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How one woman’s making an impact as a farmworker in California’s Central Valley
female farmworker
Esmeralda Garcia has been working in the fields since she was 14 (Photo by Christian De Jesus Betancourt/CVJC).


CV Journalism Collaborative

Amid the vast fertile expanse of California’s Central Valley lives the often overlooked stories of women who labor shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the fields.

Esmeralda Garcia Moreira, a 31-year-old farmworker who has called the Valley home since 2007, is one of those resilient women. 

Garcia’s story is unique. She described how she was one of the first women to use heavy machinery in an orchard where she worked. 

The role of workers like Garcia cannot be understated. Often thought of as America’s agricultural powerhouse, California’s Central Valley farmland cultivates over 300 types of crops and is responsible for providing more than half of the nation’s produce.

But it’s tough work and Garcia’s sacrifices have become evident over the years. As a mother of three, she hopes her children won’t have to rely on fieldwork as she does. She also hopes her children can experience a day in her shoes to better understand those sacrifices.

“I want them to see what it is to work really hard,” she said. “What it’s like to have to hold it since the restrooms are too far away. To be hungry while waiting for your lunch break. I wish I could take (my daughter to do field work) so she can feel what earning money feels like.”

Journey to the U.S.

In 2003, at just 11 years old, she embarked on a perilous trek through the desert alongside her mother, eventually finding themselves in Florida. However, due to difficulties in their relationship, she moved to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. 

“The weather was too humid out there, and I feared the hurricanes,” she said. “I didn’t like living with my mom.”

Hailing from Oaxaca, Garcia learned about fieldwork from her grandmother, who worked in the fields in Mexico and served as her caretaker. Her mother left the then 2-year-old Garcia behind after immigrating to Florida in search of better opportunities.

“She had to bring me over (to Florida) when my grandma passed away,” she said. “I was born and raised in agriculture. We lived off the fields and knew everything about it. The only difference was that what I made in a day out there, I make here in an hour.”

In Florida, she continued her education until the seventh grade, when her mother pulled her out of school due to disciplinary issues and sent her to work.

“She told me I was a troublemaker and had to start working,” said Garcia.

Her first day at farm work consisted of the 14-year-old hitting almond trees with a plastic mallet.

“Era un bola de plastico con un palo y le pegas al arbol de almendras – it was a plastic ball on a stick, and you would hit the almond tree with it,” she said.  “That’s the way they used to do it before.”

She worked in the almond orchards for a few days as a teen. Her work schedule and location were dependent on the “raitero” — the worker with a car who gives rides to others to whichever site they’re working on.

“My second job was weeding the cantaloupe fields,” she said. “We worked bent over all day.”

At that age, it was easier for her to find a job in the fields rather than in a restaurant or a store that would not hire an undocumented teen.

Throughout her journey, Garcia tried attending high school when she was younger and adult school later. However, being a young, single mother and having to provide for her children made her abandon her academic dreams and replace them with backbreaking farmwork.

“I picked cherries, grapes, apricots, tomatoes, yams, strawberries, etc.,” she said. Working in the fields is very taxing on the body. I tried to get my GED but had to choose between school and work. When I went full-time into work, I couldn’t go to school anymore.”

In the field, she had the opportunity to make more money when working under contract — a field pay structure where workers are paid by the pieces they pick instead of the hours worked.

In command of heavy machinery

Garcia, now 31, has worked in the fields for more than 17 years. She has come a long way since her first job in an almond orchard when she used that plastic mallet to get the nuts to fall.

Thanks to her hard work and dedication, she became one of the few women to learn how to use heavy machinery in the field, opening up higher wages and opportunities for herself. 

“It’s tough to get that far,” she said. “Four years ago, there were only men operating those machines. It’s a privilege to know what I know and that they gave me the opportunity to learn. It takes a lot of courage to drive those machines.”

Getting that opportunity was no easy feat since her employers hesitated at first due to her small stature. Nevertheless, her hardworking nature and insatiable thirst for knowledge eclipsed any doubts about her capabilities.

Always thinking of others, Garcia shared her newly attained knowledge with other women in the fields, including family members.

“I taught my cousin, my mom, my aunt and my other cousin,” she said. “Now you see a lot of women working on these types of machines. When I started, that wasn’t the case.”

Her acumen in the industry allowed her to become employed year-round, an opportunity not afforded to many in a field where employment often fluctuates with the changing seasons.

Although there is work year-round, not all activities pay the same. Garcia said her hourly rate ranges from $17-19.50, depending on the work.

Impact on family life

Garcia does not regret her life in the fields. She would do it again, albeit with some adjustments along the way.

“I would like to get an education and maybe do other work,” she said. “You give up all your time to the fields. You don’t have time to spend with your family. You don’t have any time for yourself. You leave at dawn and come back at dusk.”

While she was with the father of her children, she had the opportunity to apply for the Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

“He wouldn’t let me apply for it,” said Garcia. “When I left him, I couldn’t try to fix my immigration status due to a lack of money. I neglected to do it when I was younger and wish I had done more. Now I’m working on fixing that.”

To this day, she remains undocumented. Once she fixes her immigration status, Garcia believes she can have better opportunities to provide for her family.

Garcia is the sole provider for three children, ages 14, 12, and 4. She works tirelessly from daybreak to nightfall to ensure her children’s financial well-being, sometimes at the expense of spending quality time together.

“Your children lack a lot of attention and love because you’re not there for the important moments,” she said. “They suffer from a lot of mental health issues. When I got separated, I had to work extra hard to provide for my children, but I ended up neglecting them emotionally. Now, they’re suffering from mental health issues, and I am not able to work. For now, I’m not working. I’m tending to my family.”

Winters for Garcia, like many other field workers, are slow since there’s not a lot of work. People in her situation have to find ways to have enough money during the slow season.

“I save throughout the year to survive the winter,” she said. “I also have my own business working parties, bartending, serving food and doing eyelash extensions. I’m always finding ways to make money.”

Striving to help others

When she’s not working the field or tending to her other money-making activities, Garcia also volunteers as a promotora de salud, or health promoter, for Cultiva Central Valley (CCV), a local nonprofit dedicated to creating health equity.

As part of her volunteering, Garcia learns about health issues and presents solutions to other field workers in Spanish while also being fluent in English.

“I’ve learned a lot while volunteering here,” she said. “I don’t know how I do it. I look for the time because I love doing it. It makes me feel useful. I want my children to feel proud of me and see how, no matter the circumstances, I was out there helping.”

Her stable year-round almond orchard work might be in jeopardy since the ranch where she worked at Trinitas filed for bankruptcy in February.

“I haven’t looked for work elsewhere and don’t know if they’ll hire me to work the heavy machinery,” said Garcia. “There are ranchers out there who believe women in the field are a distraction for the men. There are only a few places that could hire me. I would like more women to learn how to use the machines.”

Garcia’s impact on others

Garcia spoke of two women who have been pivotal role models for her. Claudia Gabriela Corchado and Anabel Serna, who help run Cultiva Central Valley, met Garcia more than a decade ago.

“At first, we wouldn’t see her often because she was always working in the fields,” Corchado said. “At any opportunity when she would finish her season, she would volunteer with us.”

Now, almost 12 years later, Garcia has become an integral part of their work as she continues to learn and facilitate workshops for others. Her bilingual skills have made her a sought-after “promotora de salud.”

“She’s a mover and a shaker,” said Corchado. “It’s been a privilege to see her grow into the powerful woman she is. That woman never stops fighting for her children and her community. It hasn’t been easy for her, but we’re here to support her.”

Garcia can only volunteer with the organization since her immigration status does not permit her to work with them full-time.

“Legally, we cannot hire her,” said Corchado. “We’re working on her social security number. I think that if community residents are working for their community and can prove it, they should be able to get a work permit. If we had more Esmeraldas, we would have a better world.”

Serna met Garcia about 10 years ago while doing community work in Planada. Garcia’s outfit stood out since she wasn’t used to seeing women wearing heavy machinery safety gear.

“It caught my eye that she came wearing a construction vest,” said Serna. “She sat next to me and had her children with her. She told me she was learning to drive a forklift and wanted to learn how to use the other machines to better herself.”

Impressed by Garcia’s drive and dedication, Serna tried to get her a job in her husband’s career in the construction industry. Sadly, due to her lack of a work permit, Garcia could not capitalize on an opportunity that would put more money in her pockets.

In the 10 years since, Serna said she’s seen Garcia continue to grow as a mother, friend, impactful member of the community, and indispensable part of their organization.

“She’s our farmworker expert,” said Serna. “She knows when harvests are happening, and picking is going on. Logistically, she tells us when is the best time to do our outreach events. She has humanized me a lot about the importance of migrants and fieldworkers. She’s taught us a lot about the life and struggles of fieldworkers.”

Corchado and Serna both want to see a fair and just future not only for Garcia but for every field-working woman in the Valley.

“I would love to see her and her children achieve great things,” said Serna. I would love to see her have a salary with disposable income so she doesn’t have to worry about her expenses. She deserves it.”

“Women like Esmeralda deserve the same privileges we have,” added Corchado. “Esmeralda deserves a consistent paycheck. They deserve sick leave. They deserve vacation time. They deserve a very healthy living wage. She deserves a life as peaceful as possible.”

Even with an uncertain future, Garcia’s amassed wisdom from her journey makes her hopeful.

“I feel empowered as I learn more and more about the world and what’s out there,” she said. “I’ve found a lot of inspiration to be great. There are others behind me following, and I need to serve as a good example.”

— Christian De Jesus Betancourt is the bilingual communities reporter at The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering Merced. The Merced FOCUS is part of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.