Sunday, June 20, 2004 | Many Hispanics in Napa Valley living in poverty | Many Hispanics in Napa Valley living in poverty

Sunday, June 20, 2004
Register Staff Writer

Pedro Ramirez may not have much privacy at the apartment he shares with 10 of his relatives in St. Helena, but he doesn't complain. Things were much worse for him back in Michoacan, Mexico, where at 13 years old he dropped out of school to join the tough Mexican workforce.

Ramirez, 17, used to live with his mother until she remarried. Not wanting to intrude on the newlyweds, he went to live with his grandparents at a rural village in Michoacan, where it was common for everyone in the village to use the same bathrooms and showers, he said.

"At least here (in the United States) I have running water, a bathroom and food to eat," the short, skinny soccer player said. "In Mexico, you never know if you are going to have any of those."

School came second to earning money for his family, he said, so he dropped out to look for work. His first job was unloading trucks filled with corn and other crops for minimal pesos. Cousins sent news about agricultural jobs in California and lured a then 15-year-old Ramirez to San Jose, where he began picking strawberries for $9.50 an hour.

"The wages in Mexico aren't high," he said. "Everyone comes here to make a better life for themselves."

Two years later, the cousins encouraged him to move to St. Helena and get back into school. Ramirez, a junior at St. Helena High School, shares a room with two cousins at his aunt and uncle's four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, giving him a roof under his head, but leaving little room for things like privacy, having a good place to study and focusing on high school.

Many living in poverty

Scores of immigrant youths around Napa County and the state are in similar if not worse living situations than Ramirez's, according to California Report Card 2004: Focus on Children in Immigrant Families, a study conducted by Children Now, a research organization that advocates for the welfare of children.

According to a press release issued by Children Now, California children in immigrant families are much more likely to live in poverty than children born in U.S.-born families, and less likely to have access to health care or childcare.

Latino children of immigrants have it particularly tough, according to the study. Nearly half (46 percent) live in poverty, more than double the rate for U.S.-born Latino children. Additionally, they are four times as likely to be poor as white children of immigrants and nearly three times as likely to be poor as Asian children of immigrants.

Karmen Loftis, who works at St. Helena and Calistoga high schools as a career center specialist, works with most of the children of immigrant families such as Ramirez.

"He is only one of our many," Loftis said. "It's a wonder ... they're able to concentrate on school."

Loftis said that it's hard to gauge how many students are living in poverty in the county because so many of them are ashamed to talk about it. She tries to help those she knows for sure are living in such conditions by pointing them to different services, encouraging them to stay in school and to learn English.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, 5.6 percent of Napa County's residents live in poverty. Of that number, 23.9 percent have children under the age of 18 and 36.9 percent have children under 5 years old.

"We are talking about young kids, 15, 16, 17 years old," Loftis said. "It's not been pretty for them. How they manage to survive, I don't know."

Forty-three percent of children in immigrant families have job-based health insurance, compared to 73 percent of children living in U.S.-born families. Children who have undocumented parents have especially low rates of job-based health insurance, according to Children Now findings.

Ramirez knows all about not having insurance. He was playing soccer one day when another player kicked him in the ribs, sending him to the hospital by ambulance. Although winded by the kick, nothing was broken except his wallet. The ambulance ride, X-rays and aspirin given to him left a bill of $900.

St. Helena High School helped Ramirez cover the bills because the incident happened while he was at school, he said. For his other medical needs, he relies on the services that Loftis often points him to.

Service for the poor, not poor service

Although many children in the county are living in poverty or low-income situations, many services are available to them.

Loftis said she refers poverty-stricken immigrants to spots such as the Cope Family Center and Napa County's Children's Health and Disability Prevention program.

"We do a lot of work with families in terms of helping them access other resources," said Michele Grupe, development manager at the Cope Family Center. "Seventy-five percent of the families (Cope works with) make less than $25,000 a year (and) over 80 percent are working."

Cope helps people break the cycle of poverty by hooking them up with free services and programs such as Clinic Olé, Sister Ann Community Dental Clinic, different food banks, free and reduced lunch programs and other programs that help those in need.

Grupe said that 60 percent of the people who come to Cope are immigrants and "the door to Cope is open to all families in Napa (County)," regardless of immigration status.

Similar to Cope is the state-funded CHDP, which provides the same types of referrals to children across the state.

Marquita Marquis, CHDP deputy director, said that they work with a network of health care providers to provide assistance with families that are at 200 percent or below the poverty level. Children with MediCal can receive free health screenings up to the age of 21 and those who don't have MediCal can get them until they are 18 years old.

Different financial requirements must be met for assistance, Marquis said, and as of June 2002, 2,816 children are Hispanic out of the 4,265 children receiving CHDP services. The CHDP doesn't track or screen immigration status.

Challenges, jobs await immigrants

Immigrants such as Ramirez often hear about good jobs and wages in the United States and aren't deterred by obstacles they may face.

"One of the challenges in living in California is the cost of living is very high," Grupe said. "The rent is very high, transportation is difficult to get (and) you may not make as much to cover those costs."

In Rivera's home, only two of the 11 residents steadily work, making it hard to make ends meet. During the summer, he packs boxes at various wineries throughout the valley to try and help out.

Another reason why poverty is prevalent among immigrants is their inability to speak English, according to the report. Over 1.2 million California children in immigrant families are linguistically isolated, meaning no household member over 13 years old speaks English very well.

In 2002, however, three in five children who spoke a language other than English at home also spoke English very well, a 30 percent increase in the percentage of bilingual children from 10 years earlier, according to the report.

The language barrier isn't much of a barrier for many Hispanics coming to the United States or staying here to start new lives.

Loftis said that more Mexicans are staying in the valley, instead of returning to their homes after the harvest is done. The tradition has always been to come, make cash and leave, but most are finding that they are better off in the United States.

"We are in a country that isn't ours (but) I think it's good here," Ramirez said.


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