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U.S. Official Strengthens Ties to Field Workers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Echaveste’s parents told her she was making a big mistake 22 years ago when she accepted a scholarship to Stanford University instead of looking for a blue-collar job in Oxnard.

Her farm worker father, who had no formal education and was taught by his wife to sign his name, even tried to discourage her from entering Channel Islands High School in 1968, urging her to labor in the fields for the sake of her poor family.

“I’m a girl, and girls don’t need education, that’s what he thought,” said Echaveste, who became a lawyer. “I think that was a very traditional Mexican reaction. But I was the eldest daughter, and I was challenging that.”

Echaveste now holds a powerful job in Washington as the head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, and her folks have long since acknowledged that she did the right thing.

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But she is still distressed by childhood memories of picking tomatoes and strawberries under a scorching sun, and is haunted by recollections of the wretched concrete shacks that she lived in with her parents, four sisters and two brothers.

“Agriculture is a big part of Ventura County, so farm workers are also,” Echaveste said. “But it seems like people want to keep the farm workers out of sight, so they don’t have to see how they have to live. It’s a travesty.”

Back in Oxnard’s Colonia neighborhood for her sister’s wedding, Echaveste visited one of Ventura County’s worst slums--the Oxnard Mobilehome Lodge--Friday with representatives from California Rural Legal Assistance.

What she saw there upset her but came as no surprise: Living conditions for farm workers have barely improved, she said.

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“There continue to be a lot of the problems that were present when I was in the fields,” Echaveste said. “I lived in concrete shacks with no bathrooms that were better than what people have today.”

More than 1,100 people--mostly farm workers--live in about 140 tattered metal trailers at the park, which has no sewers or bathrooms. An inspection in 1991 found 1,197 health and safety violations.

Oxnard leaders have discussed closing the park since 1985, when a fire that charred three of the tiny trailers left 25 people homeless. So far, little has happened.

The city has vowed since 1992 to relocate the park residents, and recently purchased land for a low-cost housing project. But residents say they are being betrayed by the city, because they will not be able to afford the homes that are being proposed.

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Walking around the shabby streets of the trailer park, Echaveste talked to residents about their problems in rusty Spanish, keeping notes to take back to Washington.

While a boy played Frisbee in the street with a paint lid, Echaveste talked to Alberto Madrigal, who lives in a decrepit trailer with his wife and four children--one of whom has to sleep under a table.

“No one wants to live in these conditions,” Echaveste said later. "(Madrigal) said that it’s just not right to have no privacy when your daughters are growing up. He has a bed in his kitchen.”

But Echaveste conceded that from her position, which puts her in charge of enforcing minimum wage and child labor standards, there is little she can do to help the trailer residents, other than notify the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

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“I can’t do much about this,” she said. “But I think there is a lot of value in having government workers see for themselves what the conditions are,” she said. “It’s one thing to sit behind a desk in Washington. It’s another to see things for yourself.”

When she left Oxnard for Stanford, Echaveste saw for herself just how little people knew about farm workers--and how much better others lived.

“It was a total dramatic culture shock,” she said of her college experience. “It was such a rich school. Kids had college prep classes, and were way ahead of me.”

Despite her disadvantages, Echaveste graduated from Stanford with high marks, went on to law school at Berkeley and quickly established herself in her field.

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She met Hillary Clinton while serving on the board of the New World Foundation, a nonprofit agency that serves grants to social service organizations, and later became involved with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Echaveste served as Latino coordinator during the campaign, helping Clinton court the Latino vote. She later worked on Clinton’s transition team before being appointed to her current job by the Senate last year.

Despite feeling helpless in situations like her tour of the mobile home park, her idealism, and enthusiasm for government, have not waned.

“I wish it would be faster, but bureaucracy and government is really difficult,” she said. “It really matters who you have in the positions, though. You need people who care.”

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