When I think of Santiago Nieto and his steps, I imagine him as the knight from Quixote de la Mancha, who in his frantic wanderings around the world mistook windmills for fearsome giants. But actually Nieto is not crazy, he is very sane and has decided to devote his time and effort to helping the farmers in California.
The way he called attention to the impoverished conditions in which hundreds of thousands of California farm workers live, most of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was through his campaign. . “Por ti campesino, yo camino” (“Since you are a farmer, I walk”), leading him through mountains, rivers, and deserts. He walks in the rain as well as in the 115-degree heat of the Central Valley.
On his last hike, which he covered a total of 530 miles and crossed 27 cities on his way from Los Angeles to Sacramento, he’s looking to raise $100,000 to give to Cirugía Sin FronterasAt that time support is needed to continue helping the working families hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nieto told me as he recalled that march, which began on September 16 (Mexico’s Independence Day) and ended on October 16, 2020: “The coronavirus was cruel to the poorest people. , those who are marginalized in society, those who have nothing in their hands.
After 320 miles and 23 days on the road, I interviewed Nieto again. I saw him emaciated, sunburnt, and thirsty. “Of the $100,000 we wanted to raise, we only got $22,000,” he told me in a voice that was both disgusted and frustrated.
“It’s like the farmers and their families don’t exist, it’s like no one cares what happens to them,” he told me, both frustrated and courageously determined as he rubbed the table. his blistered feet.
I was moved to see him walk into dusty towns surrounded by strawberry fields with dozens of followers by his side. He reminds me of the scene where Forrest Gump started running cross-country. But unlike Tom Hanks’ character, Nieto has a very specific cause and purpose: Help raise money for Cirugía Sin Fronteras, an organization whose mission is to help low-income people without health insurance surgery at low cost.
Based in Bakersfield, Cirugía Sin Fronteras says it has provided healthcare to more than 3,500 people; giving more than 900 food baskets to needy families; and distributed economic relief to 49 families through the COVID-19 emergency assistance program; linking more than 4,500 families to community resources; and provides chronic disease prevention and management health education to more than 6,000 people.
Knowing and seeing Santiago on these trips had a profound effect on me, because he always gave me the impression that there was a supernatural force behind him.
“It was simply solidarity,” he told me as we chatted along a dusty street in Tulare County. As he rested, dozens of workers could be seen in the distance hunched over a field strewn with strawberries.
“When I feel like I can’t take it anymore, I think of Don Abraham, a 73-year-old man, and I think he should play with his grandchildren instead of continuing to pick strawberries at 107 degrees Celsius. When I remembered his image, I felt bad, because I realized that the elephant-like object was in the room and no one wanted to come back to see it.
Nieto spoke slowly as he tried on a new pair of sneakers.
“Everybody likes to take the other road, even though they sacrificed their families to have food on our tables. I think we have to bring food and health into their homes.”
He stopped as he watched a plane drop insecticide from a very low altitude. “Do you think that doesn’t make them sick?” he told me, staring at the passing car overhead.
Between rich and poor
According to California Department of Food and Agriculture, one-third of vegetables and two-thirds of fruit and nuts produced in the United States are grown in the Golden State. And to see how much profit the sector will generate in 2021, just take into account the top 10 agricultural products, including milk, grapes, almonds, strawberries, pistachios, lettuce, and tomatoes. , nuts and rice, California is enough. farmers brought in more than $32 billion.
In total, the state’s farms and ranches generated $51.1 billion in 2021.
But this economic prosperity did not reach the more than 420,000 workers who made this massive agricultural production possible. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California farmers earn an average of $26,000 per year.
Organization Farmer Family Center estimates that 75% of farm workers in California are undocumented. About a third of the agricultural workforce is women, between the ages of teens and 60. Farmers were often sexually harassed, groped, threatened, beaten and even raped in the fields. In California, 80% of farm workers say they have experienced sexual harassment.
“Yes, California is a rich state, but no one turns to look at their workers,” Nieto said as he prepared to continue his march.
Nieto has made five interstate trips to date and is preparing a sixth, which will begin at the Mexican Consulate on September 15 and will attempt to reach Bakersfield seven days later. Taking that opportunity, he won’t be looking to raise money but to raise awareness of the poverty that hundreds of thousands of farm workers live in in the richest state in America.
For the wrong reasons
Originally from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Nieto began his professional career at KAMA, El Paso’s first Spanish-language radio station.
“That’s when I knew that in order to keep the radio listeners engaged, you had to organize a circus and a stage,” says Nieto, recalling the numerous events he has organized to entertain audiences over the years. while helping those most in need.
“I will participate in radio marathons to buy orthopedic shoes for children with mobility problems, broadcast day and night on the roofs of 7-Eleven stores to raise funds for many causes. On another occasion, when we needed to donate a truck to a nursing home, we put a truck on a crane to lower it a few inches every time someone donated something,” he said.
But all of this was done for the wrong reasons, admits Nieto, the son of a prominent Mexican politician. “I want to be famous, I want to be famous, I want to satisfy my ego.”
Back in Los Angeles, where he was the coordinator of the “Don Cheto al Aire” Radio Network, Nieto was approached by the Cirugía Sin Fronteras Foundation, asking for Don Cheto, one of the most popular figures on the radio station. Spain, perform a public service. Notice to raise awareness about Cirugía.
Nieto not only convinced Don Cheto but also other celebrities such as Rosie Rivera, Larry Hernández, Ana Barbara, Omar Chaparro and Juan Rivera, among others, to shoot videos and announce public service. But that didn’t fulfill his aspirations to do something more.
“One night I was watching the movie ‘The Way’, about the famous Camino de Santiago, and I felt that this was my mission, that I had to do something like that… so I ran down. home and told my wife what I was thinking. and she said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
But the idea kept hovering in his head.
“I knew in my heart that this was what I had to do, but not because of fame, popularity, or ratings, but because it was my vocation,” said Nieto, who admitted he doesn’t. moved by religious sentiments, but by feeling that among the faces of men and women he sees at work may be the faces of your mother, your sister, your aunt, your grandmother or brother.
“They are the face of our people, and I cannot ignore that.”