Poverty in the Date Palms

These photographs document the date palm workers, or palmeros, of southern California. Though there are fewer than 200 palmeros, they harvest 95 percent of the dates grown in the United States. In Coachella Valley, the industry brings in $65 million a year. Yet most palmeros reside in colonias, or informal settlements, near the date fields. 

The date palm was first transplanted to California in the early 1900s, when rich landowners used water brought from the Colorado River to cultivate dates, grapes, and citrus fruit. Since World War II, the palmeros have been immigrants from Mexico; today, many are indigenous Purépecha people from the Mexican state of Michoacán who were displaced due to economic reforms such as NAFTA. 

The photographs featured here are part of a larger body of images and oral histories that I began in Coachella Valley in 1992, and which continues today. The archive of this work is in the Special Collections of the Green Library at Stanford University in California.

Jose Cruz Frias, a palmero, works in a grove of date palms. He climbs the trees using a ladder, and once up in the tree he walks around on the fronds themselves. Cruz has been doing this work for fifteen years and came to the Coachella Valley from Irapuato, Guanajuato, in Mexico.

Eduardo Gutiérrez (left) and Victor Pérez (right) pick dates on a mechanical hoist in a grove in the Coachella Valley. Workers in this crew are indigenous Purépecha immigrants from Ocumicho, Michoacán. 

Ana Sanchez lives in the St. Anthony’s trailer park near Thermal, California. The park’s water supply is contaminated, and Sanchez and the other residents have to get their drinking water from a tank.

 Trailers in the St. Anthony’s trailer park near Thermal, California.

Alberto Castro has been a palmero for more than fifteen years. Here, he’s holding a safety harness he is supposed to use while in the trees, but finds that it restricts his ability to work quickly. Castro is paid by the piece rate, so he often doesn’t use it.

Carlos Chavez has worked as a palmero for twenty years. After work, he sits with his daughter, Michelle. Michelle is in high school, trying to earn a scholarship for college. Carlos took her to the date fields one summer, but she didn’t like it and says it motivated her to study harder.

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