By Jennifer Emerling (Wasco, CA)
Maria Chavira’s home in the Central Avenue Senior Apartment complex is one of the first cottages you’ll see after you turn off the almond tree-lined streets of Wasco. It’s the perfect spot for this 66-year-old field worker who migrated from Mexico as a teenager, moving up and down California’s Central Valley before settling in Wasco over 44 years ago. She considers herself “the mother of the neighborhood,” always checking in on everyone in the housing complex to make sure folks have what they need, whether it’s toilet paper or just some company. Before we meet, she walks by Lucia Orona’s cottage to say hello, and to compliment Lucia’s
personality-filled garden, which brings her joy on this dark and stormy day.
Inside her home, Maria’s maternal instincts immediately prompt her to offer me a homemade meal (at her insistence) and by the time I leave, she’ll also send me home with two large Ziploc bags full of almonds—her generosity is almost as infectious as her laugh. As I look out at an endless row of almond trees from her porch, she reflects on her most recent seasonal shift in the fields, where she runs heavy machinery from August to October, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. She beams with pride when she mentions she’s the only woman on her male-dominated team, and that she “can do it all.” When asked about retirement, Maria points to the pictures of her 22 grandchildren and proclaims, with a laugh, “They’re expensive!”
The story of Maria is the story of Wasco, a largely Hispanic community located in the southern end of California’s Fruit Basket, where generations of migrant workers have settled in search of farm work since the mid-20th century. The agriculture industry is king in Wasco. Once known as a rose capital, the thorned beauties have largely been ousted in favor of the profitable almond tree. Aside from a Walmart and Starbucks opening on the north side of town, not much has changed in this sleepy rural community since its founding—that is, until the high-speed rail came to town. Upon news that the residents of the original farm workers’ labor camp would be displaced by the statewide high-speed rail plans, Wasco Affordable Housing, Inc. got together to design and build one of the largest affordable housing projects in Kern County’s history: Rosaleda Village.
To call Rosaleda Village an upgrade from the labor camps would be an understatement. The sleek, modern design of these condos, peppered with essential resources like neighborhood child care, energy efficient appliances, and onsite laundry, reflects more than just affordable housing: it’s equitable housing. As you walk between the government funded neighborhood of Rosaleda Village and the nextdoor neighborhoods planned by private builders, it’s hard to distinguish between them. This, I believe, was part of the many mindful design decisions from Wasco Affordable Housing, where the residents are known to speak high praise for the care and quality of these homes.
While on the tour of her condo, Claudia Miranda gushes about how much she loves the central AC (essential when living in Wasco, where triple digit days in the summer are the norm) and the washer / dryer being a part of her home. Claudia works part time in agriculture, between raising four kids—ranging in age from 6 months to 13 years—and she speaks about how helpful it is to just walk across the street to drop her littles off for child care, greatly reducing the barrier to work and the chores of motherhood. Before, it wouldn’t be unusual to see a multi-generational home under one roof, but Claudia remarks that thanks to Rosaleda Village her mother, Martha Baltazar, is able to have her own condo on the other side of the neighborhood with similar amenities. Claudia calls this a blessing for their family, who have been living in Wasco since she was 7 years old, as this small community is their most meaningful home since they first migrated from Mexico.
A bird’s eye view of Wasco shows crops and almond trees extending well beyond the farthest horizon; up close, it’s easy to see how farm work and Hispanic culture intersect with the core of Wasco’s identity. Historically, the faces of farm labor have been largely invisible to the American consumer, many of whom are unaware of the human relationships supporting our food chain.
But in towns like Wasco, farmworkers aren’t an abstract concept—they are your neighbors, and the radical idea that your neighbors deserve the same quality of life as everyone else is a key part of intentional home planning.
With dilapidated labor camps now in the rearview mirror, building upon the success of Central Ave. Senior Apartments and Rosaleda Village is the primary focus for Antonio Hernandez and Patrick Newman of Wasco Affordable Housing, Inc., the only non-profit developer in Wasco. “There is still a big need,” says Hernandez. “Every day, people come to us asking for housing. It’s hard when we don’t have a lot of vacancies because we want to house everyone who asks for it.” As we drive around town, Antonio and Pat excitedly point to an empty lot behind a dialysis center, the future site of their next affordable housing project. “What we care about is our impact on the community,” Hernandez reflects. “Everything we do is community-centered.” Putting the people first is nothing short of a triumph for the affordable housing residents of Wasco. Wasco shines a light on what an equitable-minded blueprint for housing can look like.
Jennifer Emerling (b. 1985) is an independent visual storyteller specializing in travel and editorial photography based in Fresno, California. A modern-day explorer, her work is an ongoing study of the culture and identity of the American West. Using a documentary approach combined with magic realism, she mindfully works in the pursuit of joy, highlighting the uniquely American experience that’s both familiar and slippery in all of its wonderfully exaggerated folklore and whimsy.
Jenn’s photographs have been published in National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy Magazine, Topic, US News & World Report, and more.
"As a native Californian, I’ve long understood the need for equitable and affordable housing, especially for folks living and working in the Central Valley. George Ballis documented migrant workers in the 1960s throughout California to bring attention and social justice to their demands for housing and fair working conditions. I hope that my photos serve as a contemporary update to this region, and continue the conversation Ballis began: all farmworkers deserve a place to call home, and the work of social justice is not done until everyone is housed."