Intergenerational Reflections Women in the Pajaro Valley

Portraits and Interviews by Kirti Bassendine
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Valentina Velasquez 

CalSERVES AmeriCorps VIP Fellow | NESTcorps Lead at the Digital NEST and Watsonville Campesino Caravan volunteer

I was born in Santa Cruz but lived pretty much all my life in Watsonville, California. I’m 22 years old. I went to Saint Francis Central Coast High and then I was able to go to St. Mary’s 

College of California up in the Bay Area and now I am back here after I graduated in May 2020. I’m currently very fortunate to be an Americorps member at the Digital NEST. I’m helping them build up and lead their new volunteer program that started because of Covid, it’s called NEST Corps. We do a lot of virtual work with youth and young adults who want to make a difference in our local Watsonville community. I am just very fortunate to be able to be working with them right now.

I myself didn’t grow up working in the fields but I did help my grandmother, selling strawberries. When I first started high school we would go out and sell at Hollister and Gilroy. This last summer my brother and I were helping set up in downtown Santa Cruz. So we’ve had experience in selling strawberries while growing up, not just my grandma and my tia selling these but also my parents. They have always made a point to remind us where our food comes from and to remember that it doesn’t just appear on the table. This goes with meat products and vegetables and produce, that there is always someone out there picking that food.

Growing up here in Watsonville, whenever you’re going to school, you’re always going to see the workers picking in the morning, like Ruby mentioned, regardless of the weather situation. They’re out there because they also need to support their families and so I have always recognized that it’s very hard and noble work. I also recognize that there are changes that need to take place to support those essential workers. ... as everyone here knows, here in California we have what is known as ‘wildfire season.’ Which is kind of sad to say because that shouldn’t be a season. 

 

This last year in 2020 there were major fires in the Santa Cruz mountains and even here in Moss Valley we were experiencing the smoke from the ones in Carmel and the Monterey area, and it burned many, many acres. I think it’s one of the biggest ones I have ever experienced here living in California. 

 

I know a few people in Watsonville who were helping those who were affected by the fires who were displaced from their homes.

Another major climate issue is extreme heat waves. And it definitely feels from when I’ve been growing up that they have increased, they've grown 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.

 

What I have seen with heatwaves and stuff like that, is that there are very drastic heatwaves and it just never cools off. I’ve also helped work with the Caravana recognizing that there are workers that still have to work outside in this really harsh heat. Recognizing that not all these fields that we go to have adequate shade and I’m pretty sure there is a specific law, like a labour law, that you have to have an adequate amount of shade for workers.


During those times when it was really hot we were getting donations of water bottles from different people in the county. We were going out there when the workers were all just working and we were running out there and giving them these waters. But also making sure that the owners of these farms provide adequate, safe water to drink for workers, and provide break times, because you don’t want to have heat exhaustion. You need to make sure that they’re staying hydrated.

Grandmother Esther mentioned instilling those values that were instilled in her, from her tia and her grandma. She is someone who ended up passing on those values of education and being a hard worker, being an honest person and I can truly say that it's been passed on to me. I also see it passed down to my younger cousins and their kids. I have seen the value of being hard-working in my mom, who was raised by her. And my tias and tios. And in my father and my brother. 


I have many role models but one of my main role models is my mom, Carmen Velasquez. Growing up my dad would always tell us that our true first teacher was our mom. I know Grandma Esther talked about education, going to school, like an actual classroom.

I think education also takes place outside of the classroom like learning baile folklórico from my tía Ruby and learning about family history and those who came before me. 

I also think education takes place outside of the classroom like learning baile folklórico because I learned baile folklórico  from my tía Ruby, because she started a  dance group for children in this area. Or education is also for me learning about family history and those who came before me. I’ve also gained that from my mom who shared the different stories that you have shared about Grandma Juana who passed away when I was very young. I’ve also heard stories about my other grandparents from Ruby and so recognizing that education takes form in different ways.

 

We also talked about being hard-working, I see that a lot in my family- very hard workers! I myself, like I mentioned earlier work with the Digital NEST and I recognize that here in Watsonville we have a lot of youth and a lot of of them are stepping out of their comfort zones. We are working with people between the ages of 14 and 25 and some of them are going to school soon, and working other jobs, but they are also taking the time out of their days to meet virtually and work with other organizations and do community service.

 

I also recognize that there are a lot of youth in the Caravana too. We get a lot of high school students and I wanna say the youngest one, Maria, is about 8.  I recognize that they are out there helping and they are learning something from their moms and their dads. And it’s a process, it’s a learning cycle where we don’t always take everything that we’re taught and sometimes we morph it a little bit. I am excited to see what it is that comes out of what the youth are doing right now, and what changes they’re going to be making in the future or are currently making.  

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How are we seeing young women and the impact of Covid in their lives? For me personally, it might not be the experience of someone elsewhere. I am very fortunate that when the shelter in place occurred in April of 2020 that I was able to still live at home. And I found a job that was local and I was able to work virtually. But I also am sure that there are other young women out there who may be doing college right now from home virtually, but may have other responsibilities, like maybe they have younger siblings that they also have to raise, or help them with their online learning. Maybe they’re also getting other jobs, there’s a lot that they’re having to do - so I can’t speak for that because I’m not experiencing that, but I do recognize that that is taking place.

Resources for young women and girls of color to build resilience and fight inequity that I can think of that should be there for young women of color: financial support especially for those that don’t have access to state or federal aid, financial aid and academic counseling for education, mental health support, mentorship and networking opportunities.

I see sexism because of the gender roles, it’s generally like women are meant to be in the household and raise children and take on these other things that maybe men don’t or maybe aren’t expected to do. 

 

Resources specifically that I can think of that should be there for young women of color: whether it be financial support or academic support, mental health is something I feel like we have been talking a lot about now at least in my generation. Mental health, what does that look like and specifically how does that look for young women of color? It may look very differently for someone else.

 

Support that should be out there for women and young girls or maybe they're out there and we don’t know about them in the community includes financial support for those who are low income, and maybe don’t have access or are even ineligible to be receiving financial aid from the state level or federal level. Scholarships to help with the financial need for those who are eligible. There’s also academic counselling, like if you want to go off to college, having that support that is free of cost.


Mental health is a really big one. I know my generation, and the younger generation are bringing that to the forefront, taking off the blanket and saying ‘hey, there are a lot of things going on in mental health with everyone.’ Specifically with women of color it might look different compared to someone else who isn’t a person of color and how does that look culturally too? Also another thing that would be beneficial, is mentorship - going to similar people who have maybe gone through a similar scenario or a similar lifestyle or maybe they’re in a career that you want to approach or you’re interested in. So having that networking or being able to build a community with other folks would be really helpful.