Caravan (9)

What started as a “post” on a neighborhood Facebook page is now being referred to as a “movement” by Pacoima resident, Ignacio “Iggy” Navarro to express appreciation to those who many in this country are just starting to realize are at the top of the list of our nation’s essential workers — farmworkers.

From a family of former farmworkers himself, Navarro knows how essential they really are. So he and his friend, Michelle Rogel, reached out on social media via the site, “Pacoima! Represent!” and announced their decision to collect donations and organize a caravan from Ritchie Valens Park to Oxnard to hand out food, and gift bags filled with items for farmworkers and their families.

Encouraging “communities to support communities,” they invited others to join them. 

That post generated enough donations to make the trip. A group of about 30 residents from Pacoima, Mission Hills and surrounding areas wrote messages of appreciation on their car windows, created handmade signs, lined up their cars at the underpass near the park and traveled in a caravan to the fields of Oxnard.  

They had no specific plan other than stopping to offer their collected donations as they spotted people bent down picking crops.   

The caravan of cars pulled over next to the fields honking their horns and cheering from the side of the road.  

The workers, at first unsure what was going on, just kept their bodies bent pulling up the crops until they realized the cheers were for them. Then they stood upright to wave back and smile. The group of volunteers pulled out a bullhorn to announce their appreciation for the workers, held up their signs, played music and waved the Mexican and American flags to honor them.  

There were a few dicey moments during one stop, when the good Samaritans noticed a Ford truck that was following them from a short distance, so they moved on to another location.

They could feel the eyes on them, and noted the heavy feeling that the workers must work under. They felt that oppressive energy and were stopped in their tracks at one location, when they attempted to offer their donations and cheers and a field supervisor told the workers to ignore them. 

“He told them, ‘Don’t look at them, just keep working,’ and the workers complied, keeping their heads down with their eyes fixed on the crops,” Navarro said.

But, in contrast, there were those “rewarding moments” when the workers motioned to them that it was okay for them to enter the fields and they saw their eyes light up as they carried cases of water over to them and placed them next to the crops. The workers quickly broke the cases open and gratefully chugged the water down.

“It was so hot,” said Navarro, “and it felt much hotter than it get’s in the [San Fernando] Valley. In the fields there are no trees to give you shade, you are completely exposed.”  

Navarro, and some others who were part of the caravan, took their children and grandchildren with them. The kids, he said, have been at home for weeks and the experience of being there was eye-opening and a good opportunity for them to learn.   

“Some of the kids really just thought food came from the supermarket. We told them it comes from these fields and we have it because these farmworkers grow it and pick it and pack it.  It’s because of their hard work that it’s in the store for us,” Navarro said.

“They could really see it for themselves. We all had a really hard time even walking a short distance into the fields in that heat. I told my grandchild, ‘Look, these workers do this day after day.’”

They had an opportunity to talk to the workers.

“In a field that grew celery, we picked up a stalk from the ground. But, a worker said to ‘leave it there, they would give us a good one,’” Navarro.

“They explained to us that it was bad and showed us the moisture that was inside of it which would cause it to go bad quickly. My granddaughter held up the good celery they gave to us  and we took photos together.”

At another location, Navarro said, it seemed that the workers were alerted to their presence. “A field supervisor took video of us. But, one of our kids handed him a gift bag and he gave us a ‘thumbs up,’” he said 

The 57-mile trip from Pacoima to Oxnard took about an hour. It really isn’t a huge distance but it was like coming full circle for Navarro and some of the other volunteers, who noted that the fields of the produce industry up and down the state are their family’s legacy of hard work and sacrifice.  

“My father was a bracero,” explained Navarro, “and my two older brothers also worked the fields, they would go back and forth as seasonal workers moving field to field and returning to Mexico.” 

It was emotional for him to see the fields that his father had once told him that he had worked.  

Navarro said his father saved enough money so that he was able eventually to bring him along with his mother from Michoacan, Mexico to the United States, where they reunited. Navarro’s wife’s family, coincidentally, also worked the same fields and they, too, were from Michoacan, Mexico. And like Navarro’s parents, her parents settled and raised their family in Pacoima.  

All of that history tumbled from his mind as he looked into the fields and saw that same cycle of desire to come to this country to make a better life for their family’s next generation.

He also noted the parallels. The coronavirus had motivated him to offer support for those in the fields and thought of his grandfather, who he never met because he died in 1919 from the Spanish Flu. 

His thoughts were interrupted as he looked on to groups of farmworkers who he noticed were working closely together, and didn’t appear to all have protective gear. He also saw a field supervisor who wasn’t wearing a mask.

The group approached  a group of workers eating their lunch under a small patch of shade. They handed out sandwiches, more water, and bags filled with snacks and toys for their children.  

One volunteer gave out $20 bills that she donated from her personal funds. She placed the money in a card and they were truly surprised to be handed money.    

“I know they can use it and probably need it much more right now,” she said.

“You should have seen the looks on their faces,” added Navarro.

The workers told them that they have to work, they can’t stop working.  

“I know how hard they work,” said Navarro. “Because of their legal status they can be mistreated. They’re human.”

His son, who attends the University at Channel Islands, recalled that a year ago when massive fires broke out and the air was thick with smoke, farmworkers were still harvesting these same fields. 

Now, with a pandemic and a growing death toll, farmworkers remain on the frontlines of danger. 

“It’s really an emotional experience for all of us,” Navarro said. 

This Saturday, May 2, they’ve made arrangements to caravan to Kern County to distribute food and donated items to those working in the fields in Bakersfield.

Navarro would like to see people from all ethnic groups join them. He said they plan to continue the caravans as long as people want to join them and donations continue to be offered. 

“We’re ready,” said Navarro. “Before last weekend, none of us knew each other, we just gathered up and did it. We were all strangers, but now we’re family.” 

If you’d like to donate, or join the caravan this weekend or other upcoming caravans, contact Iggy Navarro at: (818) 939-3707 or Michelle Rogel at: (310)753-5452.

The next caravan is Saturday, May 2. Volunteers will meet at Ritchie Valens Park at the 118 freeway underpass, and are scheduled to leave promptly at 9 a.m. For those who would like to donate items, there is a need for water, juice, sealed snacks, mini bags of chips, and protective wear including long sleeve shirts, face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.