Video by Emily Cohen Ibañez, Travis Mannon
Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the Mexican general who colonized California’s Sonoma County, remains an admired figure to this day. A local authority erected a monument to the general as recently as 2017. The darker side of this history is typically overlooked.
In 1838, according to records, Vallejo executed 35 of his Indigenous workers as suspected cattle thieves. When a smallpox epidemic struck the area, he inoculated his own family but left around 2,000 Native workers, likely Wappo, Southern Pomo, and Coast Miwok people, to die unvaccinated.
Today, with its fame as one of the world’s most important wine-producing regions, Sonoma County supports a tourism industry centered on grape growers’ connections to the rolling land — a landscape that, over the last few years, has been increasingly consumed by wildfires. After a particularly brutal fire season last year, lifestyle magazines and national newspapers alike expressed concerns about the local industry and the impact of wildfire smoke on the wine.
Once again, Indigenous workers were often left out of the story. Largely from regions of Mexico, the workers toiled in smoky evacuation zones, struggled to access health care, and went without government support when the fires made work impossible.
On a cool autumn day last month, farmworkers inserted themselves into the narrative. Tourists were streaming into Simi Winery to immerse themselves in the storied winery’s Harvest Celebration — at $145 for a ticket, a meal, and, of course, wine pairings. As the well-heeled attendees arrived, a group of farmworkers, their families, and supporters picketed, chanting and playing drums.
The price tag for the meal, according to North Bay Jobs With Justice, which helped organize the protest, roughly matches what a farmworker gets paid for collecting 1 ton of grapes.
The protest organizers, led by workers, had been trying to meet with Simi Winery’s owners since September, but the winemakers never replied. No mom and pop shop, Simi Winery is owned by one of the largest alcohol companies in the world, Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 firm valued at $44 billion that includes Modelo Especial and Corona beers in its U.S. portfolio, as well as other popular brands.
The farmworkers had sought to invite Simi — as well as more than 30 other local wine-related businesses — to commit to meeting five demands tailored to the needs of fire-stricken workers.
The workers are fighting for disaster insurance to cover wage losses when it’s too dangerous to work, as well as hazard pay for high-risk shifts — such as when wineries are granted waivers to allow workers to labor in evacuation zones. The workers also want community safety observers to be allowed into the evacuation zones to assure that safety standards are upheld and for safety information to be distributed in Indigenous languages. Finally, they want clean bathrooms and clean water available even when the fires are burning nearby.
In response to The Intercept’s questions about the workers’ demands, Alex Wagner, vice president of communications for Constellation Brands said in a statement that the company has a “long history of providing competitive pay and benefits, a safe and sanitary workplace, and a culture where team members feel welcome, valued and respected.”
Unable to get an audience with some of Sonoma’s largest winemakers, the farmworkers resorted to their picket at Simi Winery — hoping that putting their story in front of winery patrons might put pressure on their employers to come to the table.
Today, the idyllic Sonoma County experience that visitors flock to is made possible by workers inhaling toxic smoke as fires burn nearby.
Maria Salinas, a Chatino farmworker from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, described what harvest season is like now. “You’re working and you’re smelling the toxic smoke,” she said. “And you don’t want to protect yourself with the masks, because it’s too hot, so you’re breathing all of this. After work, you feel like sneezing and spitting. The saliva is black. If this is just what you’re spitting, how must it be inside? What about your lungs?”
Salinas, who is involved with wildfire organizing as a leader with the Indigenous workers’ group Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, has asthma that has worsened with the smoke: “I have to use my inhaler constantly.”
Last spring, organizers among the farmworkers conducted a survey of about 100 colleagues to identify demands. The results showed that, even without the wildfires, 61 percent of respondents earned less than $2,500 a month and 45 percent said they were underpaid for the work they did. Four out of five respondents said the pay was not enough to support their families, and fewer than a quarter had employer-provided health insurance.
The survey elucidated the specifics behind a common dynamic among the farmworkers: They can’t afford not to work, even when conditions become unsafe.
North Bay Jobs With Justice pointed out that in 2020 the federal government provided $63 million in fire-related insurance payouts to Sonoma County wineries, yet provided no comparable support to the people who work the land. Many of the workers are undocumented and ineligible for most income replacement programs.
“We don’t have protection,” said Salinas. ”We can’t count on anyone to come tell us, ‘If you don’t have a job, take this for the rent.’”
The struggles of farmworkers weren’t the only stories the survey told. Many people commented on their connection to the land.
“It is a privilege to work the land and experience every part of nature. It is giving life to the world we live in,” said one worker. Another said, “My father taught me to work and harvest from the land. It is very sacred.”
Many of the farmworkers hail from rural parts of Mexico and speak Indigenous languages, such as Triqui, Chatino, Mixteco, or Maya. Nine out of 10 respondents said they had been discriminated against for speaking their Native language.
The workers’ demand for safety information to be available in Indigenous languages speaks to something deeper than physical security. In 2000, the Mexican government classified some dialects of Salinas’s first language, Chatino, as endangered.
“As an Indigenous woman speaking my own language, I do feel proud of speaking it. I feel that it is the most valuable thing I have,” Salinas said in Spanish, her second language. Her dream is that her people’s language will be passed on to Chatino children.
As the harvest season closes, no Sonoma County winery, grape grower, farm labor contractor, or vineyard management company has agreed to the campaign’s demands, though a few businesses have been meeting with organizers.
“On the whole, we’ve not been received with open arms with these demands,” said Davin Cardenas, the organizing director at North Bay Jobs With Justice.
Meanwhile, Simi has been doing its own Sonoma County storytelling with a big-budget brand campaign centered on its place in the area’s history. Videos filmed by an Oscar-nominated cinematographer tell of how Isabelle Simi took over the winery in 1904 at age 18, after her father and uncle, who migrated from Italy to establish the winery, both died.
The video depicts Simi dusting herself off and harvesting the grapes alone, through grit and determination — no workers in sight. She heroically keeps the winery afloat through Prohibition years and, in 1934, opens Sonoma County’s first tasting room — a space where all the members of the community can gather, according to the video.
As part of the campaign, Simi has partnered with actor Reese Witherspoon’s book club. “Together, these female-led brands will spotlight diverse narratives and deepen connections within the community by offering readers and drinkers more ways to engage with these stories and each other,” the executive vice president of Constellation Brands said in a statement.
The workers are now inviting the Simi community to spotlight a different narrative. As Salinas put it, “The people who make this dream possible are the workers; we work so hard. And us — when are we going to enjoy this?”