Los Hechados

Immigrant farmworkers in the company town of Samoa told to pack their bags

by and


On Friday, May 28, a young man who we'll call "Slim" stood in the living room of the home that he has shared with up to 10 roommates at a time for the last 14 months. The week previous, Slim had received notice from the person who sublet the home to him and his roommates that they would have to move out of the house by June 1. Now the deadline was approaching, and Slim -- a slender man who could have passed for a high school student, wearing a hoodie and jeans and sporting a shaved head -- was at a loss for where he was going to go next.

"We don't know what we're going to do," Slim said, speaking on behalf of his colleagues. "I guess we'll stay at a hotel for a week and look for work, but we'll have to leave all our things behind -- beds, tables, microwave, everything."

Like many of his roommates, and like many of his co-workers who had lived in the town of Samoa since February 2009, Slim is an undocumented farmworker. (His name, like those of other undocumented workers interviewed for this story, has been changed.) He was just one of more than 60 residents of the town -- men, women and children -- who had received the same notice to get out of their houses. They had all come to town, mostly from the Fresno area, to work in the floral industry. The 60 people lived in six houses in the old lumber town. The homes they stayed in were overcrowded, with at least two to four tenants per room. The furniture in Slim's house sat on cold concrete floors. There were a couple of mattresses in the one bedroom that was visible, and another in the laundry room.

Samoa has always been a working man's town, but in some ways Slim and his colleagues in those six houses are different than the lumberjacks of yore -- their skin is darker, their language is foreign and most, if not all, were born in Mexico. In other ways, they weren't so different: They work backbreaking jobs for little pay and their employer plays an outsized role in their lives -- not only did the company give them their wage, but it took back a portion of that wage in the form of rent and transportation to and from work.

In Slim's case, the ultimate employer was the Sun Valley Group, the largest producer of cut flowers in the state of California. Not only does the company have a large flower farm in the Arcata Bottom -- the farm where Slim and his colleagues worked -- but since 2001 it has also held a large stake in the privately owned town of Samoa. And ever since the well-publicized immigration raids on Sun Valley in 2008, it has used its town and an out-of-the-area contractor to keep the farm staffed.

Unfortunately for the workers, the arrangement the company made with its contracted workforce has left the employees with little recourse to justice. Their understanding was that they were being kicked out for failure to pay rent, even though they insisted that they had paid their rent every month, on time, over the last year and a half. What's more, in total they were paying far, far more than the going rate for a home in Samoa.

It should be no surprise that people like Slim find themselves without options. Oxfam, a group of non-governmental organizations from three continents, works worldwide to fight poverty and injustice; in a report titled "Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture," it writes this about the plight of the undocumented farm laborer: "In a tight market, facing competition from lower-cost imports and seeing profits curtailed with every sale, production costs must be cut. Unfortunately, that decision comes at the expense of those who toil at the bottom of the supply chain with little bargaining power and without familiarity with the system."

In June 2008, the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency notified Sun Valley that it suspected that 283 of its employees were working in the county illegally. The employees were promptly laid off, but the feds came calling anyway: A large-scale raid on the farm three months later ended with 23 arrests.

"We need people in the worst possible way," Sun Valley president and CEO Lane DeVries, himself an immigrant from Holland, told the Times-Standard in the wake of the raids. "It makes for a very, very tough situation. This has to be one of the darkest days in the history of our company."

What ended up filling the gap was a Madera contractor called Zepeda Farm Labor Services, which quickly transported a new crew, mainly from the Fresno area, up to Arcata. Zepeda sent up a supervisor with the laborers, a man named Jesse Rapan. Rapan rented six homes in Samoa and started cramming his crew inside them.

Undocumented workers are still present at Sun Valley, but since the ICE raids they have been part of the Zepeda workforce and not on Sun Valley's books. Even though the Zepeda workers labored at Sun Valley and lived in homes largely owned by the company, Lane DeVries, the president and CEO of the company, said late last month that he had no idea what was going on or who the people living in those homes were.

"I think the numbers have been greatly exaggerated on how many people were moved into the houses," DeVries said when asked about claims made by both neighbors and residents of the homes that at least 200 contract workers have rotated through the six homes during a 16-month period while working at Sun Valley.

"I had heard about a month and a half ago that these people were moving out of their own accord," he later added. "Sounds like whoever rented the houses to the tenants is responsible to the people living there."

But if DeVries was unclear on the specifics, his partner in the Samoa Pacific Group -- the entity that owns the town of Samoa -- knew at least a little bit more. Though Sun Valley now controls a large majority of shares in Samoa Pacific, the Danco Group, an Arcata contractor and property management firm run by businessman Dan Johnson, has a minority stake in the town. And a Danco subsidiary -- Danco Property Management -- has been responsible for renting and keeping up the town's properties.

Last week, Johnson confirmed that Jesse Rapan, the supervisor employed by Zepeda Labor Services and working at Sun Valley Floral Farms, rented six homes from Danco and subsequently sublet them. Johnson said Danco doesn't normally allow subleases or one person to rent multiple houses at the same time. "We usually don't rent in that situation, but we made an exception," he said.

In a follow-up interview, Johnson said there was not a specific reason why Rapan, who earns a supervisor's salary, was able to rent six homes, "It's not common, but it happens," he said. "It certainly is not uncommmon."

Technically, the Zepeda workers weren't "evicted" from their homes. Danco Property Management served the houses with what's known as a "pay or quit" notice on all six houses, claiming that the lessee -- Jesse Rapan -- was behind on payments to the company. Those notices were served on May 19.

A week later, though, Johnson told the Journal that the amount due on all the homes had been paid. Even so, he said, the people were still leaving. "Everyone is moving out voluntarily," Johnson said. He said that a few residents had elected to stay on in any case, but the Journal was unable to locate them.

Jesse Rapan was packing up his own stuff when the Journal spoke with him late last month. His house, just down the street from the others being evacuated, would not have been remarkable if it wasn't so different from the other houses that Rapan oversees. Fresh carpet was laid on the floor, the living room was furnished and a big screen television was tuned to Telemundo. A toddler who shared the same raven-colored hair as Rapan's wife ran around the cavernous living room. The smell of grilled onions and Spanish rice wafted through the air.

Rapan said that he was leaving the county, as he does every year to work the onion season in Fresno. Defiant, he said that he has provided a much-needed service to Humboldt County.

"I've noticed the local people are lazy or on probation," he said. "With our workers you don't have to deal with that."

Rapan's role in the Zepeda team is far larger than most employer-employee relationships, and harkens back to Samoa early history as a company town. Not only did he supervise the workers on-site, he served as their landlord and provided them with transportation.

Workers who were interviewed said that for $100 each way, Rapan drove migrant workers from the Fresno area to Arcata. Over the last two years he kept a watchful eye as their field boss and as a translator between Sun Valley management and the over 200 migrant workers at the flower farm.

More to the point, though, on paper Rapan served as the employees' landlord. The six Samoa homes that housed migrant workers were rented under his name. He then sublet the homes to multiple people at a time, and some say he did so at exorbitant rates.

Tenants said that they paid $300 a month -- a total of $3,000 for a home with 10 tenants, which was not uncommon. The normal rental rate for those home was between $950 and $1,200 per month. Others paid less, between $140-$170 depending on the number of people currently living at the homes, but were often charged as much as $600 for utility bills. One farm worker said that at one point over 20 people, including himself, lived in Rapan's own rental.

"Tomas," another Zepeda worker who lived in Samoa, said Rapan would come by every month to collect the money, but would not provide them with any documentation such as utility bills or receipts. "He told us if we didn't like it, we could leave," Tomas said. He added that Rapan often leaves for different locations throughout California and other states, where other Zepeda farm laborers are located, but it didn't pose a problem since the six households would just mail him their rent.

There are dozens of people like Rapan working in fields all over California. The workers living in Samoa are a prime example of companies using contract labor so they don't have to deal with worker's problems, such as being evicted.

Maria Machuca, communications director for the United Farm Workers, said last week that if all illegal immigrants were deported, farms in California would be devastated because of the lack of workers to tend the fields. She said that's why she promotes farm worker rights regardless of whether people are legal or not.

Business such as Zepeda Farm Labor Services are a big problem, Machuca said, because they allow larger businesses to continue exploiting undocumented workers without facing any of the severe consequences associated with the practice. "They can say they didn't know and when someone dies or is hurt, the employer using contract workers can say 'we didn't hire them,'" she said.

Machuca said supervisors like Jesse Rapan are often only a little better off than the field workers they oversee. "This leads to a lot of abuse, especially when other workers don't have [legal] papers," she said. "They don't speak up because they're afraid of losing their jobs or being deported. It's still not an excuse."

Rapan denies that the workers he contracts are illegal and immediately took issue with a reporter who suggested otherwise. "Is it because we're Mexican?" he asked the Journal last week. "We (Zepeda Farm Labor Services) don't hire illegal workers." Unfortunately, Rapan is the only tenant to believe this -- all the other residents that work for him say that Rapan only hires undocumented workers, and almost all the people the Journal spoke with said that they were in the country illegally.

No one is quite sure about why the workers are being pushed out at this point in time. It could be that the busy season at the farm has just concluded, and therefore there is less need for labor. Alternatively, it could be that the company is fearing additional scrutiny from ICE. Both Slim and Tomas suggest that Rapan was recently told to leave Sun Valley after numerous complaints to management.

Or maybe it could have something to do with several disturbances that have been reported to the Sheriff's Office in the months since the Zepeda employees moved in.

Phyllis Rex -- a 30-year resident of Samoa, proud grandmother and head of the Neighborhood Watch -- describes the town as a "Sleepy Hollow," a place where kids come first. The neighborhood itself is composed of rows of old homes with paint chipping and peeling away, the redwood shingles outlasting the life of the pastel colored paint which still clings on to its host. One block is comprised of homes with their windows and doors boarded up. Rex said that they have stood like that since the 1980s and must be refurbished because of their historical status.

In some senses, the town seems trapped in time. But the arrival of the Zepeda workers definitely changed its dynamic somewhat. The newer residents often hung outside listening to the popular Spanish music known as Norteño. White vans came to pick up and drop off dozens of these men and women six days a week, so it came as no surprise to any of the Samoa residents that there were immigrants in their midst. And then there were some problems that required law enforcement intervention.

Joe Downs, a Samoa resident, said last month that his two cars, a fence and a nearby fire hydrant were all taken out by a drunk driver who was visiting one of the workers last Fourth of July. (The visitor was eventually detained by neighbors, and was later charged with a DUI.) The subsequent flood washed out the foundation of a nearby historical home.

Multiple neighbors -- including some of the workers themselves -- said that there have also been two stabbings that were attributed to the immigrant workers. Rex said the last stabbing incident happened about four months ago.  Since then, she said, it has been quiet. (The North Coast Journal submitted a Public Records Act request for police reports in Samoa going back a year, but the information has yet to be received.)

Mostly, though, the old-time Samoa residents seemed to take their new neighbors in stride, and feel sympathy for their plight.

Alex Hubner is in his very early 20s, with an easy smile and close cropped locks. Hubner lives across the street from one of the households that was told to leave. "It's not fair what [they are] doing to these people," he said. "It's been nice seeing these families around, and it's wrong to put kids on the street."

Downs, the victim of the car crash, looks sullen as he adds that he doesn't know what it takes for his neighbors to live, only that they work extremely hard and seem to work everyday except for Sunday, their one day off. "One bad apple ruins the whole bunch," he says.

Slim and one of his roommates, "Tony," said they have never caused any problems. "We might have some beer sometimes, but we never did anything wrong," said Tony. Slim pointed out that the stabbings happened four to five months ago, and the car accident happened last year. Also, these incidents only involved residents living in one particular house. They didn't believe that was why they are being told to leave now.

"They do it because they know we can't fight back and the company (Sun Valley) doesn't help us because they're not supposed to have illegals," Slim said.

Rex says the two houses behind her, full of migrant workers, have never been a problem and that for the most part the immigrants are not a problem. "When I get a complaint I go to Jesse (Rapan) and he translates," she said, adding that she had always found Rapan to be a very nice guy. One particular instance she recalls is when one house had 14 trash bags out front, "They didn't know about recycling," she said. "Jesse and I went and explained everything about recycling."

As for the impact that more than 200 foreigners coming and going over a two year period, Rex shrugs and says, "This community belongs to [Sun Valley and Danco], you can't tell them not to drop people off."

According to the Oxfam report on American agriculture and migrant workers, companies hire farm worker brokerage firms like Zepeda to alleviate the chances of raids or fines that stem from using an undocumented work force. Should Sun Valley face another ICE raid, they can always call up another labor agency to fill the void. This continues the never-ending cycle of raids and continued employment under different labor contractors.

As for Slim and Tony, they say it's hard to find a job and place to live without the help of Zepeda or Sun Valley and will more than likely return to Fresno for work. But they said they won't be calling Jesse Rapan anytime soon. They'll try to go directly to Francisco Zepeda, owner of Zepeda Farm Labor Services, and a man they feel free to call "Pancho."

"We'll call Pancho, not Jesse," Slim said. "No, not Jesse." 

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