Strawberry Jam : Farm Workers Say Oxnard Festival Ignores Their Contributions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After eight successful years, the Oxnard Strawberry Festival has become Ventura County's premiere harvest celebration, a symbol of its rural lifestyle.

For Oxnard's elected officials, the festival is a source of civic pride. For farmers, it's a chance to sell strawberries. And for visitors, it's been an opportunity to eat tons of strawberry shortcake and view the Strawberry Blonde competition.

But for the farm workers of Ventura County, according to farm labor leaders, the festival has meant nothing at all.

"Just another day of hard work in the fields," said Victor Palafox, the county's United Farm Workers representative.

This year for the first time, however, the county's strawberry pickers may have an active role in the festival. Labor and community leaders plan to recruit farm workers to picket the event.

"We are seeking a little consideration for farm workers' contribution to the success of the festival," said Carlos Aguilera, president of Oxnard's La Colonia Neighborhood Council. "Unfortunately, the organizers don't care about the workers."

Specifically, Aguilera and Palafox are asking that part of the festival's profits be set aside to pay for day care and scholarships for children of the farm workers. They would also like the festival to throw a party for the workers and abolish the Strawberry Blonde contest, which they say is offensive to Latinos.

Festival organizers say Palafox and Aguilera are asking the wrong people to take care of their problems.

"It's really unfortunate they are asking the festival to address these issues this way," said Tsujito Kato, a former Oxnard mayor who is chairman of the festival's organizing committee.

"As much as you'd like to see some of those things, the festival is in no position to meet those types of demands. We're all volunteers, and it's a full-time job just to put out this event," he said.

The city-sponsored festival began eight years ago with a small celebration by the beach, and it has been growing ever since. Last year, it moved to the Oxnard Community College campus to accommodate larger crowds. About 80,000 people paid $4 each to attend.

The festival last year had a 1960s theme and featured performances by the Guess Who, Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Strawberry pancakes, kebabs and pizzas were available at food stands. Kato said this year's festival, scheduled for the third weekend in May, will be similar to others in past years, but admission will go up to $5.

During the festival's first years, the city subsidized its cost. But for the last two years, the festival has turned a profit--$12,000 in 1990 and $24,000 in 1991. Costs surpassed $500,000 last year.

The profits are turned over to the city's General Fund, Kato said. City Council members have said they plan to make the festival an independent event in the near future.

It is one of the county's most visible events. Sponsors include Coors beer and Smuckers jam.

The festival has established Oxnard as the strawberry capital of California. The Oxnard Plain produces 25% of the state's strawberries, organizers said.

Strawberry pickers are typically among the lower echelon of the farm-worker hierarchy, Palafox said. Because of the seasonal nature of the harvest, pay is low and job security is nonexistent, he said.

A large proportion of the workers are illegal immigrants, and none of the growers have union contracts with the UFW, Palafox said. Most of the pickers live in Oxnard's La Colonia and Rosa Valley northern neighborhoods, Aguilera said.

The Strawberry Blonde contest is a festival fixture. There are three age categories, and entries are made available at the city's Special Events office and at an upscale hair salon in Channel Islands Beach.

The contest is open to people of all races, Kato said.

"You can dye your hair or wear a wig," he said. "If it were something offensive, the city wouldn't be sponsoring it."

But Palafox said the queen of the festival should be a fruit harvester. "Instead, they pick somebody who doesn't even know if you need a ladder to pick strawberries," he said.

Last month, Palafox and Aguilera attended a festival organizing committee meeting to present their grievances and requested a reply in eight days, but so far they have received none, Aguilera said.

"We just wanted to open a dialogue with the organizers, but they don't seem to care about the farm workers," he said. To make them listen, Palafox and Aguilera said they plan to recruit 1,000 farm workers to picket the event.

Aguilera also threatened to put pressure on the sponsors. "At this point, I'm not sure whether that pressure will come in the form of a letter to the sponsors, or if we'll ask people to boycott their products."

Kato said Aguilera's and Palafox's concerns will be looked into, but he said volunteers are too overwhelmed with work to address their concerns right now.

"We will have an answer, but we can't do it right away," Kato said. "We meet every two weeks, but we barely have time to take care of business."

Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi said some of the requests made to the committee are legitimate, but the timing is wrong.

"These festivals are organized a year in advance," he said. "I think it's inappropriate to bring things up two months before the festival, instead of getting aboard on the ground level for next year's festival."

But the festival cannot afford to subsidize farm worker programs, Takasugi said. "We were struggling to break even, and we only made a little bit of money the last couple of years," he said.

As for the beauty contest, Takasugi suggested that farm workers could organize a harvest queen contest to coincide with the Strawberry Blonde competition.

"This festival is for the entire community," he said. "It is not geared to any segment of the population."

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