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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Growing Confidence

Mily Trevino-Sauceda used to work the harvests. Now she helps female farm laborers pull together.

August 11, 1996|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mily Trevino-Sauceda is always on her way someplace.

In face-to-face chats, she speaks quickly, excitedly. She is never less than gracious, laughing easily, but it is apparent that time is forever at a premium. A quick glance at her watch and she is off.

Little wonder. Trevino-Sauceda is a full-time student at Cal State Fullerton, a single parent to her 15-year-old son. She coaches girls' soccer at a high school near her Pomona home.

And then there's the thing that really keeps her moving, a more-than-full-time passion that typically has her driving about 1,500 miles per weekend during the school year and organizing a flurry of statewide conferences in summer.

Trevino-Sauceda, 38, is founder and coordinator of Lideres Campesinas--also known as Farmworker Women's Leadership Project--a statewide effort that is the first of its kind in the nation. The grass-roots project, organized under the aegis of the California Rural Legal Assistance program, takes on a host of issues facing Latina farm workers, from domestic violence to AIDS, education, housing and pesticide use.

In a few short years, Lideres Campesinas has grown from a shoestring operation with an annual budget of $8,000 to one of national prominence--it was honored with a major public service award last year in Washington--and a budget of more than $200,000 and growing. Last year, Trevino-Sauceda and fellow workers with the organization traveled to Beijing for the international women's conference.

"She's incredibly energetic," says Valerie Wilk, former director of the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice Fund who worked on various projects with Trevino-Sauceda.

"She goes to school, she raises her son, she coaches soccer and she works [as director of Lideres Campesinas]. And she always seems to be looking for something else to do."

Says Claudia Galvez, a community worker with Family Services Coachella Valley who often coordinates her efforts with Trevino-Sauceda: "She's very determined to do the job. Mily, I can tell you, she doesn't have any social life, she's so into this project."

Lideres Campesinas, Galvez adds, "is where it is because she's so determined to keep this project alive."

*

Her seemingly endless drive is simply a product of her own background in the fields, as a farm worker and as a union organizer, says Trevino-Sauceda: "People say, 'Mily this is too much for you,' and I say, 'Maybe I'm crazy, but this is the way I was brought up.' I can't be doing nothing. I was raised doing work and constantly being involved."

Born in the state of Washington to migrant farm worker parents, Trevino-Sauceda and her family moved to Mexico when she was 2. When she was 7, they moved to Idaho, where her father worked as a caretaker on a ranch. Mily and the other children went to school but would also work on the ranch before and after classes.

Five years later they were back in Mexico. When she was 15, the family moved back to the U.S., this time to California. School--which had been a problem anyway because of the moves back and forth across the border--ended then for her. There were 10 children by this time, and as one of the oldest, Trevino-Sauceda went into the fields full time.

"Our parents and us four working together were barely making it, the wages were so low," she says. Her father became involved in the United Farm Workers, and by age 16 Trevino-Sauceda was working as a volunteer organizer. Her career as a labor activist had begun.

She also became active in Roman Catholic youth groups, developing her love for soccer and attracting attention as a natural leader. At age 20, she was sent to Colombia to attend a Catholic youth leadership conference, an event she credits with planting the seed of her dream to go back to school.

That dream--and her passion for labor issues--did not die when she married. In fact, as one story she tells illustrates, her tenaciousness and her willingness to put herself on the line for a cause were only blossoming.

At the height of one grape season in broiling Coachella, when Trevino-Sauceda was 22, pickers were pushing to renegotiate their contract. However, the strain--financial and mental--of work stoppages and other measures were starting to wear.

"People by then were tired. We had been trying to negotiate with the company for several weeks," she recalls. Trevino-Sauceda and her husband were then pickers and organizers of the contract efforts.

"I remember getting desperate and trying to get the whole crew out [of the fields]," Trevino-Sauceda says. Spotting a large truck that was loading grapes, she carefully climbed to the top. "I stood up and yelled for people to get out."

The tactic worked, but not necessarily because of her powers of persuasion.

"I was seven months' pregnant," she says, laughing. "They didn't get out because I was asking them to get out. They were scared that something was going to happen to me."

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