OXNARD – The workers bend over raised rows, capturing strawberries the size of plums in their hands. It is good picking weather for the back-breaking job, the workers say, better than it has been in the last few days. But deep anxiety still lingers among those who make a living working the fields of strawberries and celery, avocado and citrus in verdant Ventura County. Thirty-five years after labor leader Cesar Chavez brought the plight of the migrant to the forefront and planted the seeds of reform through his United Farm Workers, some hardships still remain, some too big to be bargained with. “People feel unsatisfied inside,” said a 61-year-old field supervisor who identified himself only as Javier. “What Cesar Chavez did for us was all good, but I don’t know what’s happened since. We hold meetings. We march, and still, the people are afraid.” Lingering worries about the fate of immigration reform will likely overshadow the Chavez holiday observances that begin today, workers say. Adding to their frustration is January’s record-breaking cold snap that stole away precious crops and the farmworkers’ jobs. “Workers are moving to Colorado, to Kansas because California is too expensive,” said Teresa Nava, a mother of four who’s worked in the strawberry fields since she arrived in California from Mexico 18 years ago. “People are leaving because it’s been so tough this year. There is no feeling of security here.” Last week, federal lawmakers introduced a bill that would overhaul immigration, providing a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants. But the proposed legislation also includes tougher border security and workplace enforcement measures intended to stem the flow of illegal immigrants slipping into the United States. The ongoing dialogue on immigration has many of Ventura County’s work force uneasy. Some workers go back to Mexico during Christmastime to visit with family, then return to work the fields. Some say they have seen fewer workers return – bad news in an area where agriculture is a billion-dollar industry. “The economy has been damaged because of those concerns,” said Alfonso Velasquez as he headed into La Gloria Mercado, Oxnard’s popular Latino grocery store. Velasquez said the market has always been a hub for the locals, the parking lot always crowded. But not in the past year. There are too many fears, said Velasquez, 60, who recalled meeting Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. Velasquez once was a professional guitarist and played in an Oakland restaurant where Chavez held organizing meetings. “People don’t go to the market anymore,” Velasquez said. “They don’t come to the parks. Even though the migrant workers have more rights than before, the problem now is simply bigotry.” His legacy Chavez’s name is found on elementary schools, housing projects and boulevards, his image immortalized in paint and sculpture all around Oxnard, where much of his most important work for justice for migrants took place. Many residents can tell stories of meeting him. Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn recalls getting a call of gratitude from Chavez in the 1970s, after he’d expressed dismay that migrant workers in Oxnard had been chased down by sheriff’s deputies in low-flying helicopters. “A lot has changed since Cesar Chavez, but there are still a lot of problems,” Flynn said. “The living conditions are the most serious issue.” The recent winter freeze helped expose the reality of the living conditions among migrants, Flynn said, but with immigration reform still cloudy, building affordable housing remains a challenge. Flynn said he favors using a 10-acre site near Oxnard that is owned by the Los Angeles Archdiocese to build farmworker housing. But that issue has drawn strong opposition from many Ventura County residents. Flynn said he is saddened that attitudes have changed little since 1936, when novelist John Steinbeck documented the lives of migrant workers – the Filipinos, Japanese and Mexicans as well as farmers who fled the Dust Bowl and headed West. “In California, we find a curious attitude toward a group that makes our agriculture successful,” Steinbeck wrote in a lengthy newspaper report of the time. “The migrants are needed, and they are hated.” “I think once the immigration issue is resolved, (migrant workers) can settle down, once they know what the rules are,” Flynn said. “I know people may jump on me for saying that, but let’s face it, 70 to 80 percent of agricultural workers are here without documentation. It’s not an economical issue. It’s a moral one.” Even the employers have been made to feel like bad guys for hiring migrants, said Mike Conroy, owner of Conroy Farms in nearby Camarillo. His strawberry fields were spared the freeze, yet fruit picking got off to a late start. He said his work force is about 90 percent back. “Everybody was hurt and few realize what effect it has on the farmers,” Conroy said of the freeze. Still, he’s noticed that his work force has shrunk and blames the ongoing talks of immigration reform that may have frightened workers away. “The quicker (legislators) can get (a plan) resolved, it would certainly help,” Conroy said. Roots of hope Despite what advocates say is a minority of anti-immigration attitudes, Chavez’s work and legacy live on. One recent example was when a coalition of agricultural leaders, community leaders and resident and nonprofit organizations came together during the deep freeze, distributing food and rental assistance to migrant workers. “Did we help everybody? Not by a long shot,” said Barbara Macri-Ortiz, a local attorney and farmworker advocate. “But did we make a difference? Yeah, we did. There is a mix of people who care about the agricultural community.” Macri-Ortiz worked for the United Farm Workers for 20 years, learning skills from which she still draws. Since then, she has been at the center of many Ventura County affordable-housing battles. One lawsuit resulted in the Meta Street project, the first large-scale farmworker housing built in 2004. Several projects and proposed projects have followed since. “I was able to produce farmworker housing,” Macri-Ortiz said. “That would not have happened without Cesar’s influence. The one thing that Cesar brought to the farmworkers’ struggle is a sense of dignity.” As for the immigration issues that linger, Macri-Ortiz said the farmworker is simply the latest scapegoat at a time when the nation is still involved in war, a higher cost of living and economic instability. “Are migrant workers better off today? Probably not,” she said. “But it’s happening to all workers. “I was on the (grape) boycott in the mid-1970s, and in that day and age a father went to work, made enough money to put food on the table, buy a house, health care, and the kids went to school. “We don’t have that on the fields, but where do we have that?” she said. “All workers are struggling much more today than they ever have before.” [email protected] (818) 713-3664 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!