In summary

The flow of migrants from Mexico has slowed dramatically in recent years, but many immigrants see farm work as a stepping stone to a better life.

Patricia Carabez stands by a row of black, plastic crates piled high with cauliflower, apples, and pears in the parking lot of a mobile home park in rural Dunnigan, 40 miles north of Sacramento. As children wander past the parking lot on their way home from school, Carabez calls out to them by name.

Speaking Spanish, she tells them to remind their parents to come pick up fresh produce. Carabez knows everybody here because she lived in one of these mobile homes until last year. Carabez says many of her former neighbors are farmworkers, like her.

Like generations of immigrants before her, Patricia Carabez saw farm work as a stepping stone to a better life for her children. “My husband and I came here because we had a vision for a better life,” she says. “We originally planned to be in California for two years,” she says with a rueful smile. That was 21 years ago.

Carabez works as a vegetable packer, 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. In her off-time, she volunteers at this mobile produce stand run by Yolo Food Bank twice a month. While Carabez instructs parents and children to fill a bag with fruits, veggies and bags of rice, she uses her her cell phone to call other folks who haven’t shown up yet.

Carabez, 39, emigrated to California with her husband from the Mexican state of Michoacan when she was 18. She started pruning and harvesting in the vineyards. She describes long days, full of physically demanding labor, with more to do on the family front, raising her two children.

Carabez gave up a job as a hospital lab tech when she left Michoacan. And, even after two decades in California, she admits her heart still feels “split in two.” Despite the demands of farm labor, Carabez has few regrets about leaving Mexico. And it’s not about her own advancement – it’s for the sake of her children.

“It would be very difficult for them in Mexico, because there you can only go to school if you have money,” says Carabez. “Here, my children have a great education and more opportunities than they would back home.”

“I’ve always seen the ‘California Dream’ as coming to the state and finding more opportunity than you had where you came from,” says professor Philip Martin, who studies farm labor at UC Davis. He argues that California still offers lots of opportunities to move up the socioeconomic ladder. “But in the case of farmworkers it may be the upward mobility is going to be more through the children of farmworkers rather than through the farmworkers themselves.”

Today 90 percent of California’s farmworkers hail from Mexico and half that population lack documents for legal residence, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

Martin explains that the flow of migrants across the border has slowed dramatically in recent years,  due to changes in U.S. immigration policy, border security and an improving economy in Mexico.  In 2000, one in four farm laborers in the U.S. were recent arrivals from Mexico, meaning they had been in the U.S. less than one year, according to a Pew Research Center report. By 2013-14, the number of recently arrived crop workers had fallen to 1-2 percent.

There are still migrants coming from Mexico, says Martin, but those who come can afford to pay between $5,000 and $7,000 to a ‘coyote’ (or guide) to evade Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “These migrants tend to be more educated, more skilled, and they’re not going to work in agriculture,” says Martin. The average crop worker in California earns $15,000 a year, according to data collected in 2013-14 by the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Martin says recently arrived immigrants are in search of higher wages.

At a mobile home park in Fresno, Alma, a seasonal crop worker, explains her simple pursuit of the California Dream. Speaking Spanish through an interpreter, Alma says she does not feel safe being identified by her full name.

Alma was raised by her grandparents in a rural town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Her grandparents grew corn, beans and squash as subsistence farmers.

Alma’s mother left Oaxaca for Mexico City when Alma was a baby so she could find a job to support the family.

When Alma was 19, she followed her mother’s example. She and her husband came to Fresno to find seasonal crop work.

The work in the Central Valley was harder than she imagined. Other immigrants told her, “You’ll make money. But they didn’t tell us about getting up at four o’clock in the morning to go to the fields,” Alma says. “They didn’t tell us about the heat or the cold.”

Twenty-four years after Alma and her husband arrived in Fresno, they are still crop workers, finding jobs season by season. Alma’s harvested tree fruit and picked berries and harvested garlic. She often works by piece rate, getting paid for each box of produce she fills.

Alma says she and her husband work together in the fields so they can keep an eye out for one another. One of her biggest challenges is working for growers who don’t pay wages on time. She says they’ve never asked for help because they don’t know who to turn to.

Alma, her husband and four children, ages 16 to 23, cram into a rundown mobile home off Highway 99.

“I think it’s safe to say the options for getting ahead in rural California may be low, says Martin. “But they’re higher than they would’ve been if they had stayed in rural Mexico.”

Alma’s children see the rough conditions of farm work. She says they know how early their parents have to leave in the morning, and how exhausted they are at day’s end. “But field labor is simply a necessity,” explains Alma. “We can’t say we don’t feel like getting up in the morning for work.” And, Alma adds, it’s the only job she knows.

Alma’s eldest son graduated from high school in Fresno. Despite having more access to education than his parents did back in Oaxaca, he still works in the fields alongside them. He tells her he’s fine with it. But she says it’s not the life she wants for her children.

When people arriving have relatively low levels of education, then the ‘California Dream’ is more typically achieved by the children of the immigrant generation that entered the farm workforce, explains Martin, the UC Davis professor. “And that would’ve been true of the Chinese, the Japanese and many other groups that passed through the revolving door of California agriculture.”

Back in Yolo County, you can see the potential for gradual upward mobility in Carabez’s life. She and her husband have managed to move out of the fields into work that’s less grueling. She works in a vegetable packing house. Instead of picking crops, her husband drives a tractor.

Carabez says they are mainly able to make ends meet, although things get tight when her shifts drop off in the winter. She’s hopeful that her 17-year-old son’s good grades will earn him a spot at a state university to study engineering.

Alma and Patricia are part of a generation of settled, aging Mexican immigrant farmworkers in California who are no longer migrating around the state to fill farm jobs. They stay in farm work because their language skills and lack of education are a barrier to landing non-farm jobs with higher wages.

As with earlier waves of immigrants who toiled in California’s fields because it was the only option open to them, these women want their American-born children to have a shot at education and a better livelihood then they would have had back in Mexico.

But the path toward upward mobility can be slow.

“When you live in Mexico, you live in poverty,” Alma says. “Here, the work is hard. But you have a little bit more money for food.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Julia Mitric | Capital Public Radio

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: