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From Chavinda to Carneros, legally
From Chavinda to Carneros, legally

It was a warm, sunny afternoon at Mahoney Vineyards in Carneros, and winery owner Kathleen Mahoney was cooking some pork and tortillas for her workers, most of whom are scheduled to return to their native Mexico in the following weeks.

Some of the men chat while others sit under the shade of a tree.

For brothers Saul and Jose Salceda, the barbecue signals the end of a four-month stint at Mahoney Vineyards, living alongside fellow workers who arrived in the United States through the H2A visa program. They are staying at the Robert Mondavi Farmworker Camp in Yountville.

The brothers arrived in Napa from their hometown of Chavinda, Michoacan, in July, and have since became part of a growing number of workers from Chavinda who are taking advantage of the temporary work program. Jose and Saul never did any type of farm labor back home — Saul first worked at Mahoney Vineyards in 2006, and then again this year with his brother. Instead, life in Chavinda was about working with automobiles said Jose, 27, who began at Mahoney Vineyards this year.

“We are mechanics in Mexico,” he said. “And here we sometimes help with the maintenance of the tractors and the farm equipment.”

Back home, the Salceda brothers worked for their father at his auto shop — sometimes making little or no money at all. So they jumped at the chance when Mahoney vineyard manager Jesus Romero, who often visits his hometown of Chavinda, offered them a job in Carneros.

What followed was a 14-hour journey to the American embassy in Monterrey, Mexico, and about a day’s worth of interviews and shuffling paperwork for the visa. Hours later, the brothers were on a plane to the United States.

Jose’s 2007 journey to the United States was less difficult and dangerous than the one in 2003, when he crossed the border illegally. He was desperate to find a good job and paid a coyote — one of the illicit businessmen that smuggle people over the border — $2,000 to help him navigate through the desert, he said.

“We crossed a river and another highway in the back of a truck covered with lettuce,” he said. “We were hidden in the lettuce. It was 20 degrees below (zero under the lettuce) and I told God ‘If I make it alive, I will never do it (enter the U.S. illegally) again.’ I risked my life.”

He eventually found his way to Oakland and got a roofing job. When a relative in Napa learned that he was close by, Jose moved to Napa and found a job in the vineyards. But being without his family in Mexico was too much to bear and he returned to Chavinda, he said.

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Saul’s first visit in Napa came in 2006, he said, when Romero invited him to apply for the visa and work at Mahoney Vineyards. It was an experience that set up this year’s visit to Carneros, Saul said. The brothers hope to continue coming here on a temporary basis and one day dream of earning enough money to buy a parcel of land in their hometown.

When asked why more people choose to cross the border illegally instead of taking advantage of the visa program, Jose said, “There are not enough visas for the amount of people who want them. And so the other way of doing things is entering the country illegally.”

Kathy Mahoney said she’s the only vintner that she knows of that’s using H2A. Before taking advantage of the visa program vintners must prove that in hiring foreign workers, they will not displace domestic workers. They must also bear the brunt of the cost of housing and transporting the workers to and from the job.

Winery owners are required to pay a fair wage to employers and are also responsible for bringing them here and paying their way back. “Not enough companies are doing it,” Jose said. “Hopefully, more companies will step up to the plate.”

From Chavinda to Carneros, legally | Nov. 11, 2007
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