Mexico or California?
Santa Maria, on the north edge of Santa Barbara County, seems like a satellite of the 3rd world in the middle of California.
Unlike many 3rd world agricultural towns, the City of Santa Maria, is prevented from dumping it’s waste directly into the river that carves through the wide delta of rich alluvium in which the city has grown, surrounded on all sides by a green grid of chemically charged produce. Thoughtless attitudes toward pesticides, environmental degradation, workplace safety and below-minimum wages in agricultural fields and processing centers, coupled with a 19th century ignorance of sustainable recycling added to compromised municipal code enforcement, give Santa Maria the feel of a Mexican border town, like Tijuana, which is amplified by a cultural tone of a city of 120,000+ acknowledged souls in which 80% are native Spanish speakers and perhaps a third of this group speak no or very little English and many of them are but marginally literate in any language and many that can’t read more than road signs and price tags.
As with other 3rd world agricultural regions, but for questions of toxicity of pesticide laden produce, meat and wines shipped out of here in semis, issues like those cited above only affect those who must live with them. Like their native American ancestors for centuries around Baja California border cities, Tijuana and Mexicali, people go about their business here without commenting on the environmental or health issues that harm them, nor about the oligarchic politics of the town. When I’ve introduced such subjects to them, the response is guarded, as if to complain is tantamount to insurrection. It startles them when I suggest doing anything political and they lower their eyes nervously or regard me with an expression of cynical resignation–how would I know the trouble they see? No one like me has ever worked a berry field. They’re right about that.
In the first weeks of “Occupy Wall Street” in New York City, I was surprised to see 10 or 12 rag-tag white people holding home made cardboard signs, standing around the intersection of Main Street and Broadway, in front of Union Plaza at the center of town, opposite The Boot Barn, displacing for a few days, the person that usually occupies that corner, swinging a cardboard arrow advertising a local pay day loan shark. It surprised me because I have neither seen nor heard anything in conversation or local press or media acknowledging the existence of anything north of San Luis Obispo or East of the Santa Maria River or south of Los Alamos.
During the past twenty-five years, the population of Santa Maria grew from a relatively stable 35,000 to 120,000, mostly due to immigration from central America and Mexico. After living among them for a year, I’ve observed the immigration cycle closely: the agricultural workers that come here and work the fields get these jobs through family members who preceded them just as they were preceded by their cousins, who, like them, married into established families and had children, who are then native born citizens. This is the essence of immigration in America since the 15th century. It is surreal because the people now considered immigrants are the descendants of the pre-Colombian population, pre-dating the U.S.
Field workers in Santa Maria are paid many times more than their counterparts in agricultural villages south of the border, the places from which they came and to which they return periodically to visit and to buy land or a home with the dollars they’ve saved while working here and by selling used cars, clothing and consumer electronics, which they acquire here to trade at home. The exporting of savings and goods has a greater effect on communities like Santa Maria since so much money is not used for better housing, food and clothing locally. Unemployment isn’t responsible for over-crowded housing situations and welfare dependency–these are rational, intelligent choices in the context of what amounts to dual citizenship. Focusing on saving and exporting money and goods south of the border, many are less concerned about the quality of life here and do not identify strongly with their social status here nor political involvement. They are here to exploit opportunities. The current situation, which is so clearly evident in Santa Maria, was not anticipated but an obvious logical outcome of the circumstances of corporate agri-business. However, one aspect of this cycle, which is beginning to throw a curve into the established order is the impact of 2nd and 3rd generations of children born here, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, who attend school here, who speak native English and many eschewing the language of their parents, led by media to material values and vague promises of wealth and freedom. I didn’t understand this at first and then one day, while photographing a fiesta hosted by La Princesa, a local market, I was overcome by sadness, when I looked into the faces of children of relatively poor, uneducated people. I imagined what lies ahead.
Part II – Highway Trailer Park
In my travels since I left Del Mar on this odyssey of the Pacific coast, nothing became more clear than this: the politics of the local community is revealed in every human activity. This may seem like a so what rather than an aha! but it is the foundation of curiosity and the relevance of knowledge.
Before coming to the central coast, I’d been living in Fort Bragg, CA, in the heart of the redwood forests of the Mendocino coast for 2 years. I decided to return south, to San Diego, where my daughter now lives. I had enrolled at a university in San Francisco that offers classes online and I wanted to live in a warmer, dryer climate, while I followed an interest in music I’d deferred almost too long (and I’m not getting younger).
Coming here was an “accident” of fate, while taking a walk at night in a minefield. Odyssey does mean surrendering to chance. I had inquired about working as a “host” at various state and county parks south of San Francisco. A San Luis Obispo County Park called “Lake Lopez”, located near the town of Arroyo Grande, accepted my application.
Park “host” is a euphemism for unpaid employment. Hosts are referred to by park employees as “volunteers” but they are no more volunteering than any other kind of employee with the only real difference being that hosts are not paid in the normal way. Instead of cash, a volunteer host receives a place to park a mobile home in return for 25 hours of work each week. Literally, it’s quid pro quo. “Hosting” is a convention in state, county and national parks all over the U.S. This is promoted as benign and helpful as a program that allows people of modest means an opportunity to stay in beautiful locations and thereby reducing the employment costs at parks.
The reality is that park employees in California, often called, Park Rangers, do very little work. I did the math around this exchange based on current monthly space rents charged in RV parks in the neighborhood of state and county parks where I hosted in Oregon and California. The volunteer hosts are doing the same work as paid employees for less than $5 per hour and with no provision for social security, disability, unemployment insurance and none of the rights of workers afforded by state law, including regulations about discrimination, fair labor practices and every protection won by workers during the 20th century. “Volunteers” can be fired at will and have no rights, whatsoever, no appeal and not only do they lose their employment, they are evicted from their homes, which means they also have none of the protections of due process afforded by state landlord tenant laws. Their property can also be confiscated as well in as much as their superiors (rangers) are also empowered law enforcement officers.
During my travels over the last five years, I’ve worked as a “volunteer” at several county and state parks in Oregon and California and in two private RV parks. Private park owners have adopted the practice, which they now call, “workkamping” (the word reminds me of 1940s German labor camps). The private parks actually offer the unpaid employee more protection than the public sector since civil law and laws regarding housing tenancy are still in place, depending on the whim of local police. The advantage is not too meaningful since the difficulty of relocation adds to the pressure of intimidation, leaving volunteers exposed to abuse and discrimination.
Except for very remote parks that are manned by a single volunteer, who is often accompanied by his or her spouse, a campground is a village of middle-aged volunteers with a pecking order resembling human society as caricatured by William Golding in “Lord of the Flies”. Hosts who have been at a park for several years determine who is allowed into the community and who does what work. As a result, there is a hierarchy completely separate from park management and not subject to official control. The village chief in each park determines the quality of the work done and even the treatment received by the park’s visitors. From San Diego near the Mexican Border to Port Angeles, Washington, these volunteer communities are dominated by conservative white Christians couples of middling intelligence and less education, with the only exceptions I saw was a middle-aged, conservative white Christian couple named, Ortega.
A significant number of park hosts are Canadian citizens and since parks are seasonal, the same Canadians return each year to “host” the same places, which means there are few openings and newcomers are ostracized and bounced to make room for friends. Park rules stipulate maximum lengths of stay but these rules are routinely ignored everywhere. The paid supervisory employees (or “rangers”) in every place I stayed have abdicated control over hiring to the above described village chieftains. As a single, Jewish artist, with a progressive outlook and opposed to racism, I was not accepted by the host hierarchy at Lopez Lake. That I look younger and act with a vitality that does not betray my age upsets people who are acting out a vision of old age and decrepitude even though younger than I. After one month at Lake Lopez, in January of 2011, a few weeks before my first semester in a master’s program in music, I was forced to drive out of Lopez Lake County Park, in search of a suitable place to dock my motor home.
There are several pleasant, if densely packed commercial RV parks in and around Pismo Beach but although these places are mostly not high end, exclusive resorts, most of them have implemented a policy that allows them to discriminate against very low income households, families that subsist on welfare by living in older, poorly maintained trailers and who can marginally afford to pay market monthly rent for a space in most RV parks. Because there are laws against housing discrimination, RV park owners keep their parks from looking like poverty row by adopting a blanket prohibition on mobile homes, trailers and RVs more than 12 years old. My vintage 1973 Southwind, of which I’m inordinately proud, which I’ve faithfully restored and artfully modified to contain my music studio, was fabricated in Detroit so many years before the cut-off date that I am automatically excluded from most desirable locations. Their blanket policy is essential to a discriminatory practice and so RV parks around Pismo had no choice but to turn me away–nothing personal. As night fell, I pulled into a truck stop at the intersection of Bettaravia and Highway 101, in Santa Maria and the next morning, I drove into town to check out the two RV parks who advertised in the local telephone books and on the Internet.
For all I knew, I wouldn’t find a park where I could stay between Santa Maria and Los Angeles and the idea of holing up in the urban wasteland of LA made the sketchy neighborhood of the Falafel King in Santa Maria’s version of a poverty stricken ghetto seem like something I would have to shut my eyes and swallow, so, with trepidation, I pulled into Highway Trailer Park on North Broadway, where I was offered the last available space, right behind the Falafel King.
The first thing I noticed about Santa Maria, even as I was driving up Main Street as I came in from the west after driving south on Highway 1 out of Pismo and through Guadalupe, were all the stores with signs in Spanish, especially the large number of small grocery stores, tiendas and restaurants, advertising the names of food products I’d never heard of. And although, the streets in the town, even the side streets are unusually wide, with concrete curbs and sidewalks, a common motif of white American suburbs, there were many more people on the streets, especially in the older part of town, than I’d seen in any towns I’ve stayed in or traveled through over the past four years, from San Diego to Vancouver and the physical characteristics of nearly all those I saw were typical of descendants of native Americans you see in what we call, Latin America.
It is now almost exactly one year later. January 2012. I’ve completed my first two semesters in Graduate school and I’m about to begin the 3rd semester, with classes in advanced harmony, theory and notation.
For months, I’d put up with unsanitary conditions in Highway Trailer Park until some other conditions affecting habitability worsened and I could not abide the lack of respect implied by management’s attitude toward tenants and I notified the owner, Fred Hajjar, in writing that I intended to send my rent to the state ombudsman unless things were cleaned up. Fred came by the next day and told me how surprised he was by this (nervously twisting a large cube of gold he wears on a finger of his right hand) and he said that if I would but forbear for just 3 days, he would take care of things. This resulted in the start of repairs of one of the 2 showers, which had been stopped up for two months and one of the two toilets. Also, I gained some insight into why the bathrooms were almost never cleaned–a situation more complicated than I imagined—not that there’s anything complex about cleaning bathrooms but rather about the reasons they weren’t, a reflection on both Hajjar and his manager, Tom Martin, resembling my experience of the Captain who fled the recently grounded Costa Concordia in Tuscany
For instance, Tom Martin, who manages the park for Fred, appears to enjoy imposing the squalor of unsanitary living conditions on tenants, I speculate it makes him feel better about his own circumstances, an attitude that reminds me of the American servicemen testifying with nonchalance about torturing prisoners at Abu Graib in Iraq.
As the manager of Highway Trailer Park, it is Tom Martin’s responsibility to maintain the restrooms. His response to this requirement was to “hire” homeless people to do the cleaning and he “paid” one of them by allowing her to sleep under the front of a 5th wheel trailer in the space beside the restroom building, which domicile happens to belong to a blind man (or at least, a man who walks around with a whitish looking cane in his hands, pretending to be blind for disability benefits, free transportation, etc. he receives).
The sanitary standards of Susan, the good-hearted homeless woman that Martin appointed to clean the restrooms were not sufficient to the task nor were the used toilets Martin had Oscar, another work-exchange tenant install 2 years previously, nor were the drainpipes under the entire system, which are, perhaps 70 years old. Toilets constantly backed up and the homeless woman had taped handwritten signs admonishing, “no papper [sic] in toilet” on the windows in each restroom, i.e., requiring users to not flush toilet paper. An open, plastic construction bucket was provided to receive used toilet paper. Never mind that this is unsanitary, prima facie, but also, Martin didn’t bother to empty the bucket nor did he pay any attention to the fact that even Susan’s ministrations only occurred on the one day he arranged for her to do this in exchange for her bed under the blind guy’s 5th wheel.
When I complained to Mr. Martin about the unsanitary conditions, he first told me that the restrooms were a “luxury” and he would lock them if I complained about it.
When I explained to him the code governing mobile home parks, as I understand it, he pleaded with me that it wasn’t his fault, that it was “all the damn people who come in here at night”, “slobs, people who don’t know to flush a toilet”. As it turns out, the homeless people who come in at night are friends of homeless people like Susan that Martin allows to live in the park in return for keeping quiet about conditions and some women who appear to spend the night in Martin’s 5th wheel.
The capper to this is that after I wrote a letter about this to Martin’s employer, Hajjar, the owner of Highway Trailer Park, Martin called the police on Susan, as if she had been trespassing, when everyone knew that Martin had not only allowed her on the property but accepted payment from her in the form of her bathroom cleaning efforts. A young Santa Maria police officer arrived during a rainstorm to drive her off the property while Martin stood a ways off, watching, his face in the mask of a perpetual smirk.
A further reflection on the innate incompetence, ignorance and thoughtlessness demonstrated in this one example is that, in addition to inflicting pain on Susan, Hajjar put Oscar to work on repairing one of the two showers, the drain of which has been blocked for several months and one of the two toilets that flushed marginally (while the other completely stopped at the beginning of December). Over a weekend, Oscar jack- hammered out the concrete shower pan and replaced the rusted drain pipe under it. I was so impressed that I wrote a letter to Hajjar, thanking him. But the a week later, when it rained, the shower drain began to slow again, which is what happened before. Logic might lead you to guess that the drainage problem has something to do with the fact that the main drainage system for the entire restroom is as old as the pipes Oscar removed from under the shower, an idea that would have led to an inspection by a plumbing contractor.
Part III – No Fences Bad Neighbors
When I first rolled into Highway Trailer Park in January 2011, Mr. Martin rented me the end space at the western end of the park, adjacent to the entrance from Bunny Street. My only neighbor, on the east side, appeared to be a middle-aged Latin-American couple living together in a small class “C” motor home.
Eventually, I learned the family came here from Oaxaca and the couple has five sons and grandchildren, some of whom live in another space in the park and others live elsewhere in Santa Maria.
As time went by, the youngest of the sons, came to live with his parents in the 18’ Dodge RV. The space between their motor home and my Southwind became a combination living room and food processing facility for their various produce businesses, which includes three pickup trucks and a large commercial box truck they park on the street beside the entrance to the park.
During December, the intensity of their use of this space increased, with trucks coming and going starting at 4:00AM and family fiestas twice each week, which I understand is a common and laudable tradition of their culture. But, while, in the beginning, they did their sorting and packing of produce crates in the back of the big box truck, by December, they had moved all of these operations into the park.
The walls of a mobile home are light, thin aluminum, not only transparent to sound, but a natural amplifier. I heard every word of every telephone conversation, argument and negotiation and the sound of every bag of navel oranges filled and thrown into the bed of a pickup truck at 5:00AM. I tried neutralizing this in the evenings and when I was studying by raising the volume level of music or the soundtrack of a movie but this added to rather than resolved my discomfort. This constant noise, in addition to the condition of the restrooms was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. When rent was next due, I wrote to Tom Martin that I was considering sending my rent check to the state authorities.
Enter Amy. Amy is the beautiful young woman from Beijing, who manages Fred’s Felafel King drive-through that is located on one corner of the property. As it turns out, Martin reports to Amy, or at least he hands her the rent each month. Fred, who told me that he spends nine months of the year in Greece, Israel and someplace else I don’t remember, receives his money from his bank account and has no direct involvement with operations either of the two Felafel King fast food restaurants or the trailer park. As it turns out, Amy lives in a guesthouse at Fred’s home and she basically takes care of all of it—that’s their deal. This would be fine if Amy knew as much about low income housing management as she does about the fast food business—and if her experience of “Mexicans” included Latino people whose habits were different from the semi-indigent traders that live in the trailer park. As it turns out, Amy has no respect for her tenants and could care less about the unsanitary conditions therein. She looked at me in pained incredulity. Her look said, “why would anyone, as gentle and cultured as you want to live here?” And for me to use restrooms she herself described as “filthy” was inconceivable. I didn’t want to tell her about the conditions in California State Parks so I tried to explain that management that respects the dignity of tenants would make the place livable by a normal person’s standards but she was unable to hear this. Her only concern was that I not speak to the authorities, which I agreed to, providing that she keep Martin away from me, take care of the bathrooms and move me to another space in the park, away from Oaxaca.
Martin was opposed to my moving to another space in the park, in fact, he was outraged that I had gone over his head, objected to the move and told Amy the space was already rented and when that turned out to be a lie, he tried to interfere with my move and when he snarled at me, “you think you can come in here and stir shit up, you’ll find out!” I called the police. As the patrol car arrived, Amy came out to plead with me that I not involve them. She told the officer that she was Martin’s boss and I agreed to give her a chance to handle it. Martin backed off but over the next few days, he delivered his case to some of the park residents whose ears he could bend on account of their numerous violations of park policy that he had previously solicitously ignored in return for one favor or another. Martin viewed the park and possibly the entire neighborhood as his fiefdom and while I thought of myself merely as a tenant, renting a space in a trailer park for a while, in his view of the world, I was invading his turf. I considered his view of the world as none of my business, it is irrelevant to warranties involved in a contract between landlord and tenant and requirements of state and local codes about the operation of a rental housing business.
Martin’s view of his managerial job and his authoritarian behavior seemed so strange to me that I began to wonder about the surveillance camera he has mounted on the roof of his 5th wheel and my suspicion about strange noise and interference I found on my telephone line. A week previous to my ultimatum about the bathrooms, Martin came to my door and told me that he had received a phone message on his telephone answering machine from a person claiming to be a creditor of mine. When he played the message back for me, I recognized the caller. He said he was surprised because, he said, “nobody has that number.” Martin is to my knowledge, the only person in the park who has access to the cabinet with the phone lines. Perhaps, he didn’t understand that if he connected my phone line to his phone line, his answering machine would pick up my calls. Months ago, when I had asked him why the surveillance camera, which looked directly through the space I occupied. He said he was “keeping an eye on the place across the street”, an apartment building frequently visited by the police, where two people have been knifed in the time since I arrived here. Perhaps, Martin also considers himself above the law as a deputized cohort of law enforcement officers. He was disconcerted one evening when the police arrived one evening in response to my call about one of the knife fights that was accompanied by enough loud swearing to wake the dead but which Martin slept through, apparently asleep on that job, too.