[Editor’s note: We regret to report that Isabel Arrollo-Toland passed away on May 16, 2020.]
Most weeknights, a steady stream of farmworkers make their way into the offices of El Quinto Sol de America in Lindsay, California. After their workdays are complete, the men and women filter in to find reliable air conditioning and a modest—often homemade—dinner set up on a folding table near the door. Depending on the night, they may have come for a training, a meeting, a focus group, or a free art and dance class for their kids. There are often whole families in attendance; babies and toddlers coexist in the space in a way that might interrupt the flow somewhere else.
Tonight, Florencia, a woman in her 50s who has been working in the fields since 1983, explains that she has been making the drive often from the tiny, unincorporated community of El Rancho, about 20 minutes away, ever since she met Irma Medellin, the group’s founder and lead organizer a few years back. “We just get home, shower, and come straight to the meeting,” she tells me. “I always learn something here.”
Others in attendance echo that sentiment; the small organization has set up a space where information sharing is the norm, farmworkers, women, and immigrants are listened to, and there seems to be a collective belief that leadership is innately possible in everyone. Florencia, for instance, has been part of coalition working to get safe drinking in her community—a very real challenge in many Central Valley communities, where nitrates, arsenic, and a handful of current and outmoded pesticides can be found in the groundwater. She often shares what she learns at El Quinto Sol with other people in El Rancho.
El Quinto Sol gives farmworkers—a population that has rarely had a political voice—the tools to become civically engaged. To do this, they rely on a hefty dose of traditional Latin American arts and culture, from an office decorated with papel picado and brightly colored banners. They provide free summer arts programs for kids and they are known to host traditional cultural gatherings with a twist, such as a Day of the Dead celebration that marked the lives of domestic violence victims, and told participants who to call if they ever feel in danger in an intimate relationship.
Medellin’s daughter, Isabel Arrollo-Toland, is El Quinto Sol’s executive director, but if you spend time with the mother-daughter pair, it’s clear that they function as a team. Medellin stepped down from the director role a few years back because she prefers working directly with farmworkers and putting together grassroots meetings to fundraising and serving as the group’s public face.
El Quinto Sol has worked on a number of coalitions over the years to push for policy change at the state level; they regularly travel to Sacramento to weigh in on legislation involving pesticide use and access to clean water in the Central Valley. But the heart of the group’s work takes place in Tulare County, which is sandwiched between Fresno and Bakersfield, and ranks second highest in agricultural revenue in the U.S.
With a poverty rate of 27 percent, Tulare is also the poorest county in California. Home to vast tracks of orange orchards, vineyards, and large dairy operations, the county’s industries rely heavily on farmworkers, many of whom live in unincorporated communities. These are densely populated areas that lack basic services such as sewers, sidewalks, street lights; because they have no city government, they must rely on the county for oversight.
In its 1971 General Plan, Tulare County officials referred to these unincorporated communities as having “no authentic future.”
“These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities,” the plan stated. And yet, nearly 50 years later, the residents of these places remain, in part because the lack of infrastructure has kept property values down and prevented them from relocating—but also because it’s their homes. And the struggle to get with basic services in place hasn’t gotten much easier.
“There are new developments going in all over the state, and in this county. They will all have sidewalks, parks, street lights, water. Why is it that so many leaders are okay with these existing communities not having those things?” she asks.
Medellin and Arrollo-Toland focus on the five closest communities—Lindsay, Tooleville, Plainview, El Rancho, and Tonyville. They have set up a leadership committee in each place and each creates its own action plan and works directly with county agencies and lawmakers to advocate for a range of improvements.
“When we first started this work, over 15 years ago, no one knew where these communities were. We’ve really worked to put them on the map,” Medellin says.
The Journey Here
Medellin moved to the U.S. from Mexico with her husband (who she is not longer with) and four daughters in 1992. In those first few years, she worked in a factory, several restaurants, and in farm fields. In the late 1990s, she began volunteering for a nonprofit called the Migrant Photography Project. While there, she learned to photograph other farmworkers, and she started hearing their stories.
“They would come to me asking for help with their problems and I’d say, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything I can do, but I’ll look into it.’” Medellin quickly realized she wanted to do more than document the community’s challenges. She started by setting up an easel in areas where farmworkers gathered—sometimes beside farm fields—and teaching them how to read and write in Spanish. Then, after serving as the co-director of the Migrant Photography Project, she formed her own organization in 2003 with another organizer named Victor Cervantes. Medellin did organizing work for other groups in the area, while slowly developing El Quinto Sol. “I worked to build the project for eight years with almost no support,” she recalls.
The networking payed off in the form of multiple partnerships, including with Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), and The Community Water Center, and El Quinto Sol was gradually able to bring in funding from several foundations.
In 2012, Arrollo-Toland joined the organization, although she had been working with her mother in an unofficial way since her teens.
“When I was 15, she put me in charge of organizing the community tables at a health fair,” recalls Arrollo-Toland. “I had no idea what I was doing.” Soon, she was helping Medellin, a non-native English speaker, write grants and reports.
After earning a degree in communications, Arrollo-Toland worked for the United Way, where she learned to use an organizing model called Poder Popular Promotores Comunitarios de Salud, which was being implemented all over the Central Valley at the time. Part of a $50 million effort funded by the powerful California Endowment, Poder Popular saw community organizing as a means to public health.
According the California Institute for Rural Studies, which evaluated the 3-year project after it ended, the goal of Poder Popular was to provide the workers “with the tools to identify and address the underlying, community-level conditions causing poor health. Rather than promoting individual behavior change, [it sought] to achieve long-lasting change through resident engagement and advocacy to address the root causes of poor health.”
When Arrollo-Toland joined El Quinto Sol, she brought the Poder Popular model with her. The approach relies on committees made of people who are leaders in their local areas, whether that means they’re on the PTA, in the Lyons Club, or engaged in another way. Once a committee is established, and the members have been through leadership training, they begin to reach out to local politicians and decision makers—whether that means scheduling meetings in their office or inviting them to see the problem they want to see addressed first-hand.
The work El Quinto Sol has done in Plainview, which had a population of 945 people at the time of the last census, is a good example. The leadership committee there worked for years to get a bus stop put in, but the bench was on the wrong side of the intersection. So, residents would have to cross a heavily trafficked street when they saw a bus coming. El Quinto Sol invited a state assemblyman to take a tour of Plainview and showed him the bus stop. “He called someone and got it fixed right away,” says Arrollo-Toland.
Bus stops may not seem like an essential element to improving the health of a community, but for farmworkers who rely on a clinic that’s 20 miles away, they can mean a lifeline to care.
Plainview community members also worked for nearly a decade to get a park built on land that belonged to the local water board. In another example, community members working with El Quinto Sol pushed the county to switch out the pipes in their local water system. (Medellin says they were using recycled pipes from a nearby oil drilling operation). Seven years ago, the community received funds to connect to a safe water source; now a good portion of Plainview’s residents have clean drinking water.
Letting the People Lead
Because El Quinto Sol is a community-led organization, Arrollo-Toland says it has always been important to be responsive to the needs of the community, and that has meant resisting building the organization around a single issue. But the organization has also begun a process that works a little like an incubator for issue-focused projects.
After working on pesticide issues for years, in 2016, the organization received a grant to work on buffer zones around schools impacted by pesticide residue (a California law passed in 2017 prohibits pesticides from being applied by some methods within a quarter mile of schools and daycares on school days) and hired organizer Angel Garcia to build a coalition of concerned mothers to tackle the issue. The result was Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety, or CAPS, which eventually spun off from El Quinto Sol and played a sizable role in pushing for the new statewide California ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos.
Over the last two years, El Quinto Sol has also been responsive to farmworkers’ increased fears around ICE and shifting immigration policy more generally. It hosts citizenship classes, helps workers complete citizenship applications, and hopes to start a law clinic in collaboration with a Central California Legal Services. Ultimately, though, Arrollo-Toland hopes that the work will lead to its own spin-off organization much like CAPS.
El Quinto Sol’s strength lies in the relationships that Medellin—and now Arrollo-Toland as well—have built over the last two decades. And that strength has proved valuable in the Central Valley.
Kuyler Crocker, a Tulare County board supervisor, has worked with the organization to host regular community meetings. “I host town halls in the larger communities, and it’s not uncommon to get 10 people to turn out,” he says. But when his office partners with El Quinto Sol, he says, “They can bring dozens of people to the room. They have such a strong network and they make [civic action] accessible. They’re telling folks: If you want something, you have to get involved.”
Crocker, who comes from a fifth-generation farm family, adds that he’s often unable to respond to the seemingly basic needs of the unincorporated communities the group represents—in part because the tax base in Tulare County is so small—and he fundamentally disagrees with the group about the importance of reducing the use of (and ultimately phasing out) synthetic pesticides in agriculture.
Nonetheless, he adds that he, Medellin, and Arrollo-Toland have found much middle ground, including the effort to get the state’s new safe and affordable drinking water fund passed. “El Quinto Sol bussed people up to Sacramento, participated in meetings, held rallies. They’ve really provided a very critical element to raise awareness and get people to take action,” says Crocker.
El Quinto Sol is also one of six groups that make up the Community Alliance for Agroecology (CAFA), which is working to build alternatives to the prevailing (large-scale, input-heavy) farming practices in the Central Valley. CAFA is in the process of envisioning—and fundraising for—an agroecology center in Tulare County in partnership with Quaker Oaks farm in nearby Visalia. The goal, says Arrollo-Toland is to help more farmers in the area feel like they have a workable, profitable alternative to status quo agricultural practices.
“We want our future to mean a healthier community, and we know the way we’re doing things isn’t going to get us there,” she says. “We’re trying to set up an alternative and we know it’s going to take some time.”
Janaki Jagannath, a law student who worked as the coordinator of CAFA from 2015 to 2017, and for California Rural Legal Assistance, another Fresno-based group that serves farmworkers, describes El Quinto Sol as unique in the area for several reasons.
“It’s one of the only organizations that’s really run by people from the Tulare area,” she says. That’s essential because the group is rooted in the realities of what it means to live in the county “where there is very little access to services—be it legal, medical, or sexual health services,” she adds.
Medellin has also set a tone over the last two decades that has inspired others in the area, Jagannath adds. “A lot of us feel like Irma raised us as organizers. She teaches people to relate to others not just because they have a bill to pass, but because they have a reason to come back and see people, whether that’s to check in on their health or their family. It’s the kind of strategy that comes from the heart.”
The fact that Medellin raised three daughters essentially on her own after coming to the U.S. makes her especially sympathetic to others facing similar uphill challenges.
“Through her way of life, she embodies the capacity of women to take care of each other, and to take a step into activism in their community, even if they face adversity. To realize it’s not a luxury to advocate for your community but essential to ensuring a safe and healthy life.”
And Arrollo-Toland’s decade-long battle with Valley Fever—a soil-borne respiratory illness that can have serious health consequences—means that she also brings an urgency to the work that both propels and complicates it.
“Isabel continues to be someone who not only has a vision for a safe and health agriculture alternative in the area, but the gumption to try to make it happen,” Jagannath says, “and she understands that soil connects all of our destinies across urban and rural areas.”
On a recent night at the office, Medellin and Arrollo-Toland sat around a table eating chicken tostadas as they brainstormed ideas for the agroecology center they hope to build with CAFA. Around a dozen other people—mostly farmworkers and their allies—turned out to share ideas for the space, envisioning things like an garden, a communal chicken coop, and canning and cooking classes, while the organization’s summer fellow stood at the front of the room, pen in hand, taking notes.
It was one of four focus groups they were planning to conduct before the summer was over. To someone entering the space, the collective vision for a place free of pesticide drift, food insecurity, and anonymous work under a third-party labor contractor may have seemed like magical thinking. But Medellin and Arrollo-Toland approached the process like they do everything else: steady, unflinching, and prepared for the work to last years.
The meeting was reminiscent of a recent win that meant much more than it seemed on the surface. In 2018, several leadership committees working with El Quinto Sol petitioned lawmakers to get official population signs for the unincorporated communities in the county—which had often been hidden from view to people driving by. The signs are green with simple white lettering—just like all the others in around the state. And yet for Medellin, Arrollo-Toland, and other working to making sure the people behind our food are truly seen and heard, it felt like a remarkable victory.