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A Life of Their Own

They have been the victims of abusive men--husbands, bosses--and have spent years laboring in the fields. But farm worker women are learning how to fight for their rights.

June 07, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been a good year for lettuce in the Salinas Valley. Laura Caballero can feel it in her hands.

"The lettuce heads are so large, so heavy. When I pull them up out of the field, my hands are aching. I twist and squeeze the lettuce to fit perfectly into the box and my fingers, they cramp sometimes.

"But this is nothing, nothing at all to me. I am happy now, so happy you cannot imagine. My hands may ache today and they may ache tomorrow, but next week they will only be that much stronger. . . ."

Caballero, 36, has been a farm worker in California since she was 14 and sneaked across the Mexican border to escape a father who rewarded his children's interest in reading and writing by forcing them to eat their pencils and paper. She has begged for food, depended on strangers for clothing, survived beatings at home and harassment and discrimination on the job, but always, says Caballero, the pain has made her stronger.

Two weeks ago, on a steamy afternoon in Fresno, the green-eyed, auburn-haired mother of four was elected by a room full of her peers as the first presidenta of the Farmworker Women's Leadership Project--Lideres Campesinas. The project is young and the membership still small but for Caballero, the moment was as grand as the day she became a U.S. citizen.

"This is so important for me. No, I never went to school like other girls. And yes, I have much still to learn. Only now am I learning to read and write. But today I can say to the other women working in the fields, 'Look at this! Look what we can do! It is possible!' "

Lideres Campesinas is the first--and so far, only--grass-roots farm worker women's advocacy project in the nation. Since its founding in 1992, organizers have traversed the state educating women farm workers about domestic violence, pesticide poisoning and the AIDS virus.

This year, the project is also trying to boost economic independence for farm worker women. In a single year, it is not unusual for a campesina to pick cherries in Stockton, then move on to Chardonnay grapes in Sonoma, oranges in Tustin and peaches in Porterville without ever earning enough to eat what they pick.

Although many farm workers earn the minimum wage or more, some still earn as little as $1 or $2 per hour working on a piecemeal rate for subcontractors of big growers.

It is a cruel irony, say social workers for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which, with the Family Violence Prevention Fund, helps support Lideres Campesinas, that the men and women--and often, children--who put California's luscious fruits and vegetables on the nation's tables can still go hungry.

"Women have rights--immigrant women, farm worker women, wives, mothers--we all have rights but these rights have no meaning or force unless we exercise them," says Mily Trevino-Sauceda, Campesinas founder and director.

*

Beyond the grapefruit orchards, past the vineyards, at the end of a sandy dirt road outside the tiny town of Coachella, a dozen women pull their folding chairs into a circle for their monthly meeting next to a farm known, fittingly, as Hope Ranch.

Esperanza Sotelo, a clipboard in her hand and a toddler on her lap, tentatively calls the meeting to order in front of her battered white house trailer. "We are just learning about the proper rules to run a meeting, so if I make some mistakes, please forgive me," she says softly in Spanish. Her tiny audience nods and applauds.

"She is a wonderful hostess," confides one of the women to a visitor. "Watch what happens when the bugs come out." As the sun sets behind the stand of mesquite trees next to the trailer, Sotelo's 5-year-old daughter Eunice rushes out with an armful of plastic fly swatters. "One for you, one for you, and one for you," the little girl repeats as she skips around the circle.

Although there are a few newcomers--a frail teenager with a 3-year-old son and a woman in a pale blue shift who lives in a bus with her young daughter, many of the women are founding members of the Campesinas. Mily Trevino-Sauceda is here with the son she raised alone after her union organizer husband died suddenly. And so is Paula, a 58-year-old mother of three girls who spent this day, like so many days, picking table grapes in a rattlesnake-infested vineyard an hour away.

After Paula's first meeting with the Campesinas, she went home and, with a baseball bat in her hands, told her abusive husband of 35 years to leave.

"Until I talked to the other women, I didn't understand about domestic abuse. I didn't know there was such a thing. Growing up in Mexico, I learned the man is the boss. If you don't do what he wants, then you must pay the price. But it was getting worse and worse for me at home. Even my children, who are almost grown now, were disrespectful of me. So, finally, after all these years, I said, 'Enough!'

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