By David Bacon
New America Media, 3/18/10
TULARE, CA -- As the March for California's Future heads up the San Joaquin Valley towards Sacramento, participants are coming up hard against the reality of the economic crisis in rural California. The march began in Bakersfield, the day after widespread protests swept through the state's schools and universities on March 4. It is a protest against the impact of state budget cuts on education and social services, and marchers are finding that Valley communities are among those that feel their effects most strongly.
"Watsonville has a 27% unemployment rate," says Jenn Laskin, a teacher at Renaissance Continuation High School there. "It's the strawberry capital of the world, and strawberries are a luxury. In a recession, people stop buying them, so workers no longer have a job in the fields. I have many students who have both parents out of work, who grow food in our school garden for their families."
But in the Central Valley, she thinks, things seem worse. "The towns we've been passing through feel a lot more desolate," Laskin explains. Those include the small farm worker communities of Shafter, McFarland, Delano, Pixley and Tulare. "I see a lot of fields with nothing planted at all. I was in a Mexican restaurant in Pixley and there was not a Mexican in sight. The problems I see in Watsonville might even be sharper here. I see more need here, and I'm guessing probably fewer services."
She's not far off. The official unemployment rate in December in Kern County was 16%. Since Bakersfield, a major urban area, has a lower rate, towns like Shafter and McFarland have even more jobless. Crossing into Kings and Tulare Counties, unemployment jumps to over 17% in each.
The march's call to restore the promise of public education is the motivator keeping Laskin, and the march's other Watsonville participant, Emmanuelle Ballesteros, walking from one town to the next. As the youngest marcher at 21, Ballesteros says he's doing it especially for the youth and students of his community. "In Watsonville they're overcrowding classes," he charges. "Fewer classes, with more students, discourage youth because they need the help. Now there's none."
Ballesteros suffered from that himself. "He was pushed out of the system," Laskin charges. "I feel like Manny is the reason we're marching. He is a child of immigrants, with as much right to the California dream as anybody. He gives credibility to this march."
In Delano the marchers saw the four prisons that have replaced farm labor as the community's major source of employment. Seeing watchtowers and walls topped by razor wire brought the contradictions home for Ballesteros. "Delano and Watsonville are puro Latino," he explains. "The families are poor, doing farm labor. Now they're building more prisons in California than schools, and there are more Blacks and Mexicans inside those prisons. For young people like me, instead of being able to get a job, and achieving our goals, they tell you, 'You're not going to make it.'"
What Ballesteros sees as he walks makes him angry. "But I'm turning it into something positive. This march might make a little bit of change here."
Laskin says education cuts have reduced the number of school nurses in Watsonville to seven, for 19,000 students, and eliminated school psychologists and counselors, music and art. "Sports have become pay to play," she says, "which means that students who are talented and don't have the money lose the opportunity." Next year K-2 classes will have 28 students. "One child in kindergarten told me, 'we can't even fit on the rug anymore.'"
The legal limit of 20 students for K-3 grade classes was modified in the legislature's recent budget deals. "In our district, it's cheaper to raise the class size and pay the penalty than to keep class sizes small," she laments. "And combined with the emphasis on test scores, it all affects children's ability to learn. We have second grade students who don't even know how to use scissors, because they've been taught to the test. They can bubble in letters and numbers, but they can't cut a circle in a piece of paper."
In the San Joaquin Valley Laskin sees the same crisis. "We've talked with many teachers who have received pink slips," she says. "I spoke with one teacher who worked three jobs to put herself through school. She's in her second year, which means that on the first day of next year she'd have tenure and couldn't be laid off. So she's being laid off this year. Her family's lived in McFarland for five generations, and her father has been a custodian for the district there for 23 years. Without a job there won't be anything to keep her in the community where she grew up. The closest place to look for work is Bakersfield, where they just issued 200 pink slips, and many highly qualified teachers are fighting for the same job."
The march's goals include rebuilding a government and economy that works for all Californians, and enacting a fair tax system to fund it. After marchers had been walking for a week, they spent a day in front of Loews Hardware, the 99¢ Store and Wal-Mart in Tulare. There they asked people to sign petitions to qualify a ballot initiative that would remove the requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget.
Even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both the State Senate and the Assembly, a solid Republican block can prevent a vote to adopt a budget until legislators agree to slash spending. Cuts in spending produce pink slips for teachers, and fewer social services. Small San Joaquin Valley towns are among those electing politicians who demand budget cuts and oppose tax increases, which also require a two-thirds majority.
Dozens of the workers who care for aged and sick family members in the towns along the route are walking too. One of them, Doug Moore, heads United Domestic Workers Local 3930. "The budget cuts on the table in Sacramento could even lead to the elimination of home care itself," he says. "Statewide there are 127,000 nursing home beds, but only 20,000 available. So where are people going to go? And what will happen to the jobs of those who care for them?"
Nevertheless, "many people are not making the connection that legislators elected here in the Valley are among those using the two-thirds requirement to slash services," Laskin charges. "It's a long conversation. This whole system was put into place so that the average person can't understand what's going on." The march creates opportunities to talk with people - part of an education process she believes is needed.
Town hall meetings are planned in three larger towns on the route. And as they go, marchers are registering voters, getting petitions signed, and collecting people's ideas on little yellow 'I Have a Dream for California' cards. "We'll be delivering thousands of them to Sacramento when we arrive on the steps of the capitol," Laskin predicts. That's set to happen April 21. "I think it was right to choose the Central Valley for this march."
MY WHEELCHAIR CAN'T HOLD ME BACK, BUT BUDGET CUTS CAN
By Maria Salgado, as told to David Bacon
New America Media, 3/18/10
The March for California's Future began in Bakersfield, where hundreds of teachers and education activists rallied to condemn the impact of budget cuts and fee increases on students. As the march now winds it way up California's San Joaquin Valley, Maria Salgado, an immigrant student in Bakersfield, told her story to David Bacon of the way fee increases are denying her the education she's struggled for years to get.
I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a family of 11. To survive, all of us had to help grow corn and beans, and take care of goats and cows. There was not enough money to continue with our education, so all nine children only finished the sixth grade. We just learned to read and write. Those economic hardships meant that I could not continue my education there.
In 1998, when I was seventeen, I came to this country with my younger sister, looking for a better future. I began by working in a Mexican restaurant, but after two months I had a car accident on our way home from a picnic that left me paraplegic. With no education or other work skills, I stayed home for a year, reflecting on what to do with my life. I did not speak any English, so I decided to go back to school.
I started taking English as a Second Language classes at the Bakersfield Adult School. To get to school, I rode two buses. I had to take morning and evening classes to get the 200 credits required for a diploma. The outcome - a 4.00 GPA. On June 6, 2003, I received my high school diploma with honors, and was one of three guest speakers. Then I volunteered as a math tutor to help other students. At the same time, I also took classes for a receptionist certificate, so that I could begin to support myself.
At first, it was very difficult being a full-time student, but I always tried to be positive and committed. I have physical disabilities and am confined to a wheelchair, but I will not let it be an obstacle to achieving a higher education.
Then in August 2003 I started attending Bakersfield College. I managed to borrow or buy used books to keep up with assignments. It took five years, but I took all the classes needed for an Associate of Arts degree in mathematics and business administration. The math department even made me a Department Award Recipient, and recognized me for outstanding student achievement in mathematics. It is challenging to reach a high GPA, but with dedication and perseverance I earned a 3.39.
After graduating, I got to share my passion for math by helping others to become successful at it also. In the summer of 2008, I volunteered as a math tutor at the Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) program at Bakersfield College.
I believe it is very important to do community service because giving is an excellent opportunity to understand other people's needs. This is why I have volunteered in the Saint Joseph Church youth group since 2000 and as a catechist since 2004. I give at least six hours a week to both activities. That's also why I became a volunteer for the Unidad Popular Benito Juarez (UPBJ) Organization. I am now its secretary. Our mission is to educate and protect Oaxacan indigenous people in California. We also organize events to preserve our indigenous culture.
On February a year ago I was admitted to Cal State University in Bakersfield. I've been living in California for more than a decade, but I still don't qualify for any type of financial aid. This has been true for my whole academic career, but once again, I have to overcome this obstacle. Graduating from CSUB is one of the last steps to achieve my goal - to become a math professor at an adult school. With a bachelor's degree in mathematics, I will be the first in my family to achieve a higher education. As a math teacher, I plan to encourage others to improve their academic skills, and become professionals to improve the quality of life for their families.
I'm proud of my achievements, and my contributions to my community. I'm glad I went back to school to bring my dreams closer to reality. But now they seem in danger because of the pressure of education cuts and the lack of immigration reform.
I still haven't been able to raise the funds to pay for tuition and books at CSUB, so I'm not going to school this winter. Tuition has become extremely high, and I can't afford it. Each quarter I must pay at least $1,700 tuition as a full time student. Books are also expensive and transportation is an issue too.
My parents still live in Oaxaca, and I live with my older brother. My dad has always been a farmer in our hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico, and because of him my brother learned to love farm work. He started working in California as a field worker. Now he's a foreman, and works really hard to support us. His wife works in a factory, where she makes minimum wage.
They have been like my parents here in Bakersfield, and I have lived with them since I came here. But they have five children, so it's hard to pay for school supplies and tuition. Two of his sons already graduated from CSUB, and two of his daughters are still attending school. My brother makes enough money to give us all a home and food. He's worked very hard to help all of us with our education. But now he can't pay for our tuition.
A group of friends from Bakersfield College and CSUB are trying to raise money to pay for it. Before Christmas we had our first fund raiser, a tamale sale. To all of us it's very important to continue our education, and we're trying to plan our next event. As an immigrant, I have to pay higher tuition, and I get no financial aid. So we are also working to get Congress to pass immigration reform, to make sure all people are treated equally. If Congress passes a real immigration reform, we can help the economy grow and share our academic skills. Each one of us wants to provide service to our community, and to keep growing as an individual.
If the budget cuts stop and tuition costs go down, and if we can get immigration reform and equal treatment, we will make a contribution that will make our whole community proud.
For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org
For a Press TV interview about racism, globalization and illegality, see http://www.presstv.com/programs/detail.aspx?sectionid=3510529&id=112065#112065
See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008
See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)
See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories
Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Jr.
Department of Ethnic Studies
"Life is struggle and struggle is life,
but be mindful that Victory is in the Struggle"
- Carlos Muñoz, Jr.