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How a long history of racism and neglect set the stage for the Pajaro floods


Maria Martinez, 35, felt nauseated as she and her son crossed the Pajaro River Bridge into Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County.

His home in the Monterey County community of Pájaro was flooded after a levee failed during a heavy storm on March 10. Within hours, the streets, homes and businesses of this mostly Spanish-speaking city of 3,000 people were under several feet of water.

As Martinez crossed, she saw two National Guard Humvees, some fire department vehicles, a pair of sheriff’s patrol cars, and a security guard truck blocking traffic from entering the flooded area, an area she and many others chose not to evacuate.

“It feels like the border,” he said. “It’s a horrible feeling.”

She wasn’t the only person to respond that way.

Residents of Pájaro who were prevented from re-entering their homes to collect belongings and supplies were concerned. The fact that the levees were breaching on the Monterey County side of the river, and not Watsonville, added to their frustration.

It was, they said, as if history was repeating itself, once more.

There is no suggestion that the breach was intentional or that the levees were built in a way that made the Monterey County side more vulnerable.

But ever since California’s county lines were drawn in the late 1840s, dividing the Pajaro River valley down the middle, the unincorporated city of Pajaro has been largely ignored by state and local officials.

The floods have highlighted decades of inequality in this agricultural region, where migrant farmworkers have long been marginalized. Record storm runoff has left large areas of the low-income, mostly immigrant community under several feet of water and facing a long recovery.

Officials have known for a long time that the levee could fail, but repair efforts have met with long delays. An official told The Times last week that an improvement project didn’t pan out, in part, because “it’s a low-income area. It’s largely farm workers who live” there.

Some locals say the assessment is part of a larger reality.

Such neglect, said Sandy Lydon, a retired Cabrillo College history professor, is the legacy of a racist border dispute that relegated this small collection of homes to an unincorporated backwater.

“Pajaro became sort of the Siberian of Monterey County” and the “fief” of Watsonville, he said, a place to house farm workers. “Let’s be honest about it. Towns that have a lot of farm workers don’t want them living downtown.”

Lydon said that while current Monterey County officials have worked to better incorporate the city into their decision-making, and Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged his support on a recent tour of the flooded village, “historically, the Board of Monterey County supervisors never paid any attention to the bird. And that was intentional.”

It’s an assessment that resonates with Luis Alejo, president of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, who said he is only the third Latino to serve as an elected supervisor.

“Well? In a county where 70% of the population are people of color?” he said. “There’s a deep history of marginalization.”

It all started, Lydon said, when the state was being formed and the county lines were drawn. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, former military governor of the “Free State of Alta California,” a large landowner in the region and a member of a prominent Mexican family, headed the California boundary committee.

“Now Vallejo was the guy,” Lydon said. “He probably knew the state of what would become the state of California better than anyone.”

Part of their role was to draw the boundaries of the counties and choose the seats of the counties, the place where the courts and law enforcement would be located.

Vallejo’s first stab at Monterey County, where he was born, caused the county to stretch south “almost to San Luis Obispo,” then north to “what would be, according to your map, San Francisco,” he said. lydon. Inland, the boundary included the entire Salinas and Pajaro river valleys.

Monterey, which “was a Mexican town,” was the venue, Lydon said.

But the powerful whites to the north, in what is now Santa Cruz County, delayed.

“They didn’t want to go to court in Monterey, because they knew there was going to be deeds, a lot of disputes, and they felt more comfortable if they could go to a court where … they would be tried. by a jury of their peers. No, to put it bluntly, not because of the Mexicans,” Lydon said.

Its proposed boundary extended south to Las Lomas, the small hills that border the southern edge of the Pajaro River valley.

When the border committee finished its work, the county line was drawn down the center of the valley.

It’s not clear why or how that decision was made, Lydon said; no minutes were taken. But he suspects a compromise was probably reached between white Americans in Santa Cruz and Vallejo, who held family land, the “Casa Materna,” in the southern Pajaro River valley.

Vallejo, Lydon said, probably did not relish the prospect of fighting his land claims in a Santa Cruz County court.

On February 18, 1850, the counties were established, cutting the Pajaro River Valley in half. A decision, Lydon said, that has resulted in “nothing but trouble ever since.”

He said Watsonville and Pajaro, which were located on the border of their respective counties, were left “orphaned” and “politically treated as colonies.”

“What developed over time was that the Pajaro side … became where the farm workers live,” he said, beginning in the 1880s when, in the midst of anti-Chinese sentiment in Santa Cruz, the workers who lived in Watsonville crossed the river.

Soon, the community, unencumbered by Watsonville’s Victorian-era laws and sensibilities and ignored by Monterey County, became a safety valve for Watsonville, providing gambling, opium, and prostitution reenactments for a largely male population. .

Lydon said that after the Chinese were expelled following the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration, Japanese workers moved in and then Filipinos.

Alejo, the county supervisor, noted the Watsonville riots of 1930in which mobs of up to 500 white people roamed Watsonville, Pajaro, and other nearby towns and farms, attacking Filipino farm workers and their property after Filipino men were seen dancing with white women at a local dance hall.

“We’ve had our part of history here,” he said.

But it was the Bracero program of the 1940s, an agreement reached between the United States and Mexico that allowed Mexican workers to come north, that brought a lasting population of workers to the region.

“All this time, Monterey County didn’t do the streets, they didn’t do the plumbing, they didn’t do anything in Pajaro. There was no infrastructure, ”he said, noting that a walk through the town is still evidence of this abandonment.

Anali Cortez, a Pajaro resident who had to evacuate, agreed.

She said the past few days have been a nightmare, and her story exemplifies the fate of many of her neighbors who feel forgotten and abandoned in a city they say is ridiculed by others and in disrepair in compared to Watsonville, Salinas or Monterey.

Cortez said she and her neighbors pay their taxes but receive few services in return.

He pointed out the potholes in the street and complained about the lack of help after the flood. She’s been turned away from crowded shelters and she can’t go to work because she doesn’t have clothes to change into.

“When you tell people you’re from Pájaro, they’ll say things like, ‘I thought that place was abandoned,’” Cortez said.

Martinez said

several neighbors stood outside their apartment complex recently and engaged in a deep conversation about their community’s mistreatment. They wondered why the residents here were mostly immigrant workers living in the country illegally and were afraid to complain to the county.

The county has stunted the growth of the community for many decades, they said. Some of the streets have not been paved since the 1970s, streets are not swept, and getting the county to provide funding for Pajaro Park, a 5-acre neighborhood resource built in 2014, required an enormous effort, they said.

Some wondered if the county felt that Pajaro was so poor and rundown that it was okay to ignore the needs of its community. Was that?

“It’s just discrimination,” one woman finally said. Martinez agreed.

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