MENDOTA, Calif. — The customer seemed interested in a black blouse offered for $1 at the thrift store. But instead of buying it, she set it on the front counter.
Maybe tomorrow, she told the cashier, she would have the money. Or the next day. But not now.
"That is the way people are now," said the cashier, Alicia Reyes, as she watched the middle-aged woman walk out of the store. "They just come in here and look. They just come in here to kill the time. And then they take off."
Welcome to life in Mendota — the unemployment capital of California. With a 41 percent jobless rate, the town's social fabric is tearing at the seams. Alcoholism and crime are on the rise. To save money, some mothers wash and re-use disposable diapers. Unemployed men with nothing to do wander the streets and sit on benches.
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The irony is obvious: In a large swath of the nation's most productive farming region, many struggle to fill their own cupboards.
During this third year of drought, farmers on the west side are fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres and hiring fewer than half the workers they did two years ago. They blame the dry weather and federal environmental laws — meant to protect endangered species of fish — that have severely restricted how much water can flow into the west side.
With the prospect of more water shortages in the future, many farmers are shifting toward less water-dependent crops that don't require as many workers. That could prove devastating to hundreds, if not thousands, of families in west-side towns who have always depended on agriculture jobs.
Julie Hornback, the director of the county's Employment and Temporary Assistance Department, said that she started hearing several months ago about families leaving west-side towns, desperate for jobs.
Many have returned to their hometowns in Mexico or Central America, said Mendota's mayor, Robert Silva. Some seasonal workers haven't bothered heading north this year.
Their reasons are simple: "If they're going to suffer, they might as well suffer back home," Silva said.
Council Member Joseph Amador runs a small motel that is usually full during the harvest season. But not last summer — and he's sure he'll have vacancies again this year.
Normally during a tough farming season, unskilled workers on the west side can fall back on construction jobs. But with the sour economy, that is not an option.
At a recent food-and-diaper giveaway in Raisin City, Saul Rodriguez and his wife, Tiffany, both 20, stood in line holding their 1-year-old son. The couple live in the tiny community of Burrel, where they know there isn't much of a future for their family.
"We hear friends who say jobs are better outside the Valley," Tiffany Rodriguez said.
Saul Rodriguez has decided to join the Air Force because, he said, "there's nothing out here."
Back in Mendota, Reyes, who runs the dilapidated thrift store with her daughter, spent a recent morning watching customers trickle in and out. A sign hanging above an American flag behind her read: "Lord, help me hang in there." So far that day, she had sold only a pair of glass jars — for $5.
Normally, Reyes can keep her business afloat by bargain-shopping for clothes and other items at yard sales in Fresno and re-selling them in Mendota. But with times as tough as they are now, even her thrift store may have to close.
"It's been terrible, terrible, terrible," said Reyes, 60, shaking her head. "The people have no money, no jobs."
But some people are determined to stay.
Hilario Munoz, 56, an immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in Mendota for eight years, sat on a curbside bench with his friend on a recent morning, staring across the street. He used to harvest melons, tomatoes, asparagus and lettuce but hasn't had work for six months.
Asked what he does all day, Munoz replied in Spanish: "Just like you see us now — relaxing, surviving on unemployment."
If he can't find a job soon, Munoz said, he may try to find work at one of the slaughterhouses near Fresno. But he'd rather not. Though he grew up in Central America, Munoz considers himself a Mendota native.
"It's like when a person is born, he feels like he belongs to that place," Munoz said. "I feel like I am part of this community."
At another street corner, five men gather on a bench, sitting and talking. Asked whether this year has been harder than previous years, they all nod in agreement.
"We're borrowing from each other _ from people who have money _ so we can keep eating," Javier Lopez Castillo, 53 said in Spanish.
Jesus Rivas-Torres, 43, said his seven children in El Salvador are struggling because he no longer has money to send home. He went to four different companies recently to look for work, but was turned away.
Mike Wood, a farmer in the Westlands Water District, said he normally would hire about 25 workers during the harvest season. But this summer, he said, "will be the quintessential definition of a skeleton crew _ about two or three guys."
If the water shortages continue, Wood says he and other farmers could soon be out of business. That means that west-side families who decide to stay may find fewer and fewer jobs.
"It's reminiscent of the Depression," said Silva, Mendota's mayor. "In those days you had soup lines, now you have food lines. This is a disaster area."
Signs of poverty and desperation are everywhere.
Many people in Mendota are turning to alcohol to battle depression, said Amador, the council member. And some single-family homes are occupied by two or three families, in what Amador described as "basically labor camps."
"It's a violation of city code, but you don't want to put these families out on the streets," he said.
Silva, the mayor, said the city is having more problems with unemployed men hanging out in alleyways next to minimarts "doing nothing but drink their sorrows away."
Some laborers are traveling up to 100 miles to work in fields near Bakersfield for just a few hours a day, said Ruben Duarte, a pastor in Huron.
He said that his church, Iglesia Renuevo Espiritual, is scrambling to gather food, clothes and diapers for more than 50 families.
"In my 25-plus years in Huron, I can say that this is the toughest or one of the toughest situations our community has experienced," Duarte said.
Alma Lopez-Guerra, who works for the Fresno County First 5 Commission, a government-sponsored early-childhood advocacy group, said that seeing families struggle makes her feel helpless at times.
"They have nowhere else to go," she said. "It breaks my heart."
Lopez-Guerra lives in Fresno but spends much of her time in Mendota and Firebaugh, where she works as a school readiness manager. She said many families are two or three months behind on their rent and others are skipping medical appointments.
She knows of at least three families that were so short on cash that they were rewashing disposable diapers. The First 5 Commission provided them with extra diapers.
"They're looking to put food on their table today, but they don't know what tomorrow holds," Lopez-Guerra said.
Typically, families who are here illegally are scared to ask for help, said Joanna Lopez, a First 5 instructor who visits San Joaquin families in their homes. But she has noticed that as money becomes more scarce, fear has given way to desperation and more families are asking how they can receive food donations and benefit from social services programs.
Illegal immigrants, however, are eligible for only a limited number of social services programs, said Hornback, the county's employment and temporary assistance director.
She said she has seen a sharp increase in the number of legal residents from west-side towns who are applying for food stamps and Medi-Cal.
To keep families afloat, nonprofit and government agencies are hosting food giveaways in some west-side towns. Many who show up are taking donations for the first time.
"There are families who have never been in this situation before," Kendra Rogers, the First 5 Commission's deputy director, said as she watched about 300 people — most of them mothers — sign up for free food and diapers at Raisin City Elementary School this month. "They have never been unemployed before. They have never had a food shortage."