Intergenerational Reflections Women in the Pajaro Valley
Portraits and Interviews by Kirti Bassendine
Small organic strawberry farm owner, mother to Ruby Vasquez and grandmother to Valentina Vasquez
My name is Esther Vasquez and I was born in Salinas, California and I’m 78 years old. My mother was born in Needles, California and my father was born in Jalisco, Mexico. And this has been my place to live since I was a little girl, I was born here in this area, I stick to it. And I enjoy it.
We’ve been farming here in Moss Landing for a long time already and my grandparents also farmed here, when it was known as Watsonville.
I had to quit school at about 11 or 12 years old. I had to go help my mom out in the fields, she was by herself, she was a single mom. My dad had left back to Mexico. And we were just alone, it was a pretty hard time for us.
My mom and my grandfather started doing strawberries as a sharecropper and after that, I grew up picking strawberries with them. And when I got married, my husband Rudy and I started this ranch and we have been growing strawberries ever since. It’s been wonderful... a good life.
My mom and my grandfather started doing strawberries as a sharecropper and after that, I grew up picking strawberries with them.
Moss Landing is close to the Monterey Bay ocean, and it typically ends up being foggy and cold. But it has changed a lot. We get more wind, more fog at night. Before it used to come in the morning, now it usually comes out at night. But it is not as bad as it used to be in the old days. There was more fog. A lot of fog. The changes in the weather have impacted how we grow our strawberries. Because the weather changes how the plants grow because it needs more sun. The strawberries need a lot of sun.
When wildfires start in the summer the ashes would come all the way down here and all the strawberries would be full of ashes and you have to throw them away, can’t pick em and you can’t sell em. So we had to throw them away, just clean up the plants. It’s hard when you live close to the areas that you get the fires and the smoke.
Early in 2020 our season for strawberries hadn’t started yet so there was no problem with (the 2019 late season fires) messing up the produce or anything. But sometimes when it starts in the summer the ashes would come all the way down here and all the strawberries would be full of ashes and you have to throw them away, can’t pick em and you can’t sell em. So we had to throw them away, just clean up the plants. It’s hard when you live close to the areas that you get the fires and the smoke. As Valentina said, we are mostly just inside the house because of the pandemic. So that helped a lot because we weren’t outside smelling the smoke.
Last year during the fires that came from Santa Cruz areas, Felton and all that, well probably about two weeks worth of produce we had to throw away. I don’t know exactly how much it would be, by crates I would know how much it would be. It was as I say, about two weeks worth of produce. Yeah, two weeks is a lot, it’s a lot of berries.
It’s something entirely new for our industry to have all these heat waves coming… The damage is not just to the fruit, but to the plant. It burns it up and it destroys it….Once the plant is gone and the strawberry is no good, the job is not the same. Not the same hours, it changes the workers’ life.
The extreme heat waves we are experiencing can damage the berries. The damage is not just to the fruit, but to the plant. It burns it up and it destroys it. That’s one thing, it’s not just for us, we get the bad part of it, but also our field workers. Once the plant is gone and the strawberry is no good, the job is not the same. Not the same hours, it changes their life.
We are almost retired farmers so you know if something drastic happens like that, it probably wouldn’t affect us so much as some of the larger farmer families. It’s something entirely new for our industry to have all these heat waves coming. Not just for strawberries but for other fruits and other vegetables too.
Our lack of water, our lack of receiving rain, obviously having a drought affects how we grow, or how much we can grow. I think it’ll affect us more in the future because it’s just starting right now. As I say, we’re small farmers, but I think the farms that are larger are affected more because they lose more of their crops. And they have more families, more workers working for them and they'll probably have to lay them off...I think it’ll affect the financial part.
My mother was a good, hardworking, honest person all her life.
I had role models. My mother was a role model for me, she’s the one who taught us how to be a good person, an honest person. And a hardworking person, that’s all she was, a good, hardworking honest person all her life. I use a lot of her little quotes that she would say and still laugh at some of them even with my sisters. But I think she was a good role model, she was my number one role model. I had my tia Carmen who I named Valentina’s mom after. I had her as my role model because she also was a hard worker, she also got sick very young with tuberculosis. And was hospitalized many times. But she never lost her faith, she was always really strong. She never said, ok this is it, this is the end. And she loved education, she loved reading.
Tia Carmen was really into education - she liked education, when she was in the hospital one of the nurses there helped her to get her diploma for grade school. Because my mother never had one, it was kinda hard for them and she helped her get through that. She always said to get a good education and I wish I had myself gotten a longer education but I couldn’t because I had to help my mother, so I think those two are the most important women in my life.
Get a good education, get a good job. Try to have a stable life.
Those values of hard-working, education, I’ve tried to pass on to my kids and their kids pass it on to their grandkids, very much. Because I think education is the best thing you can get for a child. To give them a good future. I know farming is good but it’s a hard job and, sometimes, it’s got it’s up and downs. Get a good education, get a good job. Try to have a stable life.