It was hot in the vineyard east of Stockton on Wednesday, May 14, 2008. Hotter than the day before when the temperature reached 90 degrees by the early afternoon. Hotter than usual for May.
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez started work at 6 am in the vineyard, suckering. Suckering is an important and labor intensive step in the process of producing premium wine. As winter fades away, multiple new shoots appear on the vines. Most of these must be thinned and removed so that the remaining shoots will carry healthy fruit clusters which will eventually mature into premium grapes. No machine can do this work. Wednesday, May 14, was Maria’s third day on the job. She was pruning young vines which were only a few feet high, so there was no shade. She was seventeen years old.
Over in the mall on Pacific Avenue in Stockton, shoppers idled in and out of the same name brand stores found in every other mall in the United States. Although home foreclosures were rising, life for most people in the other part of the Central Valley continued as it had for decades. Jobs and housing were still more or less secure, many of the high school graduates went to at least a year or two of community college, many family vacations included trips to theme parks and water skiing, and spring was the time of Little League and high school proms.
Maria and her novio, Florentino Bautista worked in the same vineyard that Wednesday, May 14. There was no water available for the workers until 10:30 am when it was already 75 degrees. When the water cooler arrived, it was placed a ten minute walk away from where Maria was suckering the young vines. Workers said later that the foreman did not allow long enough breaks to walk to the water. Maria pruned the precious grape vines for eight dollars an hour.
The vineyard where Maria worked was owned by Fred Franzia, the fourth largest wine producer in the United States. Franzia and his family own 35,000 acres in California and produce sixty one million gallons of wine a year. Fifteen years ago, his company was indicted by the government for conspiracy to defraud: selling five thousand tons of cheap grapes which were camouflaged as expensive grapes by covering them with zinfandel leaves. Franzia pled guilty and paid a fine. It was pocket change for someone who benefits from several generations of family wealth earned by several generations of indigenous labor.
Maria and Florentino came to California from Oaxaca, Mexico in February. They were childhood sweethearts who left home because there wasn’t enough work for them in Oaxaca. Not since the NAFTA treaty allowed North American producers to dump their subsidized yellow corn on the Mexican market and wipe out local farming. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Like many in the disrupted and brutalized indigenous community, Maria and Florentino took the long and dangerous road north to look for work. They planned to get married and return home in three years. Meanwhile they would send money back to help their struggling families in Oaxaca.
Politicians and editorial writers call Maria an “illegal.” An “illegal” does not have documentation, or “papers.” My grandmother also left her home in Venezia when she was a young woman to look for work thousands of miles away. When she came to the United States, the locals called her a “wop.” Wop means “without papers,” but my grandmother was luckier than Maria. She found work washing dishes in a hash house that hired wops. She worked long hours, but not under a relentless sun in an open vineyard.
By 3pm on Wednesday, May 14, the schools let out and other teenagers began piling into the Pacific avenue mall, searching for camaraderie, checking out new video games and sports clothing and generally hanging. Some girls tried on dresses for the upcoming end of the school year dances. Headsets and cell phones hung from almost every ear. Outside the air conditioned mall, the temperature rose above 95 degrees.
At 3:40 pm Maria fell to the ground. She was unconscious when Florentino and other workers reached her. There were no medical emergency procedures in place in the vineyard, so she did not receive medical treatment until she was taken to a clinic and then to the hospital an hour and a half after she fell. Doctors in the hospital said her core body temperature was 108.4. Maria never regained consciousness.
Governor Schwarzenegger attended Maria’s funeral in Lodi and offered condolences to Florentino. He assured the television cameras that protections for farm workers were in place and would be enforced. Five months later, in October, the governor vetoed a bill that would have improved conditions for farm workers. Between Maria’s funeral and the governor’s veto, five more farm workers died from heat exhaustion: Jorge Herrera, Ramiro Carillo Rodriguez, Maria de Jesus Alvarez, Abdon Feliz, and Jose Macarena Hernandez. Since the governor took office, fifteen farm workers have died from heat-related conditions.
It is now fall in California. Most of the crops are in, and the winter season approaches. There are few workers in the fields. But in the spring, and the summer, the workers will be back in the fields. Another season. Another Maria.
DON SANTINA is a cultural historian who lives in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org