Voices of Youth: Talking health equity: Reflecting on fire season working conditions for Napa Valley’s farmworkers

Editor's Note: This essay was written by Paula Leon, a Napa youth, as part of a project on health equity by Register reporter Sarah Klearman with support from the Impact Fund and an engagement grant,  programs of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. She and Danielle Fox, engagement editor at USC's Center for Health Journalism, worked with a number of local youth to write about how  recent fires and pandemic affected their families and communities.

By Paola Leon

I woke up thinking I was in hell.

My room was dark and the low light coming from my window was a smoky orange. I turned on my T.V. only to see a news report: “Napa, California, is on fire,” it blared. “Thousands of acres are burning after a lightning storm lit more than 20 fires all through California.''

Little did we know that it will only get worse throughout the summer; after the LNU Lightning Complex came the Glass Fire. Three years ago, the 2017 wildfires did, however, cause our communities to get closer to one another: We started fundraisers for those who lost their homes, donated items, created places to stay, and gave out masks to those in need. But because of demand out of the pandemic in 2020, having a mask that would actually protect you was an issue.

With the smoke coming down all over Napa and a lot of people not being able to find or afford masks it raised a question about health equity. Health equity means that everyone has a fair chance of being healthy. With people not being able to afford masks or even being able to find them, there was no realistic chance of that.

It also doesn't help that some vineyard workers weren't given enough masks by their companies or weren’t able to obtain a mask until very late into fire season. Referring to Sarah Klearman’s article “Ahead of another fire season, Napa Valley’s farmworkers face unknown health risk from more smoke exposure,” she interviewed a vineyard worker, Victor, who said that during harvest smoke “clung to his clothes, his hair, the inside of his nose; during the day, as he worked under the sun in the vineyards, he was embalmed by it.”

“It was ugly, because, well, people work out of necessity. They worry about having enough money to pay their bills and their rent,” he told the Register in Spanish. “People search for a way to bring home a paycheck, regardless of the conditions.”

The air quality was in the purple zone, the most unhealthy, for about a week. But unfortunately for most of the vineyard workers taking a break to stay safe from the smoke isn't an option; they have mouths to feed and bills to pay. While many of us stayed inside, they had no other option but to work through the smoke with no mask or any safety precautions to keep them safe.

[This essay was originally published by Napa Valley Register].

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