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The Plants Silent, Hispanic Residents Stand Jobless, Hungry


ON a morning cold enough to see their own breath, Oralia Martinez and Guillermina Rodriguez stand in line at the Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council on Honolulu Street. Every morning and evening, leftover food from local markets and restaurants is distributed to anyone in need. Local relief agencies and churches parcel out short-term loans for gas, rent, and groceries. Since a statewide freeze destroyed nearly all of the county's $500 million citrus crop in December, the line has stretched around the block.

``The town is in danger of dying,'' says Ms. Martinez, a 36-year local resident from Linares Nuevo Leon, Mexico. She points down the street to Lo Bue Bros. packing plant, a block-long facility that pulsated with activity until mid-December and now stands dark. There are at least nine other such facilities in this town of 8,614, all empty.

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Tulare County lists between 8,000 to 9,000 pickers and packers out of work; 15,000 related jobs are threatened.

A legalized alien, Martinez now substitutes a $71-a-week unemployment check for the $264 she made as a packer for eight years. Mother of four, she pulls out a picture of son, Rudy Jr., now in the Persian Gulf.

``A lot of people don't realize that these are not migrants following the harvests,'' says Ivan Gonzalez, a program director for World Vision which is distributing funds for thousands who cannot pay February rent. ``They are long-term, viable segments of the county economy that have had the wind knocked out of them for at least 10 months.''

Nearly a third of the Tulare County's 311,000 population is ``of Spanish origin.''

Gonzales says when the packing companies lay off workers, everything in the town folds - from tire stores to restaurants to clothing stores.

``These people are really stuck because they can't just move on,'' says Armando Rios, the local barber for 26 years. ``They have houses, families, rents to pay. The freeze was bad enough, but now the prospect of drought could keep this place a ghost town.''

PARTLY good news came last week when President Bush declared a natural disaster in 31 California counties, thus making disaster unemployment insurance and tax relief available to growers.

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But local agencies complained that disaster loans from the Small Business Association and Farmer's Home Administration were not covered in the declaration. And the amount of money to be made available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not clear.

``It's half good news,'' says Curtis Lynn, County director for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Mr. Lynn says a 60-member task force from 40 county organizations and businesses is trying to coordinate efforts, but that the county is in bad financial straits from recession and strained tax rolls.

``We need $5 million by June just for welfare benefits,'' says Lynn, ``and a million pounds of food in four weeks.''

Gaps that still need to be filled are for workers who have applied for amnesty under the 1986 immigration reform and do not qualify for welfare. Many of those unemployed will not receive aid in the three-to-four weeks necessary to free emergency funds.

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