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In Oxnard, training for farmworkers amid drought's uncertainty

Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm March 13, 2013 near Oxnard, California.
Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm March 13, 2013 near Oxnard, California.
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

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As the ongoing drought dries out local farms and more food production moves south to Baja in search of cheaper labor, farmworkers in Oxnard are seeking to improve their skills for an uncertain labor market.

The city, a top producer of strawberries, lies just north of L.A's urban sprawl, adding another pressure amid the march of housing tracts and the development of shopping malls.

"How do you transition from agriculture to other industries?" asked Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a labor expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I think that's the other big challenge: sometimes there is a misfit between jobs that are available and your local labor force."

Seeing change, seeking skills

On a recent afternoon, two farmworkers sat in a small second-story room in Oxnard, slowly repeating words from a tutor. They’ve wrapped up a day working in the fields and are learning to read and write in Spanish, the dominant language used on the job. Like many workers in the area, they come from southern states in Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Guerrero, and only speak their native language, Mixteco.

"I was a mess," said Arcenio Lopez, a former farmworker who now organizes the classes. He recalled his first day working in a strawberry field after arriving from Oaxaca. "I started going on my knees and my clothes got all red and I was all muddy. It was intense."

The work was fast-paced and physical, bending over all day, taking extra care not to bruise the fragile fruit. Even though he grew up working on his family farm, the pace and scale of the new work took a lot of getting used to.

"I got nervous and I wanted to cry! I felt like I was not able to do that kind of work," he said.

Arcenio Lopez, a former farmworker and current executive director of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project in Oxnard, where he works to train other farmworkers in new skills for a changing labor market. (Dorian Merina / KPCC)

As he struggled, Lopez saw the need for the mostly indigenous workforce to learn new skills. Lopez already knew how to read and write himself, so he began to teach his fellow workers. The informal sessions became part of a larger program, called the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, which also teaches computer and health skills.

Lopez estimates that there are about 20,000 Mixtecos in Ventura County. Statewide, there are more than 100,000 indigenous Mexican farmworkers, according to a 2010 study from the California Rural Legal Assistance and researcher Richard Mines. The vast majority, or over 80 percent, come from Oaxaca, according to the study.

Learning skills, planning for a future

Angelina Zarragoza, 23, attends the center, usually coming after a day picking and packing berries. She works inside one of the plastic tents, known as casitas in Oxnard's fields.

"It's tough work, sometimes inside the casitas it's really hot," she said in Spanish. "For me it's a dangerous job, but we have to do it."

The classes have taught skills that Zarragoza hopes will help her in the future. She's already seen changes in Oxnard, as some farms plant less or cut back on hours in response to the drought. That could force her to leave the area soon, she said, and try her luck further north – but she expects to find more competition there, as well.

That makes the training more important than ever, said Lopez. It's a lesson he learned that first day working in the fields, just arrived from Oaxaca.

"When you are going to be the first farmworker, as a new farmworker, you have to have a friend or have somebody else who is going to train you," he said.

Like others in the industry, workers are trying to get ready for what may come next.

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