California have mobilized to assist local migrant families. The organization is currently passing out masks to migrant farmworkers that continue to work amid the smoke and dangerous air caused by the fire. Children in local schools are currently home, a challenge for working families. Loss of work means that migrants are challenged financially to meet rent obligations and feeding their families.

As the fires in California have demonstrated, it is vitally important that local governments, relief agencies and first responders recognize that organizations and activists which work with migrants on a day-to-day basis can be vital allies in times of disaster. In order to partner with these groups, however, it is important to start before disaster strikes so that the relationships and efficient systems are in place.

The California wildfires have once again reminded the disaster preparedness and recovery community that it is of vital importance to involve community based organizations who are best able to assist migrant farmworkers in times of disaster.


In San Diego, our coalition has been successful in ensuring that migrants are on the radar of first responders and local emergency and relief agencies.


This awareness only comes with the creation of collaborative partnerships between these agencies and the community based organizations that work directly with migrants daily. Of critical importance to our work is maintaining an up-to-date plan and maintain the relationship with the disaster preparedness agencies we have partnered with. It is of utmost importance that these disaster agencies institutionalize and make formal their partnerships with community based organizations, or attempts to cooperate during disasters will be largely ineffective.


Konane M. Martínez has 18 years of experience working with Latino migrant farmworker communities. Her areas of expertise include immigrant health-care access and use, disaster preparedness, cultural competency in health care and transnational migration. Dr Martínez was the founding chair of the Farmworker CARE Coalition and author of the first disaster preparedness plan for migrant farmworkers in the United States.  She is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair, Anthropology Department, California State University San Marcos. Contact: kmartine@csusm.edu