Remarks by Arturo S. Rodriguez, President
United Farm Workers of America
Services for Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez
May 28, 2008—Lodi, Calif.
How much is the life of a farm worker worth? Is it less than the life of any other human being?
The death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez is hard to accept because it didn’t need to happen.
Wednesday, May 14 was a hot day. The official temperature was 95 degrees; inside the vineyard where Maria and her boyfriend, Florentino Bautista, worked it was probably about 100 degrees.
It was Maria’s third day of work after arriving in California from Oaxaca, Mexico last February to make money to send to her mother, brothers and sisters in Mexico. Maria dedicated herself to helping her family.
She was laboring for a farm labor contractor, Merced Farm Labor Contracting, on a vineyard east of Stockton growing grapes for West Coast Grape Farming, a division of Bronco Wines, which is also part of Franzia vineyards.
Maria had been working for nine hours that day, since 6 a.m., suckering—removing suckers and leaving the stronger shoots to grow.
There was no water at all for the workers from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
There was no shade and since the vines were young, standing only a few feet tall, there was no protection from the hot sun.
There was no training for foremen or workers on what to do if someone became ill from the heat.
All these protections have been demanded by the state of California since 2005, when the United Farm Workers convinced Governor Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulation in the country to prevent deaths and illnesses from extreme heat.
At 3:40 p.m. on May 14, Maria became dizzy. She was unsteady on her feet. She didn’t know where she was and didn’t recognize Florentino, her boyfriend. He approached her and she passed out, her body lying on the ground. Florentino held her in his arms.
The foreman for the labor contractor, Raul Martinez, came over and stood four or five feet away, staring at the couple for about five minutes. He said, “Oh, that’s what happens to people, but don’t worry. If you apply some rubbing alcohol to her, it will go away.”
Maria was carried to a nearby van that the workers pay seven dollars a day for rides to and from work. She was placed on a back seat. With no air conditioning, it was hotter inside the van than outside.
Someone wet Maria’s bandana with water and placed it on her forehead. She was still unconscious.
The foreman told Florentino to get rubbing alcohol from the store. But Maria’s crew was still working. They had to wait for them to finish as other workers relied on the same van.
The rubbing alcohol didn’t help either. So the van headed towards Lodi. The driver decided Maria looked so ill that she needed medical help. On the way to the clinic in Lodi, the foreman called on the driver’s cell phone and spoke to Florentino. “If you take her to a clinic,” the foreman said, “don’t say she was working [for the contractor]. Say she became sick because she was jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us.”
They arrived at the clinic at 5:15 p.m., more than an hour and a half after Maria was stricken. She was so sick an ambulance took her to the hospital. Doctors said her temperature upon arrival was 108.4 degrees, far beyond what the human body can take.
Maria’s heart stopped six times in the next two days. The doctors revived her. On Friday morning her good heart stopped again and efforts to revive her failed.
Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had been taken to the hospital sooner, she might have survived.
It is hard for Maria’s family and her friend, Florentino, to accept her death, knowing it could have been prevented.
* * *
This is not the first time farm workers have needlessly died from the heat. Four farm workers perished from the heat in the summer of 2005, when the union persuaded Governor Schwarzenegger to issue the heat regulation to prevent such deaths. If the labor contractor or grower had followed the law, Maria might well be alive today. Her case is one of the most disgraceful examples of contractors and growers ignoring their legal duties.
But Merced Farm Labor Contracting and West Coast Grape Farming Company are not alone. In 2007, 36 percent of the employers inspected by Cal-OSHA, the state work safety agency, were not following the regulation, according to a story in the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
Thirty-four years ago, after 19 lettuce workers died in the tragic crash of a farm labor bus, Cesar Chavez said some people ask if these deaths are deliberate.
“They are deliberate,” Cesar said, “in the sense that they are the direct result of a farm labor system that treats workers like agricultural implements and not as human beings. These accidents happen because employers and labor contractors treat us as if we were not important human beings.”
But farm workers “are important human beings,” Cesar continued during a funeral mass for the dead workers.
They are important because they are from us. We cherish them. We love them. We will miss them.
They are important because of the love they gave to their husbands, their children, their wives, their parents—all those who were close to them and who needed them.
They are important because of the work they do. They are not implements to be used and discarded. They are human beings who sweat and sacrifice to bring food to the tables of millions…of people throughout the world.
They are important because God made them, gave them life, and cares for them in life and death.
Brothers and sisters, Maria was not an agricultural implement; she was an important human being. She dedicated herself to helping her family. She earned the love of her mother, her brothers and sisters and other relatives, and of the man she loved.
Maria’s life was worth a lot—and she deserved a lot better treatment than she received at the hands of the labor contractor and grower.
* * *
Maria and her friend, Florentino, had made plans: To work in this country for perhaps three years, save some money and then return to Oaxaca, get married and make a home and family there.
Now Florentino is having a hard time because he lost the young woman he loved.
Florentino, said, “There should be justice for what happened. It wasn’t just. It wasn’t fair what they did.”
Like all of us, Maria had only one life and now it is gone. But how do we, the living, affirm that Maria’s life was important and that she didn’t die in vain?
We can use the grief that today fills our hearts with sorrow to tell our governor that the growers and the labor contractors must honor the law—so more innocent farm workers like Maria don’t die unnecessarily. We can force the employers to treat our loved ones as the important human beings they are,
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