Grape harvest

Dressed for protection against the sun and insects, an unidentified grape picker chugs a bottle of water during a midmorning break in a Mecca, Calif., vineyard. She's picking red table grapes that will be shipped to supermarkets across the nation. > > > Video (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

An hour before dawn in the camp of last resort. Dozens of men and a few women are asleep in the beds of pickup trucks, in the back seats of cars or on flattened cardboard boxes in the dirt behind the Toro Loco market. The air is cool, but the terrible sun is close at hand.

Martin Zavala is wrapped in a blanket, his head resting on a Scooby-Doo pillow, a pack of Marlboros under his neck. Thieves prowl at night and will snatch what is not secured. Drunks and meth-addled tweakers tease the dozing grape pickers, poking them with knives or guns. Zavala, his brother and four friends positioned their vehicles to form a protective perimeter -- modern-day covered wagons on a wild frontier.

A rumbling freight train a block away is today's alarm clock. Some of the men relieve themselves next to their cars. Others fire up small stoves and cook eggs and tortillas. An old man rubs the sleep from his eyes, checks the leaky radiator in his ancient Ford van and tops it off.

Zavala, 42, slips on socks and tennis shoes. He rises stiffly from the ground, brushes his teeth and spits in the dirt. Brother Alberto, 49, showers his head with water from a plastic Coke bottle.

Zavala's life is scripted by the harvests he follows: winter in Arizona picking lettuce. Spring in the Coachella Valley picking table grapes. Summer in the Central Valley picking more grapes. Home to Mexicali, where he has a wife and four children.

Repeat. Then repeat again.

"I'm poor. I'm uneducated. I don't expect this to ever change," Zavala says in Spanish. "But I'm doing it so my children may not have to."

Daylight blooms on the horizon behind the dry hills east of town. The campers fold up their cardboard mattresses. They pick the parking lot clean of trash because this is their home and they don't want any problems. One by one they load their vehicles and drive away.

It's time for work.

Right now, someone reaches for a bag of grapes in a supermarket. The shopper cradles the chilled, voluptuous fruit in his palm and admires the uniform size and color. Perfection for as little as $1 a pound.

Regardless of whether the grapes are green or red or where the supermarket is, from mid-May until mid-July it's a good bet they came from about 9,000 acres of vineyards surrounding the hard-luck town of Mecca.

The Coachella Valley stretches across the desert for 45 miles. To the northwest are golf resorts, retirees and lush subdivisions. Relatively few people ever see the southeast side, hard against the dying Salton Sea. It's among California's most fertile farming regions, with a $1.7-billion-a-year agricultural economy.

Table grapes have been the valley's biggest crop for more than a century. Each year, some 100 million pounds are picked by an army of laborers during an epic harvest against which the ugly realities of global agribusiness stand in vivid relief.

The work is hard, dirty and dangerous. It begins at dawn when the air is sweet and moist and stretches until midafternoon, when temperatures can top 120 degrees and the sun feels like a steel-toed boot to the head.

The pay is $8 to $9 an hour, less than it was 40 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

"Nothing changes," says Arturo Rodriguez, an attorney in the Coachella office of California Rural Legal Assistance. "It's the same harvest of shame."

In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America turned working and living conditions of grape pickers into a potent symbol of rural poverty. After years of protests, strikes and boycotts, the union's first table grape contract was signed in Coachella in 1970.

But that's all in the rearview mirror. Chavez -- who died in 1993, a year after visiting Mecca to kick off another campaign for higher wages -- is still revered here. But the union isn't a player in the valley's vineyards and no longer has a local office.

Eddie Leon and his family have owned Leon's Meat Market for half a century. Situated at Mecca's main crossroad, it's a hub of activity day and night during the grape harvest.