I’m not quite sure how I ended up in the VIP room at the Bernie Sanders rally in Bakersplat yesterday, but I did, and it was rather unlike any other VIP room I’ve ever been in. For one thing, the refreshment table consisted of three pitchers of water. For another, the room was populated mainly by farm workers and volunteers — mostly young, mostly quiet, mostly all in tee shirts or shirtsleeves.
It was late in the afternoon with the San Joaquin Valley heat approaching three digits. The Senator had just come off of two earlier rallies this day, one in Santa Barbara and one in Santa Maria, after a triumphant appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show the night before. Now he’d stopped by the Kern Kounty Fairgrounds on his way to Memorial Day rallies in Fresno and Sacramento.
There was nothing crisp or calculated about his entrance, he just walked in and went to work, his hair in all its fabled Einsteinian disarray, and his off-the-rack navy blazer with the too-many gold buttons showing the obvious rigors of a grueling campaign schedule. As he took the mic, he dispensed with any staged show of bonhomie– the fake smiles and winks and pointing at the invisible people that is the wont of his Democratic rival. He thanked his hosts, gave a few abbreviated remarks, and then addressed the hundred or so VIPs assembled under the banner: Unidos Con Bernie.
“Please tell me about your concerns,” he said. And did they ever.
Bernie listened. Respectfully and intently. Then he asked questions– thoughtful, pointed questions — and gave thoughtful, pointed responses, not all of which were “answers” and very few of which were talking points, and as he did, the perpetual rasp in his voice mellowed into a honeyed baritone and the exhaustion on his face turned into a focused intensity.
He did not flinch or pivot or revert to snippets from his stump speech, nor did he look to an aide for translation or glib statistics or a way to gloss over his response when confronted with a troublesome question. (And given that his questioners were overwhelmingly either undocumented or children of the undocumented, there were plenty of opportunities for fudging– especially with all the representatives of Bakersfield’s media outlets filming him from the back of the room.)
When one worker advocate told him that the 20,000 people of Arvin could not drink the water they nonetheless had to pay $45/month for, Sanders actually flinched and was momentarily taken aback before repeating the man’s assertions and demanding of the audience “Is this true?!” “Yes!” came the response; from Fresno and Earlimart, from McFarland and Taft and Frazier Park, the water table is contaminated with pesticides, fracking chemicals, and radioactive runoff from the waste dumps and landfills. Over a million people throughout the Central Valley– mostly undocumented people — must pay up to $150 a month for water they cannot drink– this on top of the cost and hassle and environmental waste of having to buy bottled water for their daily needs. “You’re cleaner before you take a shower” said one.
At this, Bernie reddened visibly and dropped the mic. For a moment I thought he was going to split a gut; his outrage was that palpable. “The country needs to hear about this” he said as if to himself. Then, “The country will hear about this, and if I am elected President, we will ensure that people don’t have to pay $150 a month for water that poisons them!”
The comments got heated–even incomprehensible– but throughout, Sanders skillfully, diplomatically kept the conversation on-topic and never once resorted to either platitudes or pandering. “Please tell me what you’d like to see change” he’d suggest when they’d wander.
As the hour passed, and acutely aware of the thousands waiting for him in the sweltering grandstands just outside our air-conditioned reception room, Sanders listened politely while one tearful fellow choked and sputtered and droned on and on (and on) about his Mexican father — living and working here in this country illegally — and how much they loved Bernie and how Sanders “must” pass laws and enforce laws and write laws, and make people obey the law to ensure that his father and his siblings and his cousins could stay here and get the benefits and protections they are “entitled” to — oblivious of all irony.
I was cringing so hard at this fellow’s extended fawning and whinging and fascination with his own voice that after a few minutes of it I literally put my head in my hands, bent over, and stared at the floor, wondering why, if things were so dreadfully awful for him, he’d stayed here for the last thirty years, and how Donald J. Trump might have responded to his litany of complaint. But Sanders never wavered or tried to cut him short– or pointed out the obvious duality of his moral argument. He thanked the man (sincerely) for his kind words, sympathized with his travails, and promised that if he were elected President, he’d struggle to ensure basic human rights for everyone in this country (no qualifiers here), and make it his policy not to break families up but keep them together. (Presumably, he didn’t mean by encouraging deportees to take their kids and aunties with them on the bus back to Tijuana.)
Now, I’m of two minds about illegal immigration. On the one hand, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Boring (yes, that was her actual name) spent an entire month on Doris Gates’ 1940s children’s book, The Blue Willow – in which a migrant farm child longs for a permanent home while struggling in abject poverty in the fields of 1930s San Joaquin Valley. It’s hard not to empathize with a little girl your own age who has to sell her abuelita’s prized Blue Willow plate to pay the wicked landlord who’s come to collect the rent– or else! These sorts of things stay with one when impassioned indoctrination comes at an early age– especially when at least two people of perhaps dubious documentation still call me “Mother”.
But I’ve also enormous sympathy and support for the people who jump through all the hoops, fill out all the forms, undergo all the interviews, pass all the tests, pay all their fees and wait their goddamned turn to come live here legally. It’s really that simple. If you hop the line and sneak across our borders or overstay your visa, I’m not all that inclined to offer you the protections granted to those who play by the rules — unless, of course, I am. . . .
In any case, while the session with Bernie did little to help me resolve my personal dichotomy, it did do one thing, and that was to solidify my respect for Senator Sanders’ moral integrity and for his simple (or not-so-simple, really), human decency. I may not support the entirety of his ideology– and certainly have my qualms about some of his specific proposals– but there can be no doubting that his compassion is deeply held, and not just a fungible artifact of the political “process”. (Ahem, Hillary. Donald.)
I may be conflicted, befuddled even, but I also know he’s right.
Anyway, here’s what I learned:
–Bernie Sanders, who is ten years older than I am, has the physical stamina to hold three rallies, two town-halls and uncounted one-on-one interviews with secondary market television news reporters in 100-degree heat on his 28th wedding anniversary– and still make me believe in his authenticity.
-Oaxacan pickers comprise 80-85% of farm labor along the west coast from Washington State to Baja California. They get paid piecework; 60 cents a flat (down from 90 cents last summer), work twelve-hour days, and are not represented by the UFW.
-Said field workers lack basic worker protections, get paid slave wages, must use only the substandard grower-owned and administered health clinic for even serious health issues and injuries, and are considering going on a multistate strike against Driscoll Farms– the nation’s largest grower of berries. (Investors take note.)
-An estimated million residents of small Central Valley towns and communities are forced to pay for non-potable tap water contaminated by pesticides, fracking chemicals, and toxic runoff from drilling and mines.
-People in Frazier Park are paying $150 a month for water they cannot drink and spending a like amount paying privatized companies to sell their own groundwater back to them in plastic bottles.
-Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kern County Library System (which includes 24 branches and two bookmobiles extending as far south as Ridgecrest and as far north as Delano and Maricopa and serves a predominantly poor and ESL community), operates on a budget of less than $8 million/year. Its biggest demographic $upport comes from Republican women and it is on the verge of closing due to insufficient funding. Kern County Tax Measure F on the upcoming primary ballot would impose a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund the system and keep it from being privatized (and presumably sold off). It is unlikely to pass.
-An elite team of buff, articulate, personable and extremely well-groomed Kern County Sheriffs deputies do double duty as both VIP security detail and SWAT marijuana eradication teams. One of them recognized me as The Bear Lady, “Because of your hair”.