In the San Luis Valley, one of Colorado’s richest agricultural centers, farming is not something people take for granted, least of all people like Carlotta Loya Hernandez and Raymond Hurtado. Though neither spends any time in the fields these days, they remain intimately connected to ‘la tierra.’
Growing up, both Loya Hernandez and Hurtado, along with family, worked the farms of the Valley. Her father had followed the crops across various states as early as the late sixties before finally settling in Center. Hurtado’s father had done the same. The agricultural grapevine spread the word about work in the Valley. “There’s always a network.” It’s agriculture’s version of ‘friends-and-family,’ she said.
Today this hands-in-the-dirt network reaches across Colorado and every other state. The network--- men, women and families---an estimated 2-3 million immigrants nationally, including thousands in Colorado, is responsible for everything from the planting, tending and harvesting across Colorado; the peaches and grapes on the Western Slope to the lettuce, potatoes and barley in the Valley. When a seed germinates in Colorado, a brown hand has usually put it in the ground.
Loya Hernandez was her family’s first child. But as the family grew, each sibling took their place in the fields. Even today, the pipeline from family to farms is a steady flow. “We worked the lettuce fields,” she recalled. “We worked with the short-handled hoe,” a tool that allowed a worker to get closer to the ground, but it also caused serious and painful back injuries. It has since been banned. “The work was eight hours a day, six days a week.” The work was hard and, often a sentence and not a job, and not only for a worker but for the entire family.
The rigors of the labor along with the chemicals used on the crops create health problems that visit and revisit families not only through the season but well beyond. “In my family,” said Loya Hernandez, “there were migraines and allergies.” One of her sisters dealt with thyroid issues. There was also cancer. But there are also other and not uncommon issues in farmworker families, she said.
If farmworkers follow crops, domestic violence and alcoholism often follow the farmworkers. These two societal challenges are not uncommon among families who work the land. For Loya Hernandez, it was her father’s alcoholism that moved her away from the fields. “We were in constant poverty,” she recalled. “I was about to quit school,” but she didn’t. Another network, teachers who cared about a bright, full-of-potential young girl, played a big role. As a result, things would change for her in a dramatic way.
Though Hurtado was born in Denver, he was raised in Center. The town was an anchor for both immigrants and citizens who followed the crops. The town and the work are how Hurtado’s parents met and later married. Crop cycles often play out that way for young immigrant workers.
Hurtado said he worked with his father in the lettuce fields, a job, he said, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. “I was about 15 or 16,” he remembered in a recent conversation, “and there was an older lady who worked ahead of me. I couldn’t catch her,” he said. “How is this older lady working so fast,” he wondered. The answer may have been money. In agriculture, your pay is often based on production. The faster you work, the more money you earn.
Neither Loya Hernandez nor Hurtado any longer works in the fields. After a few stops, starts and redirection, Loya Hernandez found her way, via scholarship, out of the Valley and on to the campus of Adams State University. She later matriculated to Boulder and CU where in 2015 she ultimately earned a doctorate in Education. But along the way, she also started Casa de Esperanza, a 32-unit residential community center in Longmont that helps agricultural workers with educational and recreational services. Four of her siblings are also college graduates with one now working toward a Ph.D
Hurtado is now the Director of San Luis Valley Farmworker Housing, a program that offers shelter to both families and single farm workers. The program provides affordable housing in both Center and Alamosa and has won national awards for its work.
When he isn’t performing the duties of finding housing for the Valley’s growing immigrant population, like his father, Hurtado is an ordained minister. He serves under his father as Associate Minister of The Assemblies of God Church in Center. It ministers to the Spanish-speaking workers in the Valley.