I’m happy to share my digital essay “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture.” It is published on the new “Humanities for the Environment” web platform funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and by Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research. I’m particularly excited to share the reflections of activists Lupe Martinez, Mary Lou Mares, Sarah Sharpe and Enrique Martinez in it. Thank you also to Zachary Singer for allowing me to use his photos of environmental justice activism in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.
Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.
I first met Teresa DeAnda in 2007 when I sat in on one of the monthly meetings of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s Delano Advisory Board. I was there to describe my master’s research and ask the community leaders on the advisory board if they would be willing to participate in it. At that time Teresa was the group’s president, and she was quick to say yes. I learned over time that this generosity of spirit was core to who she was.
As she has done for so many others, Teresa invited me into her home to tell me about her life and her work. Over the years I continued to get to know Teresa through photographing her, through her participation in Voices from the Valley (formerly called 25 Stories from the Central Valley), and through the many other environmental justice events that led our paths to regularly cross. I came to know her as generous, fierce, and a lot of fun.
Teresa lived next to vast fields of industrial agriculture. When we first met she told me about the regular pesticide drift she experienced in her home in Earlimart. She told me about how many people in her community had cancer.
She later got cancer herself. Her death at 55 is made doubly tragic by the fact that it is hard to think of her illness as random, rather than as part of a consistent pattern of toxic exposure in politically marginalized communities. Much of her life’s work involved changing this pattern. Her efforts helped put protections into place that limit the drift of pesticides into residential areas in a number of San Joaquin Valley counties, and that improve emergency response to pesticide drift incidents statewide. She was a bright light whose loss will be deeply felt.
So others might also know of her life and her legacy, I have collected below previously published excerpts from my 2007 interview with Teresa, along with some of my favorite photos of her. I have also included links to other testaments to her life, as well as information for her memorial service in Delano tomorrow morning.
- Sunday Memorial Set for Advocate, Loving Mother, Grandmother
- Honoring Teresa DeAnda – Community Water Center
- Earlimart Anti-Pesticide Advocate Teresa DeAnda Remembered As Fearless Leader – Valley Public Radio
- Earlimart Pesticide Warrior Honored for Advocacy – Valley Public Radio
Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.
Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.
[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.
One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.
So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.
So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.
The next day was a Saturday, and they applied the pesticide again. This time instead of going west, it went south. And south, there was a low income housing complex, I guess about 100 people live there. They began smelling it, and they began getting sick, a bunch of kids out on the lawn vomiting. A bunch of people from that place were calling 911, calling for help. And basically, this is what happened from Flores’ point of view, Flores Baptista. She said she was baby-sitting her nine month old nephew. She was holding him in her arms. She has a lot of kids, all of her kids were outside, vomiting. And the baby was in her arms, and she was on the phone with 911, and she told them, “My kids are outside vomiting, there’s something going on here, we think it’s the spray. You need to come do something about it. Everybody’s kids are outside vomiting, and we just need some help out here.” And the operator told her, “Just hold on, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Just calm down. I think your being calm will have a big impact on your kids, and you need to just calm down.” And so Flores said, “OK, well I’m trying to relax, but my kids are out here, and they’re getting sicker and sicker. And the baby I’m baby-sitting is breathing really weird, and I’m really worried about him. I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not. And my nephew’s looking real bad.” And the operator kept telling her, “Look, you’re hysterical. You need to calm down.” This went on for 45 minutes. They kept them on the phone for 45 minutes. And so after 45 minutes, Flores said, you know what, and she said some bad words, and she said “I’m just going to get out of here. I’m not going to wait for your guys. You guys obviously aren’t coming, and I don’t know what you’re doing, but everybody’s about to die here. We need to get out of here. It smells so bad.”
So she got in her van, and she drove out. And at that time, other people slammed the phone down. When they saw people leaving, they slammed their phone down, and they got out, and they were leaving too. And so there was a caravan of vans. They drove out to Sunset and Weed Patch. And on the corner, it was barricaded. It’s called a stop and freeze, or freeze and keep whatever is contaminated in. They were telling people “Go back, go back, you can’t come out.” And they’re like “No, we’re sick, and need our kids to get to the doctor. We’re going to drive them ourselves, cause we’re not going to wait for you any more. We were on the phone for close to an hour with that lady, and she was just telling us to sit down, to calm down, and that we were talking crazy and stuff, but no, we’re going to get out.” And there was a lot of people that spoke Spanish. So one of the men just went on the dirt and drove off. Broke the barricade.
– Source: Voices from the Valley
Teresa describing visiting residents of Arvin, CA, after a pesticide poisoning incident there in 2002:
I wanted to talk to the people and let them know that when the doctors and the agencies, like the fire department or whatever, tells you it’s nothing… because they will, they’ll tell you it’s nothing. They’ll say “Oh, it’s mass hysteria, you’re hung over,” or, “It’s just something you ate that’s making you nauseous.” No, it’s the pesticides, and don’t doubt it. It’s the pesticides. Then I always want to tell them that they need to report drift. It’s state law, drift is illegal, it shouldn’t happen. The farmers spray the field, it leaves the field, goes on your car, goes on your property, goes on the park when you’re there. You need to report it. I’m trying to get it across, but people still don’t call. The numbers are so low for reports.
I’ve come across a variety of intriguing online resources in past months that I keep meaning to write-up into a variety of teaching tools. But time is short so instead I’m posting them all here, with a few short ideas on how they might be used in the classroom. Happy teaching!
Race and the outdoors
- Stuff white people like: camping A tongue-in-cheek send-up of camping, camping culture, and the disproportionate participation of white people in camping. Could be a great way to stimulate classroom conversation about outdoor activities and race. I could see reading the post aloud and asking the following kinds of questions to get the conversation rolling: How many of you like camping? How many of you don’t? Does this post ring true to your experience of camping or not camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of who camps? Why do you think white people are the dominant participants in so many recreational activities in the outdoors?
- Diversity and the outdoors – google hangout with Allison Chin (Sierra Club), Audrey Peterman (Legacy On the Land), Javier Sierra (Sierra Club en Español), Juan Martinez (Children and Nature Network), Rue Mapp (Outdoor Afro) and Rusty White (surfer). People of color outdoor-leaders discuss how they got interested in the outdoors and how to get more people to join them. This video would be a good follow-up to the “Stuff white people like” blog post described above because it contradicts it in some ways. You could ask students to consider how the leaders featured in the google hangout might respond to the “stuff white people like” blog post. Would they agree or disagree with its content?
- America’s forgotten black cowboys This article could help students question racialized narratives of the American West, as well as to consider the historical experiences of people of color in the American outdoors.
Race, Nation, and Agriculture: The “God Made a Farmer” Videos
- God Made a Farmer Ram Trucks Superbowl Commercial
- So God Made a (Latino) Farmer
- God Made a Factory Farmer
I could imagine showing the first video without any introduction and asking the following questions at the end of it: Did you notice anything odd about this video? Was anything missing? If the students can’t think of anything, show the second video and ask them the question again. The point would be to launch into a discussion of the video’s startling use of white people to represent farming in America, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people working in this industry are Latino. This could be a fruitful jumping off point for discussion about framing, narrative, representation, race, the history of farming in America, or any number of other juicy topics. Be sure to discuss what the difference between a “farmer” and a “farmworker” is. Child labor could make for an interesting and relevant topic for a follow-up conversation too.
Other data sources. See this activity for ideas on how they could be used.
I’m not sure how I would use these in the college classroom, but wanted to post them here for future reference.
- Environmental justice chronicles – Book 1: Maya’s Lot comic book or video
- ToxTown Interactive digital neighborhoods that introduce environmental health threats in a variety of locations
I spent time yesterday looking at Barron Bixler’s photographs of agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. He’s arranged his photos into a beautiful slideshow set to music called A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. I’ve formed my own vision of the San Joaquin Valley over the last few years, and it’s fascinating to see how someone else views and presents the region. Some of Bixler’s photos depict scences familiar to me – stark landscapes of row-crops, orchards with factories in the background, agricultural machinery, railroads and storage facilities. I loved seeing these familiar places through his eye. Others show places I’ve never been, like the inside of an industrial milking facility.
Bixler’s photos are entirely devoid of people – they depict industrial agriculture through the landscape and built environment it creates. Matt Black’s photos, on the other hand, center on the immigrants and farmworkers living and working in the San Joaquin Valley. They are entirely human. I enjoyed checking his captions to see if the small towns he has depicted were places I’ve spent time in too (mostly not). He has also created a powerful digital project about the birth defects in Kettleman City.
Finally, Ken Light’s new photographic book, Valley of Shadows and Dreams, will be published soon by Heyday Press. I saw some of his work on this project when I took his documentary photography class several years ago at UC Berkeley, and can’t wait to see the finished product. Check out the photo on the book’s cover, it’s gorgeous.
And, here’s a link to my own humble efforts to photograph the San Joaquin Valley. I try to show the grave environmental health problems facing this region, but also the hard work being done by its residents to change things. I also try to convey my sense of this under-appreciated part of our state as beautiful in its own right. An updated version of this collection will be online soon, as well as a nifty new collage that combines new photos with oral history.
I took photos of the olive harvest outside of Exeter yesterday morning with Juan Gomez and his crew:
When I moved to Santa Cruz one of the first friends I made was a woman named Teresa Kurtak. Teresa and her business partners Mike Irving and John Vars were looking for land to lease so they could start a small organic farm. They found what they were looking for in Pescadero, and are now in their third growing season there.
Most of the photos I see of small-scale organic farms present them as rural idylls – beautiful, bucolic, peaceful. My experience watching 5th Crow Farm grow is that organic farms may be beautiful but usually entail working long, hectic days. My urban lifestyle is probably a lot more peaceful! Certainly that’s what I thought after tagging along with Teresa while she worked this weekend. Here are some of my photos and a blow-by-blow account of what we did…
8:30 pm, Saturday night: I stop at the grocery store on my way to the farm to buy dinner for Teresa and Mike. They’ve been harvesting for the Sunday farmers’ markets all day and haven’t had time to think about dinner yet.
9:15 pm: I arrive at Mike and Teresa’s yurt on the farm.
9:30 pm: Teresa and Mike have dinner, and then Teresa starts to prepare the printed materials she needs for the next day’s special event at the California Academy of Sciences.
10:00 pm: The printer isn’t working so Teresa heads out to find a working printer elsewhere. I go to bed.
Midnight: Teresa goes to bed.
3:16 am, Sunday morning: Roosters start crowing. : (
4:30 am: Alarm goes off. : (
4:45 am: Teresa and I get in the market truck, which they loaded yesterday, and hit the road.
5:30 am: We stop to pick up coffee to help keep us awake on the road. I also buy a pastry for my breakfast.
5:43 am: Dawn.
6:10: We’re the first ones to arrive at the site of the Inner Sunset Farmers’ Market in San Francisco. I try not to feel too guilty for taking photos instead of helping Teresa unload the truck and set up her stand…
7:00 am: Teresa’s market helper, Anne, shows up and pitches in.
8 am: After they’ve unloaded the truck, we repark it in Golden Gate Park, and go back to finish setting up Teresa’s stand.
8:15 am: Robert MacKimmie of City Bees shows up and begins to set up his stand next to ours. Robert has become a good friend of the farm and is Teresa’s regular post-market dinner date. Today he’ll also be featured at the California Academy of Sciences’ first Local Bites event after the market.
8:35 am. I go across the street to Arizmendi Bakery to buy more coffee to help Teresa and Robert get through the morning rush. By the time I get back the market is officially open for business and there’s already a long line at the 5th Crow stand. Teresa spends the rest of the market lifting crates of produce and answering questions from the customers while Anne handles the money.
12:00 pm: Two of Teresa’s dedicated regular customers show up to help out, giving Teresa and me a chance to get her strawberry samples out of the truck in Golden Gate Park and walk over to the California Academy of Sciences to get the lay of the land.
1:00: By the time we’re done at the Academy of Sciences, the market has officially closed so we pick up the truck and drive it back to the market to load. Teresa, her helpers and Robert all pitch in to load the truck in a hurry. We drive it over to the Academy of Sciences, unload onto small carts and wheel the goods into the event-space. The vendors aren’t allowed to sell their products at the event, but Teresa brings some for display to give the guests a sense of what she grows. We get there late and set up her table while the band plays and the guests are moving around tasting the samples. Teresa gives out samples of strawberries, edible flowers and kholrabi, while continuing the lifting and talking that she’s been doing all day.
3:00: Bathroom breaks are hard to come by!
5:30 We take a break to stand around and talk with the helpers. Then we drive the truck back to the market site, which is once more a parking lot, unload Robert’s stuff into his own car, and find a place to eat. Teresa talks with her hands a lot.
9 pm: We get back to the farm. Teresa decides to postpone unloading the truck until tomorrow morning and I drive home.
To see more photos from my day with Teresa, click here.