Many recent comments made by Coachella’s mayor have caused me to question his characterization of the valley’s farmworkers, and his and the City Council’s intentions for this critical portion of Coachella’s population.
Farmworkers fuel the valley’s largest industry and labor in extremely strenuous conditions and positions for very low pay. Recent preliminary studies show that Coachella is home to about 26 percent of the valley’s farmworkers, and a significant part of Coachella’s population. However, that population in Coachella is shrinking with time; many advocates and residents, including myself, attribute some part of that shrinkage to the unaffordability of housing in Coachella, relative to more abundant and less expensive housing options in Thermal, Oasis, and Mecca.
Nonetheless, Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez has recently and repeatedly emphasized that the city has too much affordable housing, and that it needs to draw higher income residents to the city. This refrain rings of gentrification and disregards the importance of Coachella’s already existing population, as well as its contributions to the economies of Coachella and the broader Coachella Valley.
Other recent comments by Mayor Hernandez to The Desert Sun have disrespected the skills and integrity of farmworkers. For example, he was quoted incomprehensibly suggesting that homeless Coachella residents displaced from their encampments by CalTrans could pick up work as farmworkers, a suggestion so misguided that it is hard to intelligently critique. He was also recently quoted stating that he hoped farmworkers could move up in the world by finding jobs in new marijuana businesses anticipated to grow in Coachella, as if farmworkers’ current occupations were not dignified or respectable.
Farmworkers are skilled, committed, and critical to of the agricultural industry and, more importantly, to Coachella. They are not disposable victims to be viewed on the bottom rung of the professional ladder, replaceable by anyone who wants to work, looking for someone like Mayor Hernandez to find them a “way out.” They deserve the same respect and accommodations provided to Coachella residents of all other professions and income levels.
Instead of pitying farmworkers and devaluing their skills and dignity, Coachella’s mayor and City Council should be looking for policy and systems changes to improve the conditions in which they work and live. For example, Coachella could implement ordinances to raise its minimum wage to a level that would provide a more comfortable standard of living for farmworkers, or provide for overtime requirements for farmworkers that would match those of all other industries by guaranteeing overtime pay after 40 hours of work. (Notably, current Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia will soon have the opportunity to vote in favor of a similar bill at the state level, AB 2757). Coachella could also provide or identify funding support for low-income residents targeted by its increasing code enforcement actions, which would make upgrade feasible and displacement or punishment of the heart of Coachella’s population unnecessary.
Farmworkers provide Coachella with its history, strength, culture, and its very existence. The mayor’s inability to see that strength is suggestive of the extent to which he and some other Coachella leaders have lost touch with their purported roots.