NOTE: Puente is writing about the lives of female farm workers for National Farmworker Awareness Week. This is the second of two stories.
Lina Martinez learned about America from the front door of a t-shirt shop in Fishermen’s Wharf. The 22-year-old crossed the border on foot, alone, in 1991 with the help of a coyote. A week later, she was in San Francisco, hawking t-shirts to tourists.
Her job was to get people to come into the store, to sell merchandise, and to make change. But she didn’t know a word of English. And she didn’t understand U.S. currency.
“They told me: people unfold the shirts, you fold them. You’ve got to learn English. Learn the colors. You have to learn to say, ‘Three shirts for $9.99!’” recounts Martinez, laughing.
It was uncomfortable, to be sure. But Lina Martinez isn’t known for backing down.
“I called my boyfriend and said, ‘I need to learn numbers.’ I only knew 1 to 10 in English. Little by little I learned… and after a while, I could do anything!” she grins.
Martinez’s first American job at the t-shirt shop netted her $20 a day in under-the-table wages, plus $5 for lunch. She slept on a couch in the house of the man who owned the store.
Needless to say, the job didn’t last long. But by the time she found her first South Coast farm job, at Westland Nursery, and moved to Pescadero, Martinez knew her way around parts of the Bay Area. She had a cousin living on the South Coast. She knew her numbers. And her boyfriend, a man she had met in Mexico, stayed by her side.
Try to imagine moving to a new country one day without fanfare – literally, walking in with only the clothes on your back. The third child in a family of 11, Martinez knew her parents were stretched thin. She started earning money at 16, cooking for another family and cleaning houses.
One day, after a friend of hers took a chance and moved to California, Martinez decided to do the same. She left her village, Teojomulco, and made the six-hour trip to the city of Oaxaca, where she hired a coyote to get her through the border to America.
Martinez, now a 46-year-old mother of three, has a comfortable quality in her jean jacket, with a wide smile and laugh lines around the eyes. She has plenty of “long stories” to tell, and tells them with exuberance. She loves to talk about her job at Fifth Crow Farm, where she helps grow organic produce. She also plants and harvests flowers and raises grass-fed chickens. Her days are filled with broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, fennel, onions, leeks, radishes… and chaotic chicken coops, which she cleans (she also washes their eggs).
“I like to harvest dino kale,” says Martinez, referring to a particular variety of kale. “It’s my favorite. It’s really easy to get the leaves and make bunches. I’m always saying, ‘I want to harvest the dino kale!’” She gives a merry laugh.
Transplanting crops from the greenhouse to the field is the hardest task – a slow job, which involves putting delicate starts into the ground on hands and knees. It can take hours, she says.
“It hurts your legs a lot. It’s hard. But I like it, it’s fun,” she grins.
Martinez’s positive outlook seems extraordinary considering the struggles she has faced since moving to California. Her boyfriend died a year after she started work at Westland Nursery. She had two sons, but their fathers weren’t keen to support her. She got a great job at a mushroom farm owned by the Campbell Soup Company, which paid $10.75 an hour, more than she’d ever earned up to that point. But then the mushroom farm closed down.
Another time, Martinez was cleaning cabins at a forested retreat center outside Pescadero when a table fell on her and cut her leg open. She could hardly walk for bleeding, but her bosses didn’t take her to the doctor; they just took her to their house and gave her some pain medication. She missed a lot of farm work after that. She pulls up her pant leg to show the long scar on her ankle.
Martinez has also endured four dangerous border crossings. The most recent one, about four years ago, was terribly frightening. With the border fence locked up much tighter than it used to be, Martinez had to go by sea in a motorboat crammed with 22 people. They left Tijuana at 9 p.m. and fought the waves in the dark for seven hours to get to safe landing on the California coast. People were sick and wet and scared.
“For me, that was terrible,” she laughs, shaking her head.
Every farm worker has stories of hardships. As a single mother, Martinez carried a whole other obligation. She left more than one job because it conflicted with her parenting duties. She also took on a side job cleaning the Pescadero Community Church once a week, for extra income. And somewhere in there, she managed to take ESL classes at Puente.
“My dad is really proud of me. I raised my kids by myself. There’s a saying: ‘If you’re going to do something, take the bull by the horns.’ That’s what I’ve done,” she says.
Things turned around when Martinez started working at Fifth Crow. She also met a man who fathered her youngest child, a daughter, who is now three; he lives with her and supports the family. Her two sons, 16 and 13, both want to go to college.
Martinez now has legal status to live and work in the U.S., having been granted a visa. Later this year she will apply for permanent residency.
If you had told her, at 22, that her future would unfold the way it has, Martinez would have laughed at you.
“I never did think my life would be like this. But I’ve been able to do a lot of things,” she says. “The hard knocks are really what make you stronger.”
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