Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mudslides Take Heavy Toll on Immigrants Serving Posh Town

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mudslides Take Heavy Toll on Immigrants Serving Posh Town

Article excerpt

Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe give Montecito its star power, but it's people such as Antonio and Victor Benitez who keep the wealthy Southern California community running.

The Mexican brothers are gardeners and part of the town's working-class immigrant population, which suffered outsized losses from the recent mudslides that killed at least 21, injured dozens and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.

Antonio and Victor Benitez suffered broken bones, and each lost both his wife and a child. Victor's toddler son survived but was injured.

Nearly a third of those killed in the Jan. 9 mudslides were from immigrant families working in service jobs in the largely white and retired Pacific coast town of 9,000. Many of these families are from developing countries seizing the opportunities provided by the area's wealth to make a better life for their children.

Among them was Pinit Sutthithepa, 30, from Thailand, who worked at a Toyota dealership in Santa Barbara and sent money to his wife and two children for years before being able to bring them to the United States in 2016. The mudslides killed him, his son, 6, and stepfather, 79. Crews are still searching for Sutthithepa's 2-year-old daughter.

Martin Cabrera Munoz, 48, worked long hours as a landscaper so he could send money to his children in his native Guanajuato, Mexico.

He was sleeping in the room he kept at his boss's home when an avalanche of mud ripped through the property.

His funeral was held Wednesday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Barbara, where people are also mourning the deaths in the Benitez family.

The Rev. Pedro Lopez has tried to offer words of comfort to his tightknit, Spanish-speaking parish but he knows the healing will be slow and painful.

Many members of the modest church are without work now that the million-dollar homes they cared for have been destroyed by the storm-triggered landslides, which also closed U.S. Highway 101, a major route for commuters between the coastal region's two major cities, Santa Barbara and Ventura. …

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