Santa Maria community holds vigil for farmworker death

Between 80 and 100 people attended a vigil on Sept. 13 to honor a local farmworker who passed away in a work-related accident 

“It was beautiful to see the community supporting the family, bringing flowers, candles. A local priest came to support the community,” said Andrea Echeverri Betancur, a senior policy advocate for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “Most people didn’t know [the farmworker] but the community feels like they need to be there to support each other.” 

Jose Samuel Velazquez, a 22-year-old originally from El Salvador, worked at Rancho Guadalupe—a local grower in Santa Maria—at the time of the accident. Echeverri Betancur told the Sun that a tractor backed over Velazquez while he was at work on Sept. 7. 

“This is what we got from the family, but they were not there at the time of the accident. That’s the information we have at this time,” she added.

Velazquez leaves behind a 2-year-old son and his partner. The death remains an active investigation with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office, and more details weren’t available as of press time. 

Raquel Zick, the Sheriff’s Public Information Officer, said that the Coroner’s Bureau is awaiting toxicology results, which should be available in about a month. Work-related deaths are investigated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA), which said it could not provide further information to the Sun before press time.  

The Sun reached out to Rancho Guadalupe for comment but couldn’t get in contact with anyone before press time. 

“This raises awareness of what’s happening to our local farmworkers. They are the heart of our economy and they are exposed to extreme overwork and dangerous situations, putting safety and well-being at risk,” Echeverri Betancur said. 

Agriculture is Santa Barbara County’s No. 1 economic driver, but farmworkers are often experiencing unsafe conditions, she said. 

According to a study conducted by UC Merced, there was an estimated 19.4 deaths per 100,000 workers due to agriculture-related injuries in 2019, but many are hesitant to report illness or injury for fear of being deported or losing their jobs. 

“In 2019, farmworkers accounted for 48 of 451 officially recorded worker deaths in California, despite only comprising about 1 percent of the state’s workforce,” the study stated. “Farmworkers have among the fewest social and economic rights, and among the highest rates of occupational injury and illness, despite the Latino health paradox—and a demographic profile that would otherwise predict above average health.”

Locally, Echeverri Betancur said, farmworkers have reported a lack of cold water and sufficient shade when working in temperatures higher than 80 degrees, a lack of medical support after an accident, a lack of family support, and that they are subject to unsafe working conditions. 

“Tragic accidents like this one suffered by Jose [Velazquez] are a result of the lack of commitment, compassion, and humanity from the agricultural organizations,” she said. “How many people need to die in this type of accident [until] farmers can actually do something?”

To prevent farmworker injuries, illness, and death, CAUSE partnered with fellow nonprofit Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) and Tu Tiempo Digital—a local broadcasting station—to provide more information about farmworker rights.

“We are trying to create a campaign to connect to hospitals so doctors will know the rights of farmworkers,” she added. “We are partnering with other organizations like MICOP to connect the community with health, community education, and labor opportunities and [encourage] farmworkers to contact our local organizations to get help.” 

Call (805) 310-4165 for more information about CAUSE and its services. Call (805) 349-8728 to confidentially report more information regarding the incident.

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