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POPLAR, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - Israel Champion and his friend Miguel Ruiz live in a trailer rehabbed by Israel's mother, Lupe Aldaco, behind her house.

Housing is a right and a fight

By David Bacon (Poplar, CA)

Mario Robles, now 21 years old, was born the year his parents moved into a house on Sierra Avenue in Earlimart, a small farmworker town in California's southern San Joaquin Valley. It was already an old house, one of the first built by self help Housing in 1965, 35 years earlier.


"No one in my family knows who built it," Robles says. "But when we moved in the house was falling apart. We put a lot of work into it, and now we're really proud of it."  A string of houses like the Robles' lines the south side of Sierra Avenue, all built in the same year.  A few show their age, but most look like their owners took very good care of them, or even rebuilt them after they'd deteriorated.

These homes were the answer community activists had to the chronic crisis afflicting farmworker families - terrible housing, or even no housing at all.  Today it's still not unusual to see people living in cars when the grape harvest begins in Tulare County, and migrants arrive for the picking.

POPLAR, CA -  JULY 2020 - Worker wears face covering while picking persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Her face covering covers her whole head. In July the temperature normally rises to over 105 degrees. It seems counterintuitive, but farmworkers dress in multiple layers of clothing because it provides insulation from the heat.

Even families that live in the county year-round have to put up with homes in bad condition, paying a big part of low farmworker wages to live in them.  According to the Census, half the workers in the county earn less than $24,000 a year.  Nearly a quarter of the families get food stamps and live below the poverty line and more than a third of families are headed by single women. For half of Tulare's 56,000 renters - farmworkers and other low-wage laborers - a third of family income goes for rent.

In the COVID era, poverty in California's rural agricultural counties has become deadly.  Tulare County has over 25,000 COVID-19 cases, and 347 people have died.  That gives it infection and death rates more than twice that of urban San Francisco, or Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County.  COVID rates follow income.  Median family annual income in San Francisco is $112,249 and in Santa Clara it's $124,055.  Half of Tulare County families earn less than the median $49,687.  The American Community Survey shows that over 32,000 county residents are farmworkers; according to the US Department of Labor the average annual income of a farmworker is between $17,500 and $20,000.


POPLAR, CA -  JULY 2020 - Worker picks persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants.  When the bag is full, it can weigh 40–50 pounds.

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POPLAR, CA - 12 JULY 2020 - Rosendo and Josefina live in a trailer in an encampment on the Tule River levee near Porterville.  Rosendo was released from prison just eight months earlier, after being incarcerated for 38 years.  The moved the trailer to the levee because they have no money to pay rent.

One reason for the urban/rural illness disparity is that poverty forces people to live closer together to share rent or living costs, making social distancing and the isolation of sick people more difficult.  People go to work because they have no cushion of savings.  Traveling to and from the fields also places workers in close proximity. 

"Getting better housing has become a survival need at a time when existing conditions make the threat of the virus much much worse," according to Mari Perez, an organizer with the Larry Itliong Rsource Center in Poplar, another farmworker community near Earlimart.

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POPLAR, CA - 12 JULY 2020 - Justin lives with his mother in an encampment on the Tule River levee near Porterville.

One of the most important tools for getting better housing, born in the civil rights upsurge among the valley's farmworkers, was self-help Housing.  It started with the idea that even people with low income could build and own homes, if they contributed their labor, called sweat equity, and got help with building materials and loans for land.  Activist Richard Unwin wrote a history of its first idealistic decade.  He called it "a story of a singular effort, a sustained commitment, to develop imaginative, efficient and humane methods of assisting families to move up from poverty by moving out of riverbank shanties and roadside shacks into decent houses ... of determination to make substance of dreams."
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POPLAR, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - Homes and people in a working class neighborhood, where many people live in inadequate housing.

Self-help housing was a product of the early farmworker movement.  At the end of the 1950s Larry Itliong, for whom the Poplar center is named, had been organizing strikes of Filipino farmworkers for a decade, with the Filipino Farm Labor Union and later the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.  Cesar Chavez was getting ready to leave the Community Service Organization to found the National Farm Worker Association.

In 1958, in Tulare County, Bard McAllister, a staff member of the Farm Labor Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, brought together the first group of farmworkers to talk about a self-help model for building homes.  Two years later, he went to Congress and began writing what became the Housing Act of 1961, which produced the first federal home loans for low-income rural people.

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By 1963 the first twelve families had begun construction in Goshen, a tiny Tulare County community on Highway 99.  Two years later the great grape strike began in Delano, half an hour south, which gave birth to the United Farm Workers.  From the beginning, both self-help and the UFW were part of the same rebellious movement for change among rural families.  Supportive activists like Clyde Golden and George Salinas worked as carpenters on self-help homes in some years, and in others built the union's retirement home for Filipino strikers, Agbayani Village.

POPLAR, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - Lupe Aldaco moved into this house that was falling apart five years ago, and then fixed it up, and added a trailer in back for her son and others to live in.  She and her family live in inadequate housing because there is not enough affordable housing for working families in Poplar.

Mario Robles knows what the union is, but doesn't know the history of his own home.  A few doors down the street Cintia Aguilera sells birria tacos - goat meat in a tomato-chile sauce - from a grill in her garage.  They're very popular - she even outsells the taco truck at the intersection two blocks away.  But Aguilera doesn't know who built her house either.  She's only lived in it for seven years.

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EARLIMART, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - On Sierra Ave. where one of the first self-help housing projects was built in the late 1960s, street sellers sell food, furniture and clothing from trucks at the corner and workers come home from work.

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Memories are sharper in Poplar, 20 miles north.  There, two decades ago, self-help pulled together Filipino and Mexican immigrant families and helped them begin building homes on Walker Street.  "We moved into our house in 2004," remembers Gina Lacambacal. "self-help provided the materials and it was up to us to put it up. Sometimes if we couldn't work on our own house people would come and help. All the houses in this neighborhood were built with self-help."
When she was growing up, she recalls, people in Poplar rented homes from the local pawn shop owner. "Our house wasn't very well built. It was ancient, but you had a roof over your head. That's all that mattered."

POPLAR, CA - 10 AUGUST 2020 - Gloria Lacambacal came from the Philippines 20 years ago, and worked in the fields all those years.  She holds a Filipino variety of squash that she grew in her backyard in a home in Poplar that they built as part of the self-help program

The Sobrepena family built their home in 1996, just a few doors away.  Both the Lacambacals and Sobrepenas come from the Philippines.  Family migration wasn't easy for them. It took Gina Lacambacal's older brothers more than 20 years to get their visas because of the system's long backlogs.  Another brother had to stay unmarried for years in the Philippines since married children lose their visa preference.  He could only marry his wife once he arrived in the U.S.

Nevertheless, having a stable home gave the families a base from which other members were able to come.  Valentine and Christine Sobrepena, and Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal, were brought to the U.S. by family members who were already citizens and legal residents.  The couples worked the rest of their lives as farmworkers picking grapes and other fruit.  They're now in their 80s, too old to work, but they have a home with four generations of family looking out for them.

Most families in Poplar, however, are still renting.  It is a tiny, unincorporated "census-designated place," but growing.  In 2000 it had 1,500 residents, and ten years later 2,500.  "We haven't seen this year's numbers yet," says Mari Perez, "but we're sure they'll be a lot higher.  So we need housing more than ever."

Despite some rural housing construction, half the housing in Tulare County was built before 1970, and only 4% in the last decade.  Like many Poplar families, Rachel Alcantar lives in a trailer, paying $500 a month in rent, with her husband Jose Serna, her son Victor Alcantar and her baby Ezekiel Serna.  She was just elected to Poplar's school board, and she and her husband are both immigrant rights activists with the local chapter of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.  "We all hoped that self-help would continue bringing in more families, but they stopped after the houses were built on Walker Street," Alcantar says.

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POPLAR, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - Rachel Alcantar lives in a trailer with her husband Jose Serna, her son Victor Alcantar and her baby Ezekiel Serna.  She and her family live in difficult housing because there is not enough affordable housing for working families in Poplar.

A few blocks away, Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago, and fixed it up.  Then she added a tiny trailer in the backyard for her son and a friend to live in.  Arturo Rodriguez, the other organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center, grew up in that house and remembers it was falling apart.  "I just thought it was normal, the way people lived," he says.  So when the Center was organized, he began a campaign to take control of the local development board.

"It was run by the old guard," he says, "who stopped any new housing because more people meant a threat to their control."  Poplar is in the district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Center finally found several acres of land for housing, but it's still fighting to get rid of restrictions the old guard put in place.

"Housing is a right," Perez laughs.  "But it's also a fight.  If we don't organize we'll never get it."
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POPLAR, CA - 21 NOVEMBER 2020 - Israel Champion and his friend Miguel Ruiz live in a trailer rehabbed by Israel's mother, Lupe Aldaco, behind her house.



Berkely, CA

(w)  (tw) @photos4justice


David Bacon is a social documentary photographer and writer, and over 3 decades has documented farmworkers, labor and the impact of the global economy.

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