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‘It All Seems Very Strange . . .’ : Jalisco Workers Facing Uncertain Future

Times Staff Writer

Jose Luis Mota stood outside the closed Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. plant in Artesia Friday morning, waiting for his weekly paycheck--and a word about his future.

The 35-year-old Norwalk resident said he had worked at the plant for 17 years, since the company was started. He learned of Jalisco’s sudden shutdown on TV Thursday evening and was completely surprised by the news that 29 people had died in Los Angeles and Orange counties from a bacterial contamination linked to the cheeses produced at the plant.

“This is just unbelievable,” Mota said in Spanish. “It all seems very strange to us. We all eat this cheese, and no one has ever gotten sick. Nothing like this has ever happened here.”

Spokesman Declines Comment

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An agitated company spokesman on his way out of the plant would not comment Friday on the company’s plans for its 65 employees, saying only, “It’s the state of California that’s doing this to us.”

Jalisco sells about $1 million worth of cheese a month and has become the second-largest producer of Mexican-speciality cheese in Los Angeles.

Male and female employees in boots and white uniforms and caps gathered Friday morning outside the closed plant, waiting, like Mota, for a paycheck or some word from the company. They watched in quiet groups as company officials came and went from the small concrete building, fending off reporters and television cameramen. Behind an iron gate and a high cement wall, workers in forklifts were unloading the recalled cheese from company trucks.

The employees, most of them undocumented Mexicans who asked not to be identified, expressed concern but no bitterness about their uncertain fate. Many had worked for years as packers and shippers at the plant, which operates 24 hours in three shifts, they said. Several live nearby and were accompanied by wives and children.

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“This is very bad,” said a mother of three. “This is my husband’s job--our rent, our food . . . everything.”

Ponders the Future

Her husband, a worker at the plant for nine years, smiled weakly as he considered the future.

“What else can I do?” he asked.

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For years, the company had given employees two free Jalisco cheeses every weekend to take home to their families, employees said, and many had reared their children on it.

The Sanchez family of Downey angrily defended the firm’s product, saying that they had been eating it for years and would not remove it from their refrigerator. They had spent all morning trying to calm worried relatives calling from Mexico after reports of the tainted cheese appeared on television there, the family said.

‘Not Afraid’ to Eat Cheese

“I’m not afraid of eating that cheese,” said a Sanchez family member who has worked at the firm for two years and didn’t want to be further identified. “I know nothing’s wrong with it.”

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“I don’t think Jalisco will continue the product,” said another worker. “This company doesn’t have the money to solve its problems. This is a definitive blow. We’re all going to be out of a job.”

The workers said that they are paid between $4 and $8 an hour. Most said that they had few complaints about their jobs.

“It’s like every place,” one worker said. “Sometimes they treat you well, and sometimes they treat you poorly. Sometimes, for the most insignificant thing, they’ll fire a worker.”

Strike Failed

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Because most of the workers are undocumented, the worker said, the company has been able to fire workers at will. About four years ago, a two-week strike for higher wages failed, one worker said, because the employees were unable to hold out and the firm had begun to hire replacements. Attempts to organize a union at that time were also unsuccessful, he said.

But for Mota, a father of two, Jalisco had always been a good place to work--checks on time, above-minimum wages, a yearly bonus at Christmas and decent working conditions.

It was his first job upon arriving in this country from Mexico 17 years ago, he said, and his only job to date. He had seen the plant change owners and grow from a small operation to the producer of a popular supermarket brand in the Latino community, Mota said.

Steve Soto, president of the Mexican American Grocers Assn., which represents more than 700 member stores, said he was shocked to hear that Jalisco cheese might be linked to deaths and illness. He said the company has a “good name” and a “good product” going back 17 years.

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‘A Little Shocking’

“It’s a little shocking when someone calls you up and says that the Jalisco cheese that you’ve grown up with and eaten is responsible for 29 deaths,” said Soto, who owns Savemore Market in Pico Rivera.

“We feel very saddened that 29 people passed away due to this,” he said. “But we’re hopeful Jalisco can come back and get back to business. They are in 75% of our stores. It’s a big seller, just like milk, bread and eggs.”

“I have never had a complaint about anything (at work),” Mota said. “We hope that something will be resolved.”

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If the company doesn’t reopen soon, what work would Mota look for?

“Whatever comes my way,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “We all just have to go on.”


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