FRESNO, Calif. - On a warm spring day, farmworker Cristina Melendez was bedridden and unable to make her way back into the asparagus fields of central California for the kind of backbreaking work she's done since childhood.
The 36-year-old mother of seven was desperate. Her bank account had been at zero for months, the refrigerator was nearly empty, and she didn't have enough to cover the rent. Lacking health insurance, Melendez couldn't see a doctor or afford medication, so her illness dragged on - and another day came and went without work or pay.
A native of Mexico who was smuggled into the United States as a child, Melendez had once dreamed big: to be a bilingual secretary, to own a house and a car, to become a U.S. citizen. Agriculture, she hoped, would be the springboard to a better life - for her and her U.S.-born children, the next generation of a family whose past and future are deeply rooted in the fertile earth of America's breadbasket.
California's San Joaquin Valley is one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, with Fresno County farmers receiving a record $6.8 billion in revenues last year. But the region also consistently ranks among the nation's most impoverished. Sometimes called "Appalachia of the West," it's where families, especially Hispanic immigrants and their children, live year after year in destitution.
This divide causes concern because of what it may foretell as the nation's Hispanic population explodes and the U.S. moves toward becoming a majority minority nation. Census data show that non-Hispanic whites will cease to be a majority somewhere about the year 2043. The shift is largely driven by high birth rates among Hispanics as well as by declines in the aging white population.
Already there are a record number of Hispanics living below the poverty line nationwide, and the number of Hispanic children in poverty exceeds that of any other racial or ethnic group. Largely less educated, Hispanic workers are concentrated in low-skill occupations, earning less than the average for all U.S. workers.
"America's communities have become divided between economic winners and losers," said Daniel Lichter, a Cornell University sociologist and past president of the Population Association of America. "Increasingly, Hispanics begin life's race at a decided disadvantage, raising the specter of new Hispanic ghettos and increasing isolation."
As poor working Latinos settle across the country, fueling local economies in industries such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture, some are left with little room to climb the job ladder.
That holding pattern leads to a cycle of poverty that shows up in the next generation of U.S. citizens. With poverty stunting childhood development and stymieing educational attainment, experts say many Latino children are on track to remain stuck in low-skilled, underpaid jobs.
Harvard economist George Borjas projects that the children of today's immigrants will earn on average 10 percent to 15 percent less than nonimmigrant Americans, with Latinos in particular struggling. The trend could have broad repercussions.
The cycle is especially evident in the fields, vineyards, orchards and groves of the San Joaquin Valley, which stretches about 250 miles between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Thousand-acre farms dominate, thriving on a system of dammed rivers, drained lakes, advanced fertilizers and pesticides.
Farmers have always relied on hiring racial or ethnic minorities ranked at the bottom of society. Valley crops once were harvested by Chinese, Japanese, Punjabis, Filipinos, Mexican braceros, southern Europeans, African-Americans and the white American Dust Bowl arrivals that were an exception to the immigrant mold. Today's crops are picked primarily by Hispanic immigrants like Melendez or their American-born children.
Hispanics account for half the population in Fresno County, and one-third of them live in poverty. Nationally, 1 in 4 Latinos lives below the poverty line, the second-highest percentage of all ethnic and racial groups, after blacks. That's compared with an overall national rate of 15 percent and a rate for whites of about 10 percent.
Nowhere are these differences more apparent than in Fresno, California's fifth-largest city and the state's unofficial agricultural capital.
Fresno's north side - home to bankers, doctors and teachers - is dotted with gated communities and McMansions with manicured lawns.
Melendez's neighborhood in southeast Fresno is a world away. Children on bikes crisscross cracked streets, their gutters strewn with trash. Shabby apartment complexes stretch for blocks. Melendez's three-bedroom home sits on the bottom floor of one such complex, shared by Latino immigrants and Hmong refugees.
In Fresno, advocates and experts for years have noticed the inextricable relationship between agriculture, the Hispanic community and poverty, and sounded the alarm. But little has been done to tackle the root of the problem.