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Labor of Love

A Passionate Yanira Merino Refuses to Let Fatigue or Threats Stop Her Push to Empower Workers

February 18, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

'Yani! Te busca!" Yanira Merino's sister calls from the front door of the aging wood-frame house they share with their kids in an old part of Pasadena.

It's not yet 10:30 on a chilly Sunday morning, and the first appointment of the day is waiting on the porch. Merino was up very late and must leave for a business meeting soon, but she wouldn't think of canceling a date for something as selfish as more rest.

Fatigue, like the other opponents in her lifelong fight for the rights of working people, can be overcome through hard work, dedication, intelligence--or tenaciousness, should it come to that. So she appears quickly, wearing a wide smile despite only four hours' sleep.

This, then, is the new face of organized labor: a bleary-eyed, college-educated, 31-year-old bilingual mother of two who enjoys watching Spanish-language soap operas and reading books by Che Guevara and Maxim Gorky. Merino has the presence of a politician, the fervor of a Southern preacher and the passion of a poet.

And pretty good timing too. At its convention last fall, the labor confederation AFL-CIO elected a new president who promised to aggressively organize low-paid workers, many of whom are women and minorities. To make good on that pledge, unions have turned to the likes of Merino, who has risen in less than 10 months from the processing floor of a local shrimp-packing plant to a post as an organizer for Labors' International, one of the nation's largest unions.

She has so far directed two successful campaigns for Laborers' International. Just weeks ago, workers at a Morganton, N.C., poultry processing plant voted to join.

"What happened was extremely spontaneous," says Father Kenneth Whittington of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Morganton, where many of the workers, most of them newcomers from the Guatemala highlands, worship. "She just went to work. Not so much in a bossy way of saying, 'This is the way we're going to do it.' But just doing it. I think her leadership came about by way of example."

The company, Case Farms, is contesting the election, so Merino makes frequent trips east to keep the 550 workers united. On one visit the tires on her rental car were slashed. On another, a death threat, written in Spanish, was left on her car. The union responded by assigning her a bodyguard, but Merino quickly dismissed the attempts at intimidation.

"They think just because I'm a woman, I'm going to be scared," she says.

Not likely. During the 1980s, Merino shuttled between Los Angeles and El Salvador in her work on behalf of human rights and women's groups affiliated with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was fighting a guerrilla war against the U.S.-supported government. So, Merino says, in the spring of 1987 she became the target of threatening phone calls and letters, including one sent to her father in El Salvador demanding that he put an end to his daughter's political work in Los Angeles. That June, a stranger ran her car off the road, dragged her from the front seat and tried to force her into his vehicle. A passerby intervened, however, and the stranger fled with her purse, leaving a badly bruised Merino and her then-3-year-old son behind.

Still, Merino refused to back down. If anything, the harassment motivated her. A month later, as she was leaving the offices of a U.S.-based solidarity group, two men who spoke with Salvadoran accents forced her, at knifepoint, into a van. After blindfolding her, they interrogated her while driving around Los Angeles for six hours.

They cut her tongue and her hands, carving the initials "E" and "M" (Spanish for escuadores de la muerte or "death squads") into her palms. They beat her, burned her with cigarettes and raped her with a stick before dumping her, naked, down a freeway embankment.

Within days, she was back at work.

"I told her not to give in, to go back, that she had to continue, because of what was going on at that moment in our country," says Merino's mother, Leticia, who was visiting her daughter at the time of the attacks. "It was painful for me, but at no time did I let her see my fear."

Merino reported the assault, and the LAPD and the FBI investigated, but no suspects have been identified. Today, she and her mother, hardened by the unspeakable horrors they have witnessed in El Salvador, almost shrug off the incident.

"They've done the same thing to hundreds and hundreds of mothers in El Salvador," Leticia says stoically. "For everything, well, there is a sacrifice. No matter what you do there is always going to be some kind of danger. And sometimes you have to pay with your life."

Ironically, Merino's father, Israel, had sent his daughter to Los Angeles to escape the kind of violence that tormented her here. A chauffeur who circulated among military officers in El Salvador, he has long been at odds with the politics of his wife and children. He and his daughter once went five years without speaking.

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