California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

Son of farmworkers turned professor focuses on water issues in California’s Central Valley

Mario Sifuentez is an associate professor of history and director of the UC Merced Center for the Humanities.

You were recently appointed director of the UC Merced Center for the Humanities. Can you tell us about your goals for the center?

We will continue successful efforts like supporting faculty and graduate student development with grant writing and book publishing training. We will also continue to build our intellectual community and bring visitors to campus around a theme. We just finished a water theme that culminated in a fantastic conference on humanistic perspectives on water. Though that theme is over, we will carry on pieces of the work by building relationships with local communities.

One of the reasons that I was nominated for the directorship is that I do a lot of work in the community, including holding the Rural Justice Summit every year. We host activists, researchers, farmers, farmworkers, and others who have a stake in rural communities here. Overall, we are looking to integrate more with community in the Valley.

In terms of new efforts, we will begin a push to gather archival material from the Valley. It's one of the least-studied areas in the state. For example, I'm working on collecting the work of photographer Ernest Lowe who has thousands of migrant farmworker images. Eventually we hope to have a digital humanities repository not just for scholars, but also for playwrights, K-12 teachers, and others. Another big focus will be on the medical humanities. Health care in the Valley is lacking and one of the ways we can push the envelope is with a more humanistic medical education.

You apply a social justice lens to water issues in California. Can you talk a little about what this means?

I grew up in a migrant farmworker community in the high desert of eastern Oregon. When I first came to California, in some ways it felt familiar and in other ways it didn't. I remember driving down the highway and seeing the “no water, no jobs” signs. A lot of them were in Spanish, which really struck me. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that farmworker welfare was tied to farmer access to water. Growing up, I'd never encountered the idea that farmers just wanted water to provide a better life for us farmworkers.

It never sat well with me, and I started to dig a bit. I found that the organization behind most of these billboards was the Latino Water Coalition. The deeper I dug, the more I realized that group was made up of Latino Chamber of Commerce members from places like the Metropolitan Water District. So, I started to look at more connections between farmers and water. Of course, conservative media espouse the fish versus people mindset, but during the drought a lot of liberal media also put out these long articles about how it was affecting farmworkers. They'd write about how hard life had gotten and how people were waiting in line for food, which was weird because it's not as if farmworkers lived a sustainable life before the drought.  

I started to look in particular at the Westlands Water District in Fresno and Kings counties. Even during times when farmers are getting 100 percent of their water allocations, it remains one of the poorest areas of the state. At the same time, some farmers have seen their profits double, triple, quadruple, and the quality of life for farmworkers is not improving at all. So, I've started to say “water wealth does not trickle down.” It stays at the top and doesn't do anything for farmworkers in California.

Even more interesting, though, is the history of farmworker resistance. That's what I'm writing about now. Over the past 40-50 years, there have been different phases of resistance. Most recently, farmworkers were being charged huge water bills during the drought because they were having to buy water from the county, which was buying from the district at astronomical rates. Farmworkers had bills that went from $30 to $300 a month for water that was not even potable. They refused to pay their water bills and it created a crisis. Those are the kinds of stories I want to tell.

What most excites you about the Central Valley right now?

I tend to be an optimist, and I'm optimistic about the Valley. One of the ramifications of how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area and LA is that a lot of young people are starting to come back to the Valley after college. So, there are a lot of educated young people here, setting down roots, and trying to change things.

Groups like 99 Roots and the Central Valley Partnership are run by youth organizers who know this place. A number ran for office this year and while they lost, given that they were new and didn't have much money and were running against well-funded incumbents, they didn't lose by much. I see a sea change underway in the Valley.

We are in the national news a lot for being different from the rest of California. But the reality is, many people here care deeply about social justice. There's a lot of energy and a lot of hope here right now. And that makes for a really exciting time.

Posted on Tuesday, August 14, 2018 at 4:34 PM

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