Eloy Ortiz, special-projects manager for Regeneración Pajaro Valley Climate Action, has tried to help farmworkers and others in Pajaro recover after disastrous flooding forced thousands to evacuate and left a yet-unknown number of people and families homeless. He recently walked through Pajaro, talking to people and trying to assess their needs. Here, he recreates that walk for us and helps us see the need, the disenfranchisement and the disconnect in aid. “Farmworkers are humble and don’t advocate for themselves and that’s why we at Regeneración do the work,” he writes.
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I am the special-projects manager for Regeneración Pajaro Valley Climate Action, a unique climate justice organization based in Watsonville. Although we are not a disaster-aid or direct-aid-focused organization, we’ve spent the past three weeks trying to support the people of Pajaro after the devastating storms that broke the levee and caused massive flooding and evacuations.
I also volunteer for the Center for Farmworker Families, so I have a lot of experience working with and advocating for farmworkers from both Pajaro and Watsonville.
Most of the people affected by the storms and flooding in Pajaro are farmworkers. The town is 91% Latinx, 74% of homes are renter-occupied, and 39% of residents did not complete a high school degree. Most residents were already barely getting by. Some lost everything they had worked decades to establish.
The Pajaro flooding exemplifies exactly the kind of disaster expected in a warming world, where a disinvested population with a low carbon footprint pays the price for the unsustainable lifestyles of the wealthy.
About a week ago, Regeneración Executive Director Nancy Faulstich and I walked over to Pajaro to talk to people and give them an opportunity to talk about their feelings and their frustrations. Dressed in our light green Regeneración shirts and armed with clipboards, we started the mile-long walk from our office to the evacuee distribution center at Pajaro Middle School.
Immediately after crossing the bridge to Pajaro, we saw the red “warning” sign. It covers the “Welcome to Pajaro” sign. It felt like we entered another world because even here, debris and mud were everywhere. The gutted contents of businesses were on full display on Porter Drive.
Monterey County has set up “water centers” with washing machines, toilets and showers. It’s of course helpful, but for a while, as the rain kept coming and the mud wasn’t drying up, it felt hopeless to try to clean the town.
People in Pajaro are trying to put together their lives. They are surrounded by the sight of debris on the streets, the smell of sewage, mud and mildew. As we walked, it enveloped us.
During our walk, we neared Our Lady of Assumption church, where people were forming a line near a porta potty. They saw us with our clipboards and made eye contact with me, so I asked, “Why are you here? What are you waiting for?”
A mother replied, “food,” which confused me because the food distribution is taking place at Pajaro Middle School. Another person asked me if I knew why people were in line and I explained that hot food will be served at Pajaro Middle School at 4 p.m. So the people went there.
In our matching T-shirts and clipboards, we must have looked official, because a person from the nonprofit Celebration Nation asked us where to set up distribution of a van full of goods. I looked around and there was nowhere to set up. No one to ask. The church parking lot was closed off.
Pajaro was congested. People were working furiously to clear out homes. There was no parking on Salinas Road or on side streets. Cars were parked at red curbs with no drivers in sight.
This chaos felt emblematic of everything that had been going on for the past few weeks in Watsonville — there were people who wanted to help and a lot of people and organizations from around the area ready, but there was such a lack of coordination and space despite the best efforts of everyone involved.
Part of that is due to the flooding, but a lot of it is due to disinvestment over time.
We finally got to the middle school, where about 120 people were lined up. County officials have been efficient at enacting their usual processes for getting information to the public. But, those usual processes aren’t working quickly here. Officials are asking people to download the Monterey County emergency services app to their phones to get information, but this is a word-of-mouth population. People are frustrated and tired. They don’t trust authorities. Some don’t know how or want to download an app.
We have to engage the leaders of the community to get the word of mouth out. That is how to get information to spread. To build trust.
We started talking to people who were in line for hot food. The first person I talked to was a middle-aged guy wearing a Vans hat and a puffy jacket. He told me he and his family are doing OK, that they have a second-floor apartment that had suffered minimal damage, but the family had lost his car. He pulled out his phone and showed me photos of the car full of mud. I didn’t ask to see the photos, but it seemed like he needed to show them.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s lost something — even when it’s “just” a car. People here don’t have a lot of economic resources, and losing a car is a huge blow in an area with limited public transportation options.
I talked to another man wearing a black Nautica hoodie and jeans. He was missing a lot of teeth, but had a sharp haircut. He owns a local auto shop. I asked him how he was doing and he told me the people in Pajaro have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin and their lack of English.The people in Pajaro, he says, are humble, and they don’t always speak up for themselves — and they’re taken advantage of.
I agree with him.
I have found most farmworkers are humble and don’t advocate for themselves, and that’s why we at Regeneración do the work.
Residents also often live in fear because of their legal status, and they won’t advocate for themselves. But we will advocate for them.
That’s why I’m writing this piece.
On our way back to Watsonville, we saw that a lot of people who were lined up at the church had moved to the middle school. “Why? I asked.
They didn’t know. They were told to leave.
I saw a line of people on the sidewalk and I asked them what they were waiting for. They, too, didn’t know. Celebration Nation was still trying to figure out where to distribute supplies to people.
Again, chaos. No order. Walking back, I ended up stepping in mud — which is kind of emblematic of this whole situation.
As we were leaving, I stopped to talk to a mother and her family cleaning out their mud-filled store. We asked her if she had received any assistance. “No,” she said. No help from the county or the state or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet, but she has been getting calls from loan companies.
Her daughter told me her parents are in their 70s and not looking to take out any loans. She didn’t know what they were going to do.
That’s the situation with a lot of the people in Pajaro. It’s not only the farmworkers. It’s the teachers, nurses, mechanics, business owners.
The County of Monterey has cleaned the streets of a lot of debris in the week since we took our walk. But for a lot of people, everything is still up in the air — jobs, homes, belongings, way of life.
A lot of people still don’t know what they’re going to do.
Many homes will be uninhabitable in an area with already limited housing, in one of the most expensive places to live in the country. The Pajaro water system needs to be repaired before people in undamaged homes can return.
So what are the people of Pajaro going to do?
President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Monterey County, but unless there is a policy change, FEMA is limited to helping legal residents and families with a child who is a legal resident. That will leave a lot of residents without any legal assistance. Nonprofits in both Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are trying to provide resources, but we’re all maxed out.
We need towns like Pajaro in this country. But we are not acting like it.
The entire country depends on marginalized towns like this to keep our food prices low. We owe them help and support.
If Pajaro does not exist, what are we going to do?
Eloy Ortiz is the special projects manager for Regeneración Pajaro Valley Climate Action. Raised in East San Jose, Eloy has an undergraduate degree from UC Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from UC Irvine. Prior to joining Regeneración, he worked on developing, implementing and evaluating National Science Foundation STEM programs in local school districts. At Regeneración, Eloy will be managing the Transformative Climate Communities Planning Grant, a two-year process incorporating community leaders and residents’ views about needed climate action projects in the Pajaro Valley. Eloy also serves on the board of the Center for Farmworker Families. He lives in Scotts Valley with his wife, Nichole.