I live on a farm beside a rural avenue in central California, the fifth generation to reside in the same house. And after years of thefts, home break-ins, and dangerous encounters, I have concluded that it is no longer safe to live where I was born. I stay for a while longer because I am sixty-five years old and either too old to move or too worried about selling the final family parcel of what was homesteaded in the 1870s.Rural Fresno County used to be one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the United States. I grew up with first-, second-, and third-generation farmers—agrarians of Armenian, German, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, Portuguese, Punjabi, and Scandinavian descent.Race and ethnicity were richly diverse; yet assimilation was the collective shared goal—made easier because immigration was almost entirely a legal and measured enterprise. No one much carried for the superficial appearance of his neighbors. My own Swedish-American family has intermarried with those of Mexican heritage. My neighbor’s grandchildren are part white, Japanese, and Mexican. The creed growing up was that tribal affiliation was incidental, not essential, to character.Family farming was never an easy enterprise. But an us/them mentality prevailed that united diverse farmers against both human and nature’s challenges.
Yet most of those rural families now have all moved away or passed on. Their farms are leased to corporate enterprises and their homes rented to mostly immigrants from Mexico—many of them undocumented. Globalized agribusiness and unchecked illegal immigration, in different ways, combined to change central California and has made living in rural areas no longer safe.Almost every old farmstead in my vicinity is no longer just a home for a single farm family. They are often now surrounded by trailers and lean-tos, in turn sub-rented out to dozens of others—violations of zoning laws and building codes of the sort that would earn me a stiff fine, but which are of little interest to local authorities. Of three neighboring farmsteads down the road, one is now a storage area for dozens of used porta potties and wrecked cars. Another is an illegal dumping ground. The third has been raided on various occasions by authorities in order to stop drug dealing, gang activity, and prostitution.Our rural environs are often home to hard-working immigrants, but also to various Mexican gangs, drug dealers, and parolees. I hesitate to offer too many details because in the past I have incurred the anger of dangerous neighbors who got wind of filtered down stories of their criminality. It is enough said that sirens, SWAT teams, and ICE raids are not uncommon.
A month ago a gang member shot up a neighbor’s house. He was arrested, released, and rearrested in a single night after trying twice to break into the home. The armed homeowner stopped his entry. I know of no nearby resident who is not armed. I cannot remember anything remotely similar occurring before 1980. In the 1970s we had no keys to our doors, and houses were permanently unlocked.Some of those with criminal records and gang affiliations were born in the United States. Perhaps America often does not seem as much a promised land to the second generation as it did to their parents, who arrived destitute from impoverished Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Central America. Arriving from one of the poorest regions in the world to one of the wealthiest and most culturally different— without the competitive requisites of English, legality, and a high-school diploma—in an era when the salad bowl is preferable to the melting pot, can easily result in the frequent chaos described below.I object most to the environmental damage in our rural areas. By that I mean the tossing of household waste or even toxic chemicals onto farmland. Staged cock- and dog-fighting is also not uncommon. I have found a few carcasses ripped to shreds, some with ropes around the dead dogs’ neck. Picking up tossed junk in my orchard is a routine experience. The perpetrators often leave plastic bags of their bulk mail (with incriminating addresses!) among soiled diapers and wet garbage.
Local authorities have enough to do without hunting down dumpers to cite them for their antigreen habits.Every once in a while amateur and illegal collectors, who freelance for immigrant households that do not pay for “supposedly” mandated county garbage pick-ups, will come in at night with panel trucks and trailers. They dump literally tons of garbage such as mattresses, sofas, TVs, appliances, tires, junk mail, and car seats on alleyways and in vineyards.Not long ago someone jettisoned in our vineyard hundreds of used florescent light bulbs, about 100 paint cans, and fifty-gallon drums of used oil and chemicals. Needles and drug paraphernalia are not uncommon. I’ve seen about five stripped-down cars abandoned on our property after being stolen. Last summer a huge semi-truck was left on our alleyway, picked cleaned down to the chassis.I used to