Intergenerational Reflections Women in the Pajaro Valley
Portraits and Interviews by Kirti Bassendine
Educator and Baile Folklórico Dance instructor, and one of the founders of the Watsonville Campesino Caravan
I was born in Watsonville, but raised out here in Moss Landing. I currently live in Watsonville with my family, raising my son Armando with my husband Gary.
I went to elementary school in Moss Landing, and high school in Salinas. I studied at Hartnell College and then transferred to UCSC and got my BA in American Studies and my multiple subject bilingual teaching credential. I’m now 57 and I have been teaching in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for over 30 years.
At the beginning I worked as a classroom teacher and currently for about the past 18 years I’m a teacher on special assignment, and my special assignment is Parent Education. So I work primarily serving the immigrant families in Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
Growing up, my weekend job and my summer job was helping my parents out in the fields.
Growing up, my weekend job and my summer job was helping my parents out in the fields. Myself and my two sisters, that’s what we would do to earn a little bit of extra money to buy our school clothes. And then later on to have a little money to put gas in the car to drive up to UCSC. I always grew up seeing what hard work that is, to be out here every day, early in the morning whether it’s wet or sunny and hot. We would come out here and pick strawberries. And as a little girl, I remember going to the farm where my grandma started her farm, on Jensen Rd, I remember as a little girl just spending our days out there playing so carefree.
Out at the strawberry field I have seen changes. I always comment about how back in the day, they used a wooden trough to irrigate and now it’s all drip irrigation, with a lot of plastic. And back then it was just a wooden trough with these wooden plugs. Once the row filled up with water, you just plug it up and it would stop.
I remember seeing my mom do more than just pick. She would work on the tractor, she would load and unload the pickup truck. She would take the load into the docks to where they would take the produce at the end of the day. She would do all the bookkeeping, write the checks for the workers. So my mom has done a lot to keep the ranch going. Currently, as my mom mentioned, my dad and herself are still keeping the business going. Primarily at the farmer’s markets up and down the coast here, selling the produce from Vasquez Farms.
The Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan began shortly after the order to shelter in place starting last March in 2020. A group of us got together on a Zoom meeting and it was just a social time for us to get together and just support each other during the pandemic but quickly our conversation began talking about how the current narrative was about essential workers and nowhere in that narrative was about Campesinos- field workers being mentioned as essential workers. And the majority of us on that call that Friday night, we come from field worker families. “Somos hijos de campesinos” (we are children of field workers) and we just thought, wow. We’ve grown up in this area, we’ve seen field workers work through holidays, when many of us get to take the day off, they’re out there working. If it’s raining and bad weather, they’re out there working.
During the wildfires that have always existed in this area, the field workers are out there working. And then all of a sudden, there’s a pandemic and they’re still continuing to go out there to work to put the food on our plate. And we were just like, how do we thank them? How do we recognize them as essential workers? So one of the friends on that call, Maria Madrano, mentioned “let’s just do a caravan.” And just take signs out. So that Saturday we wrote up our signs, we got a PA system together and we went out and we parked on the side of the roads.
On the PA system we just offered statements of gratitude and then that slowly evolved. Now it consists of taking a packet of information. We want folks to know that it is okay to do this vaccination. We partner closely with the city of Watsonville, the Santa Cruz Agriculture Commissioner's Office, Salud Para la Gente Medical Clinic. They send a community educator with us. We want to make sure that the message we are giving out to local campesinos is the common message that everyone is getting.
We noticed that there really wasn’t a type of a process or any type of preparation that had been put into place so that the agricultural farm workers could be better protected.
In regards to the wildfires, when we were going out as the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan, one thing that we did notice was that this isn’t a new phenomenon, these wildfires have occurred, unfortunately historically in our area. Like my mom and like Valentina mentioned, it’s considered a season. It’s nothing new that the wildfires affect the agricultural field workers out here in Watsonville.
And one thing we did notice was that there really wasn’t a type of a process or any type of preparation that had been put into place so that the agricultural farm workers could be better protected.
So people were scrambling to get the proper kind of masks for the smoke and we thought, why doesn't our County have the masks already, this isn’t something new. But again, because of this pandemic, everything that used to be brushed under the carpet has been taken out from under that carpet. Farm workers and their health needs have been brought out. So yeah, now the light has been shined on them and during that time it was evident that there was no preparation.
We did end up being able to get some of those N95 masks and we were able to take them out to the farm workers. And we informed them on how to use their iphones to check the air quality, we would encourage them every morning to go onto your iphone and check that air quality and if it says a certain number that means hay peligro (there is danger) and please use these masks. Now we also were very cognizant that using those masks while they’re hustling - working so hard - would be difficult. But nevertheless, we really wanted folks to start making informed decisions, especially if someone has other underlying conditions like asthma. And it seemed to us that information hasn’t been getting out to the campesinos about these things.
While schools were closed I would hear from many agricultural workers that their partners or wife would be home with the kids so that their household was suffering a cut in income.
What I would hear from many of the male farmworkers, was that their wives would have to stay home because of the schooling situation. So once the schools went into distance learning, many of the households had to make that decision: whether or not both parents were going to continue to work or one would stay home. I would hear from many agricultural workers that their partners or wife would be home with the kids so that their household was suffering a cut in income. There were less women working, but you still definitely see a female presence out there.
We have talked about wildfires in California and another major climate issue is the extreme heat waves. And it definitely feels from when I’ve been growing up that they have increased or they’ve lasted longer throughout the year. And I want to say in California, one place reached the record high number that was very scary to think of. Heat also impacts how strawberries are grown.
One of the things we were including in our packeted information that we were distributing was the pamphlet that Regeneración provided us so that the agricultural workers could read more about extreme heat and how the heat can affect them in the labor that they’re doing.
First of all I would like to acknowledge the women that have been in my life and have provided that mentorship and those examples. Of course one of them being my mom, and my grandmother, my grandma Juana who, again as my mom mentioned was a single mom, raising six children and as a little one I would just see my grandmother out there in the field working quote unquote as a “man.” And then seeing my mother take on those jobs always provided me with that, ejemplo, that example of what a woman can do.
Early in my life I was introduced to by my mom to Baile Folklórico dance teacher Florencia Chavoya. She was our first folklórico dance teacher who was also one of those women who in Watsonville was well known. She was probably the very first bilingual sales person at the big department store, called Ford’s Department store in Watsonville. And she was also one of those women that influenced me and instilled within me that I could pursue my goals, I could pursue what I wanted to do, which was to be a teacher.
Currently, as I mentioned I work with families and it’s mostly moms that attend these parent workshops and we do see that a lot of that responsibility of what’s occurring in the home falls upon the mother. So we do our best to pass on some information, some tools that might make it a little easier for moms to be supporting their children currently with the distance learning.
What I do, also as a folklórico dance teacher, of course I want to make sure that the young women that are dancing understand where the dances come from and that they can express themselves artistically and they can express themselves also academically in pursuing their goals.
I think it’s an important thing, in our culture, our community, to see that so many of the systemic racist practices and policies have affected both females and males. I do believe that there is an importance in balance and I think a way to create that balance in our young brown males, as well as our young brown females is by being raised at the same level and being given the opportunities to pursue those dreams and goals that they have.
In regards to the Caravan work, I want to recognize that it is a team effort and the majority of our team happens to be female. We are women, I think there are three or four males on our team. And I just wanted to recognize that because as women I think we see that there is a need to fulfill as far as getting the information out to the agricultural farm workers. And getting it out to them in a different voice because when you hear things from the quote-unquote “authority” which in their situation would be their supervisors or those that are overseeing the work crew, sometimes you don’t hear it the same way as you do when you hear it from the voice of someone else coming into your workspace.
So I just wanted to just give a shoutout to our team who happen to be majority women. It’s taking on another layer of work, most of us, we have our regular jobs yet we are continuing to do this for our community and we know it will have a positive impact on the families and on the children of Watsonville.
I think it comes down to the fact that the majority of our team members are women and also come from farm worker families, that’s kind of how we were raised. We’ve been raised to see our moms do the 9-5 job out in the field and come home, make the dinner, wash the clothes, clean the house, make sure someone is checking on homework. So you grow up knowing the work that needs to happen. The fact that we’re all doing this Caravan work on top of everything else we’re doing is just because that’s how we were raised, that’s the work ethic we have. People call it multitasking, I think for us it’s just the way life is. It’s just what you do to get things done.