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I wanted to tell the stories of farmworkers. First, I had to get out of my own way.

I wanted to tell the stories of farmworkers. First, I had to get out of my own way.

Picture of Sarah Klearman
The author interviews a farmworker in the Napa Valley.
The author interviews a farmworker in the Napa Valley.
(Photo by Clark James Mishler)

By June 2020, I had worked at the Napa Valley Register, a small daily, for almost a year. I was the wine industry reporter, and my reporting had taken me through vineyards, gotten me in front of  winemakers and granted me at least a basic understanding of the technical side of Napa Valley’s winemaking. In all that time, though, I’d never met or interviewed a farmworker. 

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to be a farmworker in 2020. That June, there were massive outbreaks of COVID-19 inside the three county-owned farmworker housing centers. I reported about the outbreak from the outside, but I wondered what it was all like for the workers within: were they scared? Were they receiving adequate medical treatment? Did their employers offer them sick pay? Did they even have health insurance?

It got me thinking more broadly about the health of farmworkers in the North Bay — a population made up of a significant number of undocumented immigrants, many sources told me. At the time of my reporting in California, undocumented immigrants did not qualify for MediCal, California’s Medicaid health care program, regardless of their age or income. They still do not qualify for tax credits available to American citizens through the Affordable Care Act. In fact, if an employer does not offer undocumented workers health insurance, their options are almost none — and they have even fewer affordable options.

Then in August of 2020, historic wildfires broke out in Napa Valley. Again, I thought of our farmworkers: even as I drove past men and women stationed in vineyards embalmed by thick, acrid smoke, I discovered there are no OSHA regulations for working safely within a wildfire evacuation zone. I heard reports of workers losing significant chunks of income, and I knew the undocumented among them would not qualify for unemployment insurance. 

When I applied for an Impact Grant from the Center for Health Journalism later that year, it was in part to keep myself accountable. For so long, I had wanted to tell the stories of Napa Valley’s farmworkers as they’d lived the hardships of 2020, but I was one step too far removed from them. I initially struggled to make connections through wine industry trade organizations, who I think may have feared my intentions were to cast their membership in a poor light. It was difficult, too, to approach workers through their employers. The workers were, understandably, hesitant to give me their time while they were on the clock.

I also struggled with myself: I felt I’d be a burden on my sources, that maybe they wouldn’t want to tell their stories to me. Who was I to understand what their lives both in and out of the vineyards were like? Who was I to ask these men and women, some of whom had risked everything to come to this country illegally, to tell me their stories?

Engagement Editor Danielle Fox and I started thinking about ways that I could truly establish relationships with my sources. I didn’t want to parachute in, document their misery, and parachute out: I wanted to get to know them. I wanted them to trust me, and I wanted to trust them. I chose to focus on a group of men living in a county-owned facility in St. Helena, where I made more than a half a dozen trips over two months. 

Sometimes I brought pizza. I fought the urge to record their stories on those first few visits; I just listened while they spoke to me in Spanish, sometimes patiently repeating a word or a phrase so I could understand. Other times I asked if I could interview one worker or another. I asked pointed questions. I asked for their opinions. Most of the time, I just absorbed what they told me.

The residents of the center got to know me. They shook my hand. They called me Sarita. 

Their stories came out along the way. I met five men who had slept in their cars in a dirt lot for nine days after the farmworker center was evacuated during the summer’s fires, all so they could continue going to work. Many told me about losing thousands of dollars after smoke ruined the region’s grape crop, stripping them of valuable work. Some were behind on rent or on sending financial assistance back to their families elsewhere. Many were ineligible to receive unemployment insurance because of their immigration status. 

When I asked about medical care, one of my sources said he wished he could afford to pay the premiums and deductibles offered by his employer’s health insurance plan, but simply could not. A number of my farmworker sources were in the same situation and wanted to know what area clinics would provide affordable medical care. 

When I asked about mental health, I met two men who told me how distressing it had been to be locked in small motel rooms for weeks on end while COVID outbreaks ravaged their housing center. They’d been isolated from their peers and families. Many had lost paychecks as a result, even though employers were supposed to provide them with sick pay.

Of course, my sources also told me about their lives: about their families back in Mexico or in other parts of California. About how they enjoyed working outside and eating meals together after returning from the vineyards. About the places they’d grown up.

Engaged journalism, as Danielle guided me into understanding it, granted me the ability to see the whole of these men and women. It also forced me to get out of my own way: engaging with my sources made me realize that just as I wanted to listen, many of these farmworkers genuinely were willing to talk and to share their stories with me. And it was rewarding to be able to share my work, translated into Spanish, with them in return.

My journalistic advice is this: be gentle — both with yourself and your sources. Be patient. Find a good mentor. Listen far more than you talk. Keep showing up. Keep shaking hands. Know that there is no such thing as a dumb question. And, best you can, don’t get in your own way.

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