A UC Irvine professor explains the dangers of wildfires for farm workers
As wildfires raged across California, there was too much worry about the damage to luxury crops like grapes and berries, and not enough about the farmhands who put their lives on the line, like the explains Dr. Michael Mendez of the Kegley Institute of Ethics. April 19 event titled “Tainted Grapes, Tainted Lungs: Extreme Wildfire Impacts on Undocumented Latina/o and Indigenous Migrants.”
Mendez is a professor at the University of California at Irvine, where he teaches environmental policy and planning. His research shows that wildfires are not isolated disasters, but exaggerate existing inequalities. He explains that undocumented migrants are often invisible when it comes to talking about the victims of wildfires in our communities.
Mendez’s research demonstrates that the effects of wildfires on the body are far more dangerous than originally thought. It can be more harmful than car exhaust directly inhaled by the body. Mendez even quotes a farm worker who explained that he got black saliva from breathing in smoke from wildfires.
“Wildfires do more than property damage, they legitimately put farm workers at risk,” Mendez said.
Mendez’s research focuses primarily on Somana and Ventura counties from 2015 to 2020. Where there are over 100,000 Hispanic/Latino people, with about 8% of the estimated population undocumented, that’s over 38,000 people. There are also around 12,000 native Mexicans, and many speak neither English nor Spanish. The common languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of the region are Mixtec, Triqui, Maya, Chatino and Zapotec.
Native Mexicans are neither Hispanic nor Latino, which presents a huge language barrier for the community when it comes to informing them of the dangers of wildfires and evacuations.
“Native Mexicans are distinctly different from Latin immigrants and policymakers don’t understand,” Mendez explained.
He goes on to talk about when Somana County, during a forest fire, did not provide Spanish or Native translations for Latin and Native communities. There was also another wildfire in Ventura County where it took 10 days after the fire for county officials to provide live translation. Previously, it was up to farmworkers and Indigenous activist groups to help migrant farmworkers, in addition to being the reason the county provided any translation.
There was also a Q&A segment where many students were able to ask him questions about his research.
A student asked Mendez what needs to be done to change the policy regarding undocumented immigrants, as it is a hotly debated topic in American politics. Mendez explained that in recent years, migration in Latin American states is no longer just going to states like California or New York, but we are seeing high migration patterns in the Midwest and South. . This will help broaden the ideology when it comes to proposing a policy that benefits agricultural workers across the country. Mendez ended his lecture with a simple saying. It’s to start thinking beyond property values.