Despite the poverty some of these people live in, I have found them to be as generous and as gracious hosts as I imagine Governor Pico to have been. Last summer I retrieved a few cases of cold beer out of the walk-in cooler for some migrant workers who came into the Pala Vista market where I worked. The man buying the beer was so thankful for the extra-cold beer that he offered an invitation to dinner. Making the arrangement wasn’t too easy with my broken Spanish and his broken English, but I think our smiles, patience, good intentions, and heavy use of the word amigo helped us find some common ground. “Ah, viernes… that’s Friday. Yeah, I don’t work that night. I mean: no trabajo en la noche de Viennese. Oh yeah, uh… carne asada es muy bueno con cerveza uh… yeah. I like beer, I mean, cerveza… er… uh… ¿Que hora comenzamos? ¿Quarto media? So early? ¿Tan temprano? ¿Tu casa no tiene electicidad? No problemo.”
At 4:30 on Friday I sat in my car at the end of a dirt road, waiting for Alfonso and Alfredo to lead me to their place. A few minutes late, my friends came spreading dust in a well-used pickup. We waved hola and took off down some grove roads that finally led to a clearing among the citrus trees. In the clearing stood a shack that had two rooms the size of a tool shed, with three cots in each room, and a little trailer that had once been white but now was in the process of returning to earthen rust and dust.
Alfonso unloaded a roast that had been cut into thin slabs, Alfredo grabbed a case of beer, and I broke out some ice and a case of Schlitz Malt talls that I had brought. About eight Mexican men of all ages gathered around the junked ice box in the middle of the camp and started talking so rapidly that I couldn’t catch half of what was being said, except that it was funny. My host asked if I liked hot salsa: I said I like salsa hot, but not too hot. Alfonso sent a boy who couldn’t have been older than 15 to get some lemons, but all the fruit within arm’s reach had been picked, so he started knocking lemons out of the top branches by throwing a beer bottle at the fruit. Soon half of one of these lemons was added to half an onion, three tomatoes, and some jalapeños, all being ground in a pan with the bottom of a jar. We cooked the meat and heated the tortillas over a fire pit in the center of camp, slapped it together, and made carne asada. So simple, just drip some fresh salsa over a taco just off the fire; no dishes to wash, just streamlined eating.
Soon there was music. A shy man gave in to the crowd and sang “Rosa Maria.” By this time night had fallen and we were in the middle of a full-blown fiesta. Suddenly some headlights came swinging through the grove; everyone stopped talking and looked toward the road. It took me a moment to understand why an approaching car should stop all conversation, singing, and laughter; then I realized that these people were illegal aliens. A border patrol raid could mean another difficult and oftentimes dangerous border crossing. There had been a raid in the local market a couple weeks before. It was an easy job for the border patrol — just wait outside any afternoon, and six or seven illegals are bound to come out carrying their sacks of tortillas, peppers, lard, and beer. This particular day one illegal tried to hide in the produce section, but the patrol came in and caught him, too.
The headlights were switched off, the car door opened, and the silence around the campfire disappeared. Our new guest was somebody’s cousin or everybody’s cousin. I couldn’t quite make out which. By this time they had me singing “Jambalaya.” All I could remember was one verse and the chorus, but my hosts were too happy to care.
In Valley Center the problems begin with water. More rain than usual has fallen recently; growers are buying less water and people are starting to conserve. The decreasing demand for water has reduced the generation of sufficient funds for the operating costs of the Metropolitan Water District, which sells Valley Center its water. To compensate, the Metro District has raised its fees. Valley Center follows by passing those increases along in the form of rate hikes, one in January of this year and one to come in July. Depending upon the pumping charges, the increases could range from 14 to 32 percent. Whether the increases are contrived or unavoidable can be known only by those at the top, wherever that may be. For the families of North County who have relied on the groves as sources of income and buffers to maintain privacy and a pleasant, uncongested environment, the increases in the water rates may turn their groves into very expensive luxuries.
Not all growers would suffer by selling. Along with water rates, the price of property has also been on the rise. This offers a chance to get out of a thankless and risky business. The great risk in agriculture is primarily that of natural disaster. In order to bring in a little more money and to become “the market” on a crop, growers will hold fruit on the trees for as long as is safe, and sometimes longer. A strong Santa Ana could knock a crop off the trees. A cold spell could freeze the fruit to the point where it is no longer edible. The grower takes these and other risks while the brokers take avocados at 39 cents, juggle them around, and sell them for 79 cents only ten miles away, all at no risk.
As a tough business gets tougher, growers are considering their options, and many feel that the best choice is to get out. One grove at the corner of Mac Tan Road and Valley Center Road has been left idle for a couple of seasons. The owner wants to put in a trailer park. After letting the land go for so long, the loss sustained, unless the land were developed, would be staggering. If it is developed, the action will mark another step toward the end of Valley Center as a rural town.