After the Deluge, Images of Impacts and Resilience in Pájaro, California

Residents of the town used photography to explore their personal experiences of climate change after a catastrophic flood forced hundreds from their homes in this small farmworker community.

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More than a year ago, a catastrophic flood submerged the tiny town of Pájaro, about 95 miles south of San Francisco. The Pájaro PhotoVoice Project offered survivors of the disaster the opportunity to use photography to grapple with the impacts of climate change. Credit: Ricardo Paz-Hernandez
More than a year ago, a catastrophic flood submerged the tiny town of Pájaro, about 95 miles south of San Francisco. The Pájaro PhotoVoice Project offered survivors of the disaster the opportunity to use photography to grapple with the impacts of climate change. Credit: Ricardo Paz-Hernandez

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Fourteen months ago, a catastrophic flood upended thousands of lives in Pájaro, a small Central California farmworker town filled with immigrants who speak mostly Spanish or Indigenous languages. A relentless series of atmospheric rivers transformed the inviting Pájaro River into a malevolent foe that charged through a crumbling levee and engulfed the coastal community in floodwaters. 

Regional and state officials knew a levee break was inevitable—it had failed at least four times before—but didn’t prioritize desperately needed repairs for a town populated by low-income farmworkers. The flood damaged hundreds of structures, leaving families homeless, unemployed and traumatized. 

Construction crews will finally start reinforcing the levee this summer, but the project will take years to complete. And a flood is just one of many potential climate disasters threatening Pájaro and the agricultural industry the community depends on to survive. Last year was the planet’s hottest on record, setting the stage for more frequent and severe extreme weather events, heavier rains and longer lasting droughts, heat waves and wildfires that fill the air with toxic smoke. 

A group of Pájaro residents explored the impacts of climate change on their town through a very personal lens as part of the Pájaro PhotoVoice Project, organized by the nonprofit climate justice organization Regeneración. The photos will be on display at Somos, a nonprofit community center in Watsonville, until June 7. 

Elisa H., a resident of Pájaro and mother, is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico. Elisa, who asked not to use her last name, speaks Zapotec and Spanish and is learning English at Cabrillo College. Elisa works in a packaging company making boxes and harvests strawberries during the growing season.

“This was when the rains started falling in Pájaro, before the levee break, and I was working in the fields. I was feeling so anxious when I took this photo because I knew that the rains would ruin the strawberries. And if there’s no strawberries there wouldn’t be work and so I was feeling really anxious.”

“I took this photo before the flood, before the levee broke. There were threats of flooding and you can see the storm clouds. It had been raining and the river was high. I was so nervous. A couple weeks later, the levee broke. Looking at the photos now, I feel very sad. I lost my things in the flood. I was pregnant and afraid of an accident. Suddenly everything was flooded, houses were destroyed. It was a shocking scene.” 

“The flood contaminated the water. I was so worried, because I couldn’t drink water, I couldn’t bathe, I couldn’t cook with the water. So I went to the shelter at the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds and was so grateful for the support. They gave us blankets, they gave us food, a safe place to be and clean water to drink.” 

Ricardo Paz-Hernandez, 17, is a Pájaro resident and 11th grade student at Watsonville High School, where he is a member of the Mosaic art academy. He enjoys playing video games and participating in football, track and field and other sports. Ricardo hopes to find innovative ways for his community to thrive.

“The story starts with the tree. The tree had fallen and the school that was there is still being renovated after all the damage from the flood. It’s been a year and it’s still closed. And all the students that live here in Pájaro have to go across town to Lakeview in Watsonville. And so it starts with that image of being abandoned, forgotten. And then with a photo of the strawberry later, it’s like, you know what, we’re hurt, we’re left behind, but we’re gonna keep fighting. And then in the end with a bird with a tree, it’s like liberty, it’s like being released, being free and working hard to persevere.” 

“Originally, I didn’t really have a vision of what I wanted to capture. I just set out with the mission of walking outside my house, going back on the train tracks, because behind my house, there’s some train tracks. And I want to just take pictures and see where that led me. And I ended up taking the strawberry photo. I was done taking photos for the day and started walking back, and I saw the strawberry on the ground. And thought that’s something I want to capture. Then one of my peers in the project pointed out the leaves on the trees, in the back. And she brought up the idea of perseverance after going through such hard times with the floods and struggles. And so I took this image of being left behind, and turned it into something about persevering after such struggles with the picture of a bird with the tree.” 

Alejandra Vargas is a Pájaro resident and entrepreneur. Alejandra runs a small gourmet food business and a printing business and attends the Pájaro resident meetings at Casa de la Cultura, a nonprofit community center that supports farmworkers.

“It had been raining for a few days and I noticed plants growing on a clothesline. The green on a pole caught my eye and made me think that nature is so wise, even if there’s no dirt, it will find a way to flourish. Nature will flourish and find a way to survive even after all the damage we’ve done to the earth.” 

“Before the flood happened in Pájaro I would cook with this water. But after the flood, the disaster, I don’t anymore because it’s discolored. I don’t know if it’s always been like this and I never paid attention until after the flood, but I don’t use it anymore to cook beans and things like that. My husband has an eye problem and I worry the water could cause an infection for him. After the flood, there was an announcement that the water could have been contaminated. They later told us it’s safe to use but I worry. What if they just didn’t want to pay for bottled water for us and just said to use it? I still have to buy bottled water for cooking and other things. It’s expensive. I’m not the only one worried. A lot of people have similar concerns about the water.” 

“This tree always had flowers when spring started, it usually already has a lot of white flowers, they look like clouds or cotton. I noticed that every year it takes a little longer to get the flowers now, and it made me feel nostalgic when it finally had flowers. In general, the plants and trees are taking longer to get flowers. Because there is rain when it’s not supposed to be raining and it’s cold when it’s not supposed to be cold. And one way or another that affects all the flora. It’s from all the harm that we do to our earth with contaminants and pesticides and everything.” 

José Lomeli Flores, 17, is a Pájaro resident and 11th grade student at Watsonville High School. José is part of his school’s ECHO (Education, Communication, Humanitarian Outreach)  leadership academy.

“When I took a picture of la chancla I thought of every single mom, including my mom. She’s been taking care of us three boys by herself since I was in second grade. La chancla, a sandal, is a stereotype that Latin moms threaten misbehaving kids with a sandal to control them. When I saw la chancla, I thought of all the single moms that keep us safe here in Pájaro.” 

“I call this Flashback. I was hanging out with my friend talking about life, about what’s going on in our lives, and I was thinking back to the flood. I was also walking with my friend when the flood hit. When we saw the clouds coming in last month, it was almost exactly like it was when the flood came. Back then, we thought, the flood’s not gonna hit us. But since they didn’t fix the levee, and they knew the levee was damaged and didn’t do anything to stop it, it flooded. They left us behind. Each time I see a storm coming it reminds me of waking up in the middle of the night, hearing sirens, the cops saying, “Get out of the house! It’s an emergency.” My friend still lives in Castroville with his mom because his landlord didn’t want to fix his house.” 

“I called this Pájaro, are you concerned? Walking around the rural areas of Pájaro, it makes me worried for the people who don’t have easy transportation. Because as we can see here, this “sidewalk” offers no protection. I have to walk every day to be able to get my education. I also have to walk to get around town to go grocery shopping. It doesn’t always feel safe. And I can’t carry many things back home because I don’t have a car and there’s no bus route. How are the people who live here without a proper sidewalk supposed to safely get around? And it’s getting worse with climate change. Just imagine all the dangers it’s putting us in if we don’t do anything to stop this. If we don’t keep the earth safe, we’re not keeping ourselves safe.” 

Angelina Gonzalez is a Pájaro resident and mother who recently started working as a home caregiver, after years of working in the fields. Angelina is also a Community Climate Coalition member working on the Transformative Climate Communities Planning grant from the state of California. Angelina joined the PhotoVoice project because she wants to represent the feelings of Pájaro residents after the flood. She also wanted to capture how climate change affects her daily life.

“In this picture, it is very hot and everybody is waiting in line to get their boxes checked. That’s like when you have homework, it has to be very good quality. And if the quality is not good, it gets rejected and you have to go back and change it and get better quality. And especially that day, because it’s so hot, the sun affects the fruit, and it gets very watery fast, and they don’t want that. They also check if there’s mold or if it’s rotten. The line’s usually not this long. But they say it was because of the weather, it was very, very hot, and the weather does affect the fruit a lot. Sometimes, it doesn’t get watery, it gets burned. And for the workers, when you’re just standing there, you feel the heat even more.” 

“The strawberries are all on the ground. And this reminds me so much of the flood, and all our damaged things that we had to throw out. It’s the same thing with these fields. When it rains a lot and the strawberries stay in the plastic for days, it gets rotten and they gotta go. That’s what happened here. All the fruit that was red had to be thrown on the ground, because if one gets rotten and it touches another strawberry, it gets rotten too. You can also see all these green strawberries, which will grow better because the rotten ones are cleaned out. I see the green strawberries as like our new things after the flood.”

“This picture reminds me a lot of what it was like after the flood. As a mother I had to find a way to protect my daughters, be able to find food for them, clothes for them, because we weren’t able to take anything when the flood came. And so the same thing with this man. He’s doing his work finding a way to protect himself from the sun because it was a very hot day. Workers wear hats but it’s not enough to protect your body. This box protects your whole body. And it’s not like they’re just bending over and then walking. They’re bending over, picking and then running because they get paid by how much they pick.”

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