On the maternal side of my family, I come from a history of farmers in the rural province directly west of Bangkok, Nakon-Pathom. I’ve only been to Thailand once, when I was in the eighth grade. I stayed in my family’s farmhouse that was previously only accessible by boat. Memories of the extent of its isolation have stayed with me throughout all these years. Although the farm was totally removed from the intense and chaotic city center of Bangkok, there was still a vitality of life on the farm—as my family harvested mostly banana and mango crops.
And I felt a sense of awe at the sense of satisfaction of living off the land. There was no plumbing either. My shower consisted of dumping a gallon or so of water over my head. One time, I remember there was a little frog companion who stood in the corner and uncomfortably watched as I took my new version of a shower. (I think I may have been more uncomfortable than the frog.)
Even way back then, it always struck me how separated and starkly different Bangkok was to my family’s humble rural origins. The glitz and glamour of burgeoning and westernizing Bangkok was like a black hole—no end in sight in terms of its scope or how much it could consume.
There are parallels to my rural Thailand roots and my current experience pro bono lawyering in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I spent the last 10 years of my life in California’s two main coastal cities—5 years in Los Angeles and 5 years in San Francisco. LA and the Bay Area are two of America’s largest urban centers—reflected in population, cost of living, and sheer amounts of consumption in every possible way. These areas (like many other metropolitan areas) are often like living in a large sized bubble. Where I most recently lived in the Bay Area, there is a plethora of trendy eateries adorning each always-gentrifying corner. If there was ever a possibility of the word “gentrify” itself to become gentrified—the streets of San Francisco would be ground zero.
I remember a moment when visiting a sticky, stuffy establishment in San Francisco’s Mission District, my friend had asked for a glass of water. She returned with a Dixie cup of water, saying that it was all that was allowed to be dispensed to her. Even though we were sitting amongst so much opulence and wealth—she couldn’t get a full glass of water. And I also wondered: if the water crisis shows up this way in San Francisco, what does it look like in the Central Valley where water is crucially needed for massively fueling our country’s primary source of agriculture?
I spent a little over a week in my old stomping grounds of Los Angeles preparing for my big journey ahead. As I drove north on Highway 99 to Bakersfield (the major highway that connects all of the Central Valley cities and towns), rows upon rows of farms encompassed me and the temperature shot up about 20 degrees. The area seemed full of wrath, indeed.
After a little over a week in the Delano/Bakersfield area, there are a handful of main observations that lends itself to both social and justice related issues:
Observation #1: There is not the luxury of choice
One of the things I quickly noticed about Delano and the surrounding area was that there is “the” spot people go for lunch or for coffee, etc. It’s a far cry from SF and LA where you could go somewhere different every single day of the week and not exhaust the number of possibilities for years.
I am currently living in Bakersfield, about 30 minutes south of Delano. Bakersfield has a population of over 350,000—a medium sized city. But due to its rural location— and arguably, relatively non-diverse economy of agriculture and oil—there hasn’t been a major movement to diversify the economy with a variety of small businesses. In fact, my search for a coffee shop with Wi-Fi literally turned up one coffee shop other than a Starbucks. Just one (which I have been frequenting all the time). And to my surprise, I really enjoy patronizing “the” local coffee shop and like that it has a culture of a Cheers bar where everyone knows your name. In Bakersfield/Delano, it is virtually impossible to have FOMO (fear of missing out). And that is a very different experience—one I appreciate.
But there are other situations where the dearth of choice is critical and life impacting. There have been a couple great articles published recently about the lack of attorneys in rural areas, and that justice gap is real. Two attorneys at the Delano office at California Rural Legal Assistance are the only legal aid attorneys doing labor/employment work in all of Kern County (a county the size of New Jersey!). While there is an ample supply of attorneys in most of our country’s urban areas (that still doesn’t cover all legal needs)—that need is magnified tenfold in our rural communities.
Observation #2: As a result of #1, due process issues fall through the cracks
So far, one of my focal points at the Delano office has been on rural housing cases. I’ve observed that it is not uncommon for non-English speaking tenants to receive notices and related documents only in English rather than their primary languages. These tenants are not receiving their procedural due process rights. Imagine receiving a series of intimidating legal documents in a language other than your own—how would you feel about being able to properly defend your rights? Or even know what was being asked of you in the first place?
Also, it is a widespread issue in rural Kern County, California that limited English proficient persons do not have access to a court interpreter in court-based proceedings, even serious proceedings affecting housing, parental rights, and other important rights.
Regardless of the cause, the effect is that many non-English-speaking folks in the San Joaquin Valley are not getting access to their full procedural due process rights—which inevitably funnels into their lack of access to substantive due process rights: life, liberty, and property. When all eyes aren’t on a rural county courthouse to enforce these due process rights, things start to fall through the cracks. And this leads to many of our rural brothers and sisters not benefitting from the protections that many of us in more urban areas may take for granted or have easier access to.
Observation #3: Some things, despite their differences, are the same
Although manifestations of urban and rural poverty may look different, each version is rooted in systemic, economic oppression. And the gap between the 99% and 1% has never been greater. Oppression is oppression—no matter where you are. Marginalized communities in rural areas tend to be more spread out, not as concentrated as the obvious urban Skid Row and Tenderloin districts. But rest assured that these marginalized populations are very much here. There is unfortunately universality to poverty.
I’ve also noticed many similarities in the types of cases handled by the Delano office and the other legal aid offices I have worked at in San Francisco. Maybe the surrounding facts are different, but many of the legal issues are the same, such as habitability concerns in landlord/tenant cases. And one thing is clear: everyone in this country, regardless of location, deserves accessibility to justice. But the barriers to obtain justice are startling.
Observation #4: More advocates are needed in our rural communities
As such, it is imperative that more advocates are working in our rural communities to address the massive justice gap with legal services access. Furthermore, mostly due to the lack of available social services as a whole, these attorneys often have to take on multiple roles in order to serve as an effective advocate. When I was doing my post-bar fellowship at a radical legal nonprofit in the Bay Area (Bayview/Hunter’s Point Community Legal), I piloted a legal coaching program.
In addition to helping clients organize their often unwieldy legal claims, my program had a focus on helping those see past the inevitable legal outcome of their case—whether they won or lost. What was the client’s support system? What were the client’s professional and personal goals—assuming that systemic barriers (albeit massive and huge) could be temporarily removed so as to see one’s holistic potential? How can we as advocates light the fire that so desperately needs to be ignited in order to push back against the ultimate tidal wave that is the status quo?
At the end of the day
After work each night, there isn’t much to do in the Bakersfield/Delano area. I reached out to an old friend recently who grew up in Bakersfield asking for tips on what to check out. He responded that most of his progressive friends had left the area and he couldn’t think of much to do. So, I often go to my Cheers coffee shop and sit and think. And write. And in those moments, I don’t feel a scarcity of the aforementioned problems to contemplate. In fact, without all the distractions of my former city residences, I am left with my own thoughts at the end of the day and what I am going to do with it all.
And then I must make the decision to ignite my own spark—and then I wake up the next morning and try to do it all over again.
Until August 7th, I am a volunteer attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance. Founded in 1966, CRLA's mission is to fight for justice and individual rights alongside the most exploited communities of our society. Through a network of regional offices and cross-cutting programs, CRLA provides legal services to over 43,723 low-income people annually. CRLA's work impacts farmworkers, individuals with disabilities, immigrant populations, LGBT communities, women, children, and families in rural areas.
Please check out this one minute film I made about my time here so far in California's San Joaquin Valley: