Bitter Taste in the Grape Fields

Times Staff Writer

Unlike many farm workers who come from Mexico to toil under the San Joaquin Valley sun, Luis Angel Valdivia wasn't pushed north by desperation.

He had a decent job back home and the comfort of a tight-knit family. But he was the youngest child, an adventurer from age 12, and so he handed $1,500 to a coyote last winter and headed to his "great vision" on this side of the border.

What he regrets now is not the decision to come north but that his 53-year-old father followed in his path, tracing his footsteps from Jalisco to Pixley and then shadowing his son into the Kern County grape fields last month.

Five days later, the father was dead, the victim of heatstroke after working a 10-hour day picking grapes in the 100-degree sun. These fields during harvest are mostly off limits to the outside world, but the July 28 death of Asuncion Valdivia has forced the nation's biggest table grape grower, a privately held company not accustomed to answering questions, to explain a tragedy that farm worker advocates say was avoidable.

The death not only offers a peek into a hidden zone that produces nearly all of the nation's sweet table grapes, but it has underscored the hazards of what many here regard as one of the most brutal jobs in America. That father and son were here illegally and presented fake documents to the grower, Giumarra Vineyards, has only complicated the picture.

For the 21-year-old son, who sent his father's body back to Mexico to be buried and then returned to work last week in these same fields -- for the same grower -- the taste is a bitter one. Just after the stricken man collapsed, a Giumarra employee called 911 to request paramedics but was unable to provide the vineyard's location, county records show. As a result, no ambulance ever responded. He died in the car as his son tried frantically to reach a hospital.

"I watched my father die, and he didn't have to," Valdivia said. "Yes, I blame the grower, and each day I walk into that field the bitterness comes back." Valdivia said he tolerates his bitterness because he needs the job to survive here.

John Giumarra, the company's vice president, called the death a "super-aberration. We've been growing grapes for 75 years, and we've never had someone die in the fields. We have 4,000 workers harvesting for four months, and this just doesn't happen."

Giumarra acknowledged that the work was backbreaking, especially during the months of July and August when the temperature here can reach 110. "We give them a break in the morning and a break in the afternoon and half-hour lunch in between. We make ice water available right there. We do everything within our power to make sure the work environment is safe."

Farm workers succumbing to heatstroke in California may be unusual, but it isn't rare. In 2002, , three farm workers died of heatstroke, and in 1998, four fatalities were tied to the heat, state statistics show. But because state and federal monitoring of field-related deaths and illnesses is plagued by holes, government statisticians say the real numbers aren't known. No records, for instance, are kept in years when farm worker deaths from heatstroke number fewer than three.

But grape growers say that even the handful of heat-related deaths each year must be put into context. From June to November, more than 40,000 pickers and packers harvest 700,000 tons of table grapes -- red flames and green Thompsons and crimson seedless -- across 110,000 acres.

"When you consider that tens of thousands of employees work millions of hours each year preparing and harvesting California's fruit, nut and vegetable crops, the incidence of heat-related reactions is extremely low," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, a trade association that recently called on farmers to review procedures to safeguard against heatstroke.

But the United Farm Workers is demanding that growers do more, such as providing salt tablets to workers and training crew bosses to better recognize and treat heatstroke.

"Foremen and supervisors should be properly trained in identifying and treating symptoms and knowing when to call for help and where to send it," said Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president. "If that had happened when Asuncion Valdivia was stricken, he might not have died."

Growing up in the countryside of Jalisco, the younger Valdivia was not yet a teenager when he began plotting ways to get to the U.S. "It seemed like an adventure to me," he said last week, giving an account in Spanish inside a wooden shack in Pixley. "I just had to know the United States. I just had to come."

He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and became a driver for a mattress company, earning more than $2 an hour, a wage he considered ample for hardly breaking a sweat. He could have easily made a life for himself in Mexico, he said. But he had watched his mother die young and his two sisters and a brother settle for less. He vowed to save enough cash for the trip north.

In January, he said goodbye to the family and boarded a plane to Tijuana. He spent two weeks there taking in the scenes and securing a coyote. On Jan. 25, he crossed the border near Tecate by foot and waited for the coyote to pick him up. A half-day later, he reached the wooden shack in Pixley where his father's fiancee had arrived a few months earlier. She took him in as one of her children.

He had no trouble securing a phony green card and Social Security number as he waited for the grapes to ripen. In June, he signed on with a crew at Giumarra Vineyards, a fourth-generation grape-growing family with a reputation as one of the industry's leading innovators. The Giumarras may rank as the biggest table grape grower in the world, with more than 5,000 acres, but they don't consider themselves absentee landlords.

"We're not corporate farmers farming out of New York City," John Giumarra said. "Our family members are out under those same vines. We've got dirt on our Levis."

The reality of these fields is that crops would not be harvested without undocumented workers. Farmers don't like to talk about it in public, but they acknowledge in private that illegal migrants constitute more and more of the work force. Some farmers estimate that more than 70% of the grape pickers are illegal migrants.

"What is a farmer to do?" Giumarra asked. "The workers show us a green card and Social Security number, and how do we know if it's legitimate or fraudulent? We're not policemen."

Those first days in the fields, working from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the younger Valdivia had a hard time keeping up. He said he couldn't get used to the heat. The fields felt like an oven as he worked his way down the long rows on his hands and knees, gnats flying in his face, sulfur dust choking his lungs.

"The heat," he said, "I wasn't prepared for the heat."

Giumarra Vineyards demanded that a minimum of 15 boxes of grapes be picked before the first break at 9:30 a.m., he said. At first, he was picking fewer than seven boxes. "Each day, I got a little better. It took me eight days to catch up. If you don't learn, you're out."

By doubling his speed, Valdivia was able to earn a piece-rate bonus on top of the minimum wage, bringing home $75 a day, or $7.50 an hour. It was enough to persuade his father to give it a try as well.

He was a small, thin man, but he could work like an ox, his son said. "He had a job in a tile factory in Mexico. He was used to hard work."

The father began in mid-July. He was picking four rows down from his son. Even though the work overwhelmed him, he was a quiet man not given to complaining. At lunch, the father would sit in the shade of the vines and gobble down an egg-and-bean burrito, too tired to share a word.

"We'd leave the house at 4 in the morning and get back at 6 at night," the son said. "I drove and he slept."

July 28, he recalled, was in the midst of a particularly hot week, with temperatures as high as 104 degrees. At the end of the 10-hour shift, he heard a lady scream that his father had collapsed. Workers were putting water on his forehead and fanning him when the crew boss' daughter called 911.

A tape of that call and two others that quickly followed -- provided to The Times by Kern County fire officials -- reveals confusion on the part of the Giumarra crew boss and his daughter. Deep in the vineyards near the small town of Arvin, they could not provide the dispatcher with a location to send an ambulance.

At some point, the cellphone disconnects, and the dispatcher calls back to determine the location again. "Where are you?" the dispatcher can be heard asking. After five minutes of struggling to come up with an answer, the crew boss' daughter tells the dispatcher that Valdivia now appears OK.

"They already took him to the nearest hospital," she says on the tape.

But the son said his father wasn't OK. He had regained consciousness but was still struggling to walk when the crew boss told his daughter to cancel the ambulance. The crew boss "told me to drive him home and give him something to eat. He said he 'just fainted.' "

The car, sitting in the sun all day, was even hotter than the fields. About 15 minutes into the drive, he said, his father began foaming at the mouth and then went limp. He said he turned around on Highway 99 and began driving in the opposite direction to the closest hospital.

"I was driving 95 miles an hour, but it took me about 20 minutes to get there," he said. "By the time I got there, his chest wasn't breathing anymore."

Giumarra calls it a tragedy but says his employees did the best they could under the circumstances. "The father seemed to be feeling better when maybe someone said, 'Take him home.' We think we've done everything according to the books."

The son says Giumarra has yet to call or send a letter of condolence. He said he is still waiting for the company to send a check to cover the days that his father worked as a trainee.

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