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.
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.
What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September, UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings. And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]
– Source: Perkins and Sze, 2011
Once there was a guy spraying, it was May, 1999, and he was spraying over there and the fog was in the house. He wasn’t even turning off the tractor rig when he was coming up the road. The stuff he was spraying, it was in the house. My kids were all puking, my husband was out of town, so it was just me here. I didn’t know to pick them up, take them to the van, and get them out of there. It looked like London fog out there, and in here it looked like San Francisco fog. I didn’t know whether to leave them sleeping, or to take them out to more danger. So I called the fire department, the sheriff, and they both said the same thing: “The farmer has a right to farm. You can’t complain about this.” And I said, “But I don’t know if we’re going to die or live or what. This stuff, it’s really bad out here. I know he’s got to spray, I realize that, just tell him to turn the things off when he’s coming out of the vineyards.” You know what a tractor rig looks like? Kind of like a monster. It’s a noise, and then you look out, and then there’s lights. It was in the night, so they said that they couldn’t come out. I said that you’d better come out here and at least look at this. I wanted it on record that I called them.
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 was at a meeting with the county agricultural commissioner, and we were looking at maps of the agricultural land. I saw these little red dots on the map and asked what they were. He said, “Those mark where the bees are, they’re the buffers.” I said, “The bees have buffers and we don’t?!” He said, “Teresa….,” but I was serious.
I had no idea what an activist was. Now I know there’s a name to it, not just “troublemaker.”