1936 PVFT Local Delegate Pamela Beth Sexton, an adult education teacher, talks about the impact of the dam breach on the immigrant farm worker community, systemic racism, and the role these farm workers play in our economy.
Pajaro Valley Teachers Federation member Pamela Beth Sexton is an adult education teacher for the residents of Pajaro, which was flooded by a dam collapse. She talked about systemic racism and the work she and other teachers are doing to support this community.
She was. delegate to the 2023 California Federation of Teachers convention.
The interview was taken on 03/17/23.
Production of a labor video project
How a long history of racism and neglect set the stage for the Pajaro flood
SUZANNE RAST, RUBEN VIVES
MARCH 20, 2023 5:00 AM PT
PAHARO, California. Thirty-five-year-old Maria Martinez began to feel sick when she and her son crossed a bridge over the Pajaro River in Watsonville, Santa Cruz County.
Their home in Monterey County’s Pajaro community was flooded after a dam collapsed during a severe storm on March 10. Within hours, the streets, homes and businesses of this largely Hispanic city of 3,000 were several feet under water.
As Martinez crossed the road, she saw two National Guard Humvees, several fire department vehicles, a couple of sheriff’s cruisers, and a security truck blocking traffic from entering the flood zone, an area she and many others chose not to evacuate.
“It looks like a border,” she said. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
Prior to the catastrophic flood, officials knew that the dam on the Paharo River was about to collapse, but took no action.
The people of Pajaro, who were forbidden to return to their homes to collect their belongings and supplies, were worried. The fact that the dams broke on the riverbank in Monterey County and not in Watsonville added to their frustration.
According to them, it was as if history was repeating itself—once again.
There is no suggestion that the breach was intentional or that the levees were built in such a way as to make the Monterey County side more vulnerable.
But since California’s county lines were drawn in the late 1840s, dividing the Pajaro River valley in half, the unincorporated city of Pajaro has been largely ignored by state and local authorities.
The flooding has drawn attention to decades of inequality in this agricultural region, where migrant agricultural workers have long been marginalized. Runoff from record storms has left large areas of low-income and mostly immigrant communities several feet underwater and has faced a lengthy recovery.
Officials have known for a long time that the dam could collapse, but repairs have been delayed with long delays. Last week, an official told The Times that the improvement project didn’t materialize in part because “it’s a low-income area. Mostly laborers live there.
Rains have been hitting California for months, and more to come. Models point to another atmospheric river, the state’s 12th wet season.
Some locals say the score is part of a larger reality.
Such neglect, according to Sandy Lydon, a retired history professor at Cabrillo College, is a legacy of a racist border dispute that has turned this small cluster of homes into an unincorporated backwater.
“Pajaro became a kind of Siberia of Monterey County,” and Watsonville’s “fief,” he said, “a place to house farm workers. “Let’s be honest about this. Cities that have a lot of agricultural workers don’t want them to live downtown.”
Lydon said that while current Monterey County officials have made efforts to better include the city in their decisions, and Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged support during a recent trip to the flooded village, “Historically, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has never paid attention to Pajaro.” And that was on purpose.”
The assessment resonates with Luis Alejo, president of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, who said he was only the third Hispanic to be elected as a supervisor.
“Right? In a neighborhood where 70% of the population is colored?” he said, “There is a deep history of marginalization.”
It all started, Lydon said, when the state was formed and the boundaries of the counties were determined. The California Border Committee was headed by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a former military governor of the Free State of Alta California, a major landowner in the region and a member of a noble Mexican family.
“Now Vallejo was a dude,” Lydon said. “He probably knew the status of what was to become the state of California better than anyone else.”
Part of his role was to draw county lines and select county locations—the places where courts and law enforcement would be based.
Vallejo’s first strike in Monterey County, where he was born, extended south “almost to San Luis Obispo” and then north to “what his map should be San Francisco,” Lydon said. Inland, the border included all the valleys of the Salinas and Pajaro rivers.
According to Lydon, the seat was Monterey, which “was a Mexican city”.
But white powerhouses in the north, in what is now Santa Cruz County, fought back.
“They didn’t want to go to court in Monterey because they knew there would be land rights, there would be a lot of disputes, and they felt more comfortable if they could go to court where… they would be tried. a jury of their peers. No, frankly, not Mexicans,” Lydon said.
Their proposed boundary extended south to Las Lomas, small hills fringing the southern edge of the Pajaro River valley.
When the boundary committee finished its work, the county line was drawn through the center of the valley.
Why and how the decision was made is unclear, Lydon said; minutes were not taken. But he suspects that a compromise was probably reached between white Americans in Santa Cruz and Vallejo, who had family land – “Casa Materna” – in the southern part of the Pajaro River valley.
Vallejo, Lydon said, probably wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of fighting his land claim in a Santa Cruz County court.
As dams on the Paharo River fail, officials are considering closing Highway 1 to relieve the pressure.
On February 18, 1850, the counties were created, dividing the Pajaro River valley in half. According to Lydon, this decision has led to “nothing but trouble” since then.
He said that Watsonville and Paharo, located on the borders of their counties, became “orphans” and were “politically treated like colonies.”
“Over time, what happened was that the Pajaro side … became where the farm workers lived,” he said, starting in the 1880s, when workers living in Watsonville moved across the river amid anti-Chinese sentiment in Santa Cruz. .
The community, unencumbered by the laws and sensibilities of Victorian Watsonville and ignored by Monterey County, soon became a safety valve for Watsonville, providing entertainment in the form of gambling, opium, and prostitution to a predominantly male population.
Lydon said that after the Chinese were pushed out under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration, Japanese workers moved in, followed by Filipinos.
Alejo, the county chief, pointed to the 1930 Watsonville riots when mobs of up to 500 white people roamed Watsonville, Pajaro and other nearby towns and farms attacking Filipino farm workers and their property after Filipino men were seen dancing with whites women to the local dance hall.
“We have our own history here,” he said.
But it was the Bracero program of the 1940s—an agreement between the United States and Mexico that allowed Mexican workers to move north—that ensured a permanent presence of workers in the region.
“All this time, Monterey County didn’t fix the streets, they didn’t do plumbing, they didn’t do anything in Pajaro. There was no infrastructure,” he said, noting that walking around the city is still evidence of this neglect.
Anali Cortes, a resident of Pajaro who was forced to evacuate, agreed.
She said the last days have been a nightmare and her story illustrates the fate of many of her neighbors who feel neglected and neglected in a city they say is ridiculed by others and squalid compared to Watsonville, Salinas or Monterey.
Cortez said she and her neighbors pay taxes but receive little service in return.
She pointed to the potholes in the street and complained about the lack of help after the flood. She is not allowed into overcrowded shelters and cannot go to work because she does not have a change of clothes.
“When you tell people you’re from Pajaro, they say things like, ‘I thought this place was abandoned,'” Cortez said.
Martinez said several neighbors recently stood outside their apartment building and discussed in depth the mistreatment of their community. Was it because the residents here were mostly migrant workers living in the country illegally and were afraid to complain to the county, they wondered.
The county has hindered the growth of the community for decades, they say. Some streets have not been paved since the 1970s, no street sweeping has been done, and it took a huge effort to get the county to provide funding for Pajaro Park, a 5-acre neighborhood built in 2014, they said.
Some have wondered if Pajaro County is so poor and neglected that it is okay to ignore the needs of its community. It was?
“It’s just discrimination,” one woman finally said. Martinez agreed.