Residents of several San Joaquin Valley communities shared their concerns over issues from water quality to health care with two candidates for California governor on Friday.
Seated inside a meeting room at Orosi High School, the community members spoke, at times passionately, about the daily struggles they face living without clean running water. They said they also are challenged by air pollution, a lack of access to health care and a shortage of affordable housing.
The face-to-face meeting was organized, in part, by the nonprofit Faith in the Valley group in Fresno and was intended to give the community an opportunity to share their stories with the candidates for California governor. Two Democratic candidates agreed to the meeting, Delaine Eastin and Antonio Villaraigosa. Notable by absence was the candidate that polls show to be the frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. as well as four other top candidates.
Later in the day, the candidates were scheduled to hear from residents in southwest Fresno, who were to focus on the shortage of living-wage jobs, concerns with the criminal justice system and lack of support for young people.
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"Today this is about being powerful, being bold and being brave," said Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, as he spoke to the people gathered in Orosi. "Ask them tough questions."
Sandra Marez, an Alpaugh resident for 58 years, has lived with poor water quality for years. She calls it toxic water, contaminated with arsenic.
"We have lived with this for decades," she said.
A leader in the movement for clean water, Marez was joined by others who spoke about the shame of living in one of the richest agricultural regions of the world, yet not having safe drinking water coming from the faucets at home.
Pedro Hernandez, who grew up in west Fresno County, said the commmunity of Lanare, near Riverdale, has arsenic in its water but a treatment plant built to deal with the problem is not operated.
"They got a grant to build the treatment plant but they can't afford to operate it," said Hernandez, who works with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno.
Orosi High School student Kylee Pascual said that at one point the water on campus had high levels of nitrates and was not drinkable. School officials said the problem has since been fixed, but it is still a concern.
"It's hard not being able to drink water from your own school," Pascual said.
Others spoke about the difficulty of being able to get proper health care because of their undocumented status.
Annamaria Fabian of Merced said she was in need of oral surgery, but could not get access to affordable care.
"I was in the worst pain I have ever been in," she said. "It was inhumane."
Both Eastin, a former state schools superintendent, and Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, listened intently to the residents.
Eastin thanked those at the meeting for being a voice of the community. She vowed to make sure that all Californians have the benefit of clean air and safe drinking water. She said she is proud of California's immigrant past and future.
"I want to represent as governor the people who look like the people in this room," Eastin said.
Villaraigosa reminded the community that he and Eastin were the only two who agreed to come to Orosi and listen to their concerns.
"Showing up matters," he said. "There are five people who did not show up. I think you are important and these issues are important. And I will make sure resources go to the Valley."