Jesus Salazar is photographed with his grandson Landon ‘Canelo’ Castillo in an undated photo. Salazar, 66, died while working at Pitman Family Farms in Sanger, California on May 7, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Castillo Family

What's at stake?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says there are many “serious safety and health hazards” in the poultry processing industry, due to the common use of dangerous equipment and hazardous chemicals, and the risk of chronic injuries.

About two weeks after poultry plant worker Jesus “Chuy” Salazar died in a workplace accident, family and friends are mourning the loss of their colleague, father and grandfather.

Salazar, 66, of the Fresno County city of Sanger, died on the morning of May 7 while working at Pitman Family Farms.

That morning, according to a Sanger Police report obtained by The Bee, Salazar was assigned to check pipes around an indoor poultry waste pit — a 14-foot-wide, 18-foot-long and​ 18- to 25-foot-deep rectangular structure containing a mixture of chicken feathers, remains, waste, fat and water.

When a fellow employee noticed Salazar went missing, a Pitman supervisor called the police, concerned that Salazar had fallen into the pit and died, the report said. Police who responded to the scene said they saw in the pit, “a set of boots with the toes pointed upwards.”

The Fresno County Coroner’s Office said in an email statement to The Bee that Salazar’s cause of death was drowning.

Pitman Farms — the family-owned farm and poultry processing company behind “Mary’s Chicken,” a popular line of organic and free-range chickens — is one of the largest employers in Fresno County, according to state employment data. Workers at the Sanger-based processing plant cut, grind and package chickens, as well as other poultry products.

Pitman Farms did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, is investigating the workplace fatality. The federal agency says there are many “serious safety and health hazards” in the poultry processing industry, due to the common use of dangerous equipment and hazardous chemicals, and the risk of chronic injuries.

Salazar’s family shared a statement with The Bee, authored by his son, Richard Castillo, his daughter-in-law, Lina Castillo, his daughter, Clarissa Reyes, and his grandchildren Paris, Roman and Landon.

Jesus Salazar (top, center) is photographed with his son, Richard Castillo, his daughter-in-law, Lina Castillo, his grandchildren Paris, Roman and Landon, and other family members in an undated photo. Courtesy of Castillo Family

“Losing a loved one is never easy, especially someone as remarkable as Jesus,” the family said in the statement. “He was not only a great father, but a great human being.”

‘A lot of people’ loved him at Pitman Farms

Salazar was originally from the town of Jiquilpan, Michoacán, México and eventually moved to the United States to make a living.

His children remember him as a “very hard worker.”

Prior to working at Pitman Farms, where his family estimates he worked for around two years, he worked in the hospitality industry in the city of San Jose, helping with hotel banquets.

At Pitman Farms, Salazar, affectionately known as “Don Chuy,” was the kind of coworker that looked out for others.

In the mornings when clocking in, Salazar would greet his colleagues with a spirited, “good morning! How did we wake up today?” He would offer you a soda or water from his lunch box, coworkers recalled, or offer to buy you a snack if he thought you looked famished.

He cracked jokes with his coworkers and offered words of encouragement during the workday, which workers said could sometimes last between 10 and 14 hours.

He was a good, respectful man, fellow Pitman Farms employee Karina Torres said in an interview. “Bien amiguero, bien campechano,” she said. “Very friendly, very cheerful.”

And he loved his family, Torres said. “We’d be there working and he’d talk about his children and his grandchildren,” she said. “And when he talked about them, his beautiful eyes would light up.”

Now, ‘Don Chuy’ is on everyone’s minds at work, Torres said, and as soon as a group of four or five people are together, “we start to cry.”

Some of his colleagues, family and friends gathered last Saturday in Sanger for a small memorial in his name.

“Muchas personas lo queríamos allí,” said another Pitman Farms worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “A lot of us there loved him.”

Salazar’s family to hold funeral service later this month

Salazar’s family remembers him as someone who had an “infectious” love for life, and love for those around him.

One way he expressed this passion was through music and dance. He especially loved mariachi music. One song family members say he sang well was “Volver, Volver,” a Mexican ranchero song made popular by the late Vicente Fernandez.

“Everyone always asked him to sing and he did it so well,” said his daughter-in-law Lina Castillo.

The Castillo family said they’ll find comfort remembering “the sound of his voice as he sang and danced, the warmth of his embrace, and the joy he brought to those around him.”

His family will hold private funeral services for Salazar later this month.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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