From the Fields of Delano to the University of California, Irvine-A Mother & Daughter Share Their Story

Graciela immigrated to California in search of opportunities. She joined her husband who was farming in Delano, California, and together they have been working the land, building a life, and raising three daughters. Guadalupe, the eldest, grew up watching her parents get up at dawn to pick blueberries and grapes for the family. Raised by hard-working parents, Guadalupe learned perseverance, the value of hard work and the love of family. Six months ago, Guadalupe and her family packed the family truck and headed south. Guadalupe had earned a scholarship to pursue her academic dreams at UCI. Apart for the first time, the mother and daughter embarked on the next chapter of their lives.

Graciela

Graciela at work
Graciela at Work

I was born in Michoacán, Mexico, a beautiful place that has become very unsafe; people stay inside after dark.

Fourteen years ago, I made the decision to move to Delano, California. My husband was already a resident. He filed immigration papers for us, and we joined him. We came to fight for a better life and better opportunities for our children.

A Mother and a Farm Worker

I came to Delano with my daughter, Guadalupe, and her little sister, Itzel, who was only a year old. I started farming right away. My husband’s niece would watch my children and I also relied on daycare. When I got pregnant with my third one, I had to stop. It was a high-risk pregnancy, but after she was born, I returned to work.

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Delano Life is Farm Life

In Delano, we grow grapes, pistachios, and blueberries. Grape picking begins in mid-July and ends in November. After picking grapes, we prepare the fields for the next year.

The grapes, they like to climb. Both blueberries and grapes are exhausting jobs. But I don’t mind hard work.  

Las Blueberries

Blueberry picking season begins in April and ends in mid-June. You pick them with your hands, which can be difficult because they are very small and grow all through the leaves. Luckily, the blueberries leaves don’t have thorns. Blueberry picking can give you a backache. You have to carry more than one bucket around your waist, and as they fill up, each weighs about 4-6 pounds. When picking, we look for the blue ones. The blue ones are the good ones. But if we only pick blue ones, the workers who pack, and sort, who take out the green ones and the leaves, they wouldn’t have work.

Picking Blueberries
Picking Blueberries

 

Blueberries
Blue and Green Blueberries

Grape Season

Grape season starts in April. You have to watch for black-widows, bugs, heat, and pesticides. Working the grape vines gives you a sore back, too.

The vines are really tall and so it can get difficult. It gets really hot. There’s a lot of dirt, dust, and chemicals. Sometimes, the work can make you feel like crying. As you reach upward to tend to the grapes, your head looks up and it feels heavy. Your neck gets sore.

Grape Season
Grape Vines

A Typical Work Day

We get up at 5:30 am. We work 8  hours and then head home. The company is not too far. It’s about 20 minutes away from our home. The work involves many tasks. You have to fit the vines, move them around, tie them up. We climb, we tie, we shift the plants and the branches. The process takes about two months.

I used to cry because the work is hard. Your arms are up, your head is up. It’s hot. But one adjusts. It is a sacrifice, but we are so grateful to have work.

Pesticides

They smell strong. Our bosses try to spare us and move us out while the neighbors spray.

But the Poison Travels in the Wind.

As they fumigate in nearby farms, there really is nowhere to hide from the fumes, even if we try to move away.

The workers in surrounding farms start to feel light-headed and dizzy. What we breathe is pure poison. Some people get so ill that they break out into hives.

They usually remove us for 2 hours while they fumigate. We are not allowed to stay there.

Breaks and Lunches

In the morning we have 15-minute breaks. We take another break in the afternoon and a half hour for lunch.  We get plenty of water to drink.

The work remains very tough work but the companies have made improvements. In the recent years, they’ve tried to make shady areas for us. When we pick blueberries, it gets so hot, so they build canopies, like greenhouses, to create a little bit of shade. They also give sick farmworkers i.v. treatments. If we faint, they send us to the clinics. We work really hard and they do what they can to help us stay healthy.

My Husband and I-We Have Always Been a Team

My husband and I have always worked together.  We have been married for 20  years and we do everything together, but he is losing his sight. He is 17 years older than I am and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He can no longer see out of one eye and can barely see out of his other eye, so I am the family driver.

Graciela's Husband
Jose Heredia-Graciela’s husband of 20 years.

 

Partners for Life-We are a Team
Partners for Life-Graciela and Jose Heredia share a lunch.

Work Groups

Typically, there are groups of 60 farmers overseen by supervisors. We work side by side with family teams but each family helps their own. We are friendly with others, but we are all focused on working fast and hard to bring money for our own families. Families move about, too. They move to other companies that offer better pay or better managers. They work with pistachio, mandarins, and oranges.

Slow Season-Means Relief to the Body but Tough on the Bills

I make ten dollars an hour. After taxes, not much is left.

In the last 3 weeks, we’ve only been working for 6 hours. This is not enough to survive. I still have to pay the rent and bills. They cut our hours because they say the coolers are filled with grapes. It is hard to survive sometimes, without a fixed schedule.

Our family, we are our own work team. We pack, and my husband carries the produce on a cart. My sister also helps pick the grapes and places them on trays. We bring everything out of the field, we pack it and put together boxes filled with produce. We get paid fifteen cents per box. We process about 80 to 90 boxes. I bring home about $380 per week, which adds up to $1200 per month after taxes. Our rent is $900 a month, not including utilities. Not much is left to eat. We live day to day.

Don Heredia

Jose Heredia Taking a Break
Jose Heredia Taking a Break

We used to be able to bring fruit home to eat but the rules have changed.  They told us that people used to bring home too much, and now sometimes they let us bring home one bag.

Packing
Packing
Packing
Packing

The Cold Months are Tough-When the Plants go to Sleep, Everything stops.

During the cold months, nothing grows. It is pointless to look for other farming jobs in the area because all plants are resting. It gets so cold. Everything freezes over. Sometimes, you can pick oranges but not many.

Surviving the Winter Months Requires Creativity. You have to Invent Jobs when All Families are Doing the Same.  

Most of us have to file unemployment during the winter months. But we don’t settle for that.

I Sell Makeup To Help My Family

When my girls were young, I told my husband,

“I’m not willing to live in poverty, and I don’t want to answer questions, like “what did you do with all the money?” “You already spent it all?”

Sometimes, we, women, want to buy ourselves and our families something extra.

One day, I had an idea. I was pregnant at the time and I thought, maybe I can sell makeup!

Graciela Heredia-Enjoying a Day Off and Preparing for the Holidays
Graciela Heredia-Enjoying a Day Off and Preparing for the Holidays

The inspiration came one day when I was doing laundry in a local laundromat. I saw an ad from Jafra, a make-up company from Mexico. The ad said, “sell makeup and keep 50% of what you sell.” So I went to my husband and said:

“Can you loan me $200?”

“Para que?” he responded. “Make-up? Woman, who’s going to buy make-up in Delano?”

“Come on. Trust me. Let me borrow your card. I promise. I will return what I borrow.”

My husband let me borrow the money and I ordered my first make-up kit, with perfume bottles and all.

I was so excited. I grabbed my kit, took to the streets and started selling. I went door to door and visited every woman I knew, friends and acquaintances. The best part? After a month, I went to my husband and said:

Here you go. Here is your money back.” “Look. I even have some money left over to buy us things.”

Ever since then I have been selling makeup to supplement my income during the winter season. The company is Jafra, a Mexican cosmetic company.

Jafra Makeup
Graciela’s Jafra Makeup

I have many clients, but I don’t always sell a lot. I give them facials, do their make up and spray perfume. The challenge is that when money doesn’t come in because we are not farming, women don’t have extra money to spend on makeup.

I sell more during farming season. Then, women work hard and they want to treat themselves. Sometimes my clients ask me to order special perfume or makeup as a special gift for their little girls.

I sell makeup because farming is not enough. We have to provide for our families. We have to charge forward.

Giving up and waiting are not options.

I have a sick mother back in Mexico who depends on me. My girls, here, they need shoes for school and other things. I don’t make much, but every bit helps.

When I get a little money from my makeup sales, I tell my girls, let’s go treat ourselves.

When I Can’t Sell Makeup, I Bake and Sell Bread. 

When no one buys makeup, I bake breads, and my neighbor and I sell them together. During the winter months, this allows us to make extra. My neighbors have gotten used to my bakings and expect it:

You are going to start baking soon?” I bake my wheat bread, sell it and sometimes I even make $20 from my sales.

We have to work hard to survive the winter season. Unemployment takes a long time to kick in. This means, that there are a couple of weeks with nothing coming in, which is difficult. I try to anticipate and plan. I will think of side jobs and work extra hard so my family won’t go without.

There used to be five of us to support in our Apartment. My daughter Guadalupe is Off to College Now.

Heredia Family Celebration-Guadalupe's High School Graduation
Heredia Family Celebration-Guadalupe’s High School Graduation

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Guadalupe

My daughter Guadalupe started kindergarten in Delano. I am extremely proud of her. She has always been a great daughter, very studious. Her youngest sister even says: “My sister Guadalupe  is the most of intelligent of all of us.” Guadalupe is very organized. One of Guadalupe’s dreams is to graduate and help her family. I wish all her dreams will come true; that she will charge ahead and let nothing stand in the way of her dreams.

My husband used to always tell Guadalupe: “Study hard, hija, so you can go to college in Fresno.”

But Guadalupe  would answer: “Ah, no papi, I am studying so that I can go wherever I want.”

My husband insisted: “No, go to Fresno! How will we take care of you if you go too far? Stay close to us.”

But Guadalupe always thought for herself.

Looking Back on My Childhood 

When I was young, we would wake up at 5 a.m. My mom would take us to my aunt’s house where we would go back to sleep until it was time to go to school. After school, we would go back to my cousin’s and stay there until my parents came home.

Growing up in Delano, I went to Del Vista Elementary school. Most families sending their children there were either farmers or did field work to supplement their income.

I never worked in the fields until this past summer. I worked in a potato line, throwing out the rotten ones, removing the rocks, dirt, critters, just sorting the potatoes. I worked about 12 hours a day, and yes, it was hot!

My parents work very hard, including Saturdays. My mother dedicates part of her time to go out to do her little business. On Sundays, when she doesn’t work she really likes spending time with friends and family.

How a Girl from Delano found out about UCI

I have always been self-driven.  I learned about UCI (the University of California, Irvine), through my charter school, the Wonderful College Prep Academy, which was founded by the company that owns, Wonderful Halos and Wonderful Pistachios. It is a school for the children of farmers, for the parents who work for the Wonderful Company, and for the community. The Wonderful Company offers $6000 UC scholarships and $4000 for the Cal States. The award gets sent quarterly and we have to manage it. Even though we have graduated and are now at the university, the academy continues to send regional retention coordinators that meet with us once a week. We talk about our classes and our grades and how we are doing. My coordinator works for the company and travels from LA to see me every week at UCI.

Image result for Wonderful College Prep Academy
The Wonderful College Prep Academy is owned by the Wonderful Company, which promotes a range of philanthropic activities that focus on investing in and collaborating with the communities where their employees live and work. The company established the program, Wonderful Education, in 2012. To date, they have reached more than 55,000 Central Valley students across 83 schools in 24 districts. The company awarded more than 1,500 college scholarships and incentives, as well as 1,300 teacher grants.

The charter school is the reason I learned about UCI, and the majority of my classmates ended up going to college. We learned about our college options because the school took us on lots of trips sponsored by the company. We did college tours during the winter break, Thanksgiving, and summer. We visited colleges all over California, and on Fridays we wore college t-shirts to celebrate college.

I visited all of the UC campuses except for two, most of the state colleges, and some private schools.

Guadalupe and Anteaters. Having fun at UCI.
Guadalupe and Anteaters. Having fun at UCI.

I chose UCI because I liked the environment and the structure of the school. Everything is in a circle. I thought to myself, it will be easy to find my way here. I just completed my first quarter at UCI. I have passed all my classes and done well. I was able to manage my time and handle the heavy course load. Right now, I’m thinking of majoring in Economics and Political Science. I’m also considering some type of government job, but I’m not sure. I’m still exploring.

Having Fun at a Summer Event-UCI
Having Fun at a Summer Event-UCI

There is a small group at UCI from Delano, including my roommate. Whenever we get a break from school, we meet up with other friends in LA and take the train back home. In a 3-5 hour train ride we are back in Delano. My mother gets so excited when I come home. She picks me up at the train station and she always loves to see me.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

The first time I came home, everything seemed different. People were tatted up. The hair colors were different, they even dressed and spoke differently. And at the same time, I felt like I was back home like I had never left. My friends and I, we continue to hang out.

I made the right decision choosing UCI. But sometimes I get homesick.  I’m studying to have a great profession someday, but more importantly, to help my parents so that they don’t have to work this hard the rest of their lives. They have made incredible sacrifices for their daughters. Soon, it will be my turn to give back.

In the meantime, my mother and father will work the land. I will study hard, looking forward to breaks when I will get to board the train and head home.  What awaits me in Delano is home, family, love and delicious posole.

Homemade Posole
Homemade Posole made by Graciela and devoured by her family.