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Beyond the Furrows: Farmworker’s journey for citizenship through perseverance and adversity

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Francisco Martinez
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Maria sits for a portrait in Santa Maria, California.

Maria will tell you without hesitation: she never thought she would be here right now.

“I never thought about putting my life at risk by crossing the border because it’s dangerous to cross,” Maria said. “But I never thought about coming to the United States — never.”

'Here,' in this case, is Santa Maria, where the 62-year-old lives now.

Maria was raised by her uncle and aunt in Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan in Mexico. She’s one of nine siblings, with five sisters and three brothers. So when one of Maria’s brothers, who left for the U.S. at 13, became a citizen, she said her uncle urged her to go to the United States to get her papers.

“I told my uncle no — no!” Maria said. “But my uncle told me yes because he didn’t know how my life would be, how he wasn’t going to be around forever, and that I needed to support my siblings.

So in 2003, after 18 years of trying to get papers arranged, Maria came to the United States at age 44 with a U.S. visa. She first settled in Santa Maria, then Riverside, then Elgin, Illinois before returning to Santa Maria.

Maria’s American journey is an odyssey. She said she was underpaid as a dressmaker in Santa Maria; lost her job as a mattress maker in Riverside due to the factory closing; and was left homeless in Illinois after being exploited by acquaintances.

One of Maria’s experiences in Illinois left one of her sisters doubting it actually happened. Maria said she injured her foot, leaving her out of work, which led to a confrontation with a landlord.

“And for that reason, I couldn’t pay rent, so they threatened to kill me,” Maria said. “I had to deal with a death threat. They cornered me. My sister tells me: ‘I don’t believe you. Who is going to believe you?’ It’s an incredible thing, but I lived it. I lived it.”

Maria lived on the streets. At times, she ate just two tortillas a day and became anemic due to lack of nutrition. But she did make it back to Santa Maria, where she said she struggled to find work when she returned — toiling away at a food packaging job until she came across farmwork in 2008.

She said she loves it, being in the fields.

“I feel like the earth gives you a lot of vibes, a lot of energy, a lot of spirit. It’s life-giving,” Maria said.

But since July of last year, Maria hasn’t been able to work in the fields at all. She said she stopped getting hired after she got COVID. Maria said her COVID-19 symptoms were relatively mild — similar to a cold — but she has other health issues that affect her.

“Since I was a girl, I’ve suffered from nerve issues,” Maria said. “And I know that I was left jobless after COVID.”

Maria also said she’s had issues with her right ear. She can’t hear out of it, and it gives her problems with her balance. “So I think that it’s a collection of things: the nerves, the ear, and everything.”

On top of her health issues, Maria said she had a fall in August of this year. She also said knee problems prevent her from bending down and working in the fields. She’s hoping to let her knee rest and will try to return to the fields next year.

Maria said her knee issues and her fall make her worry about her future as a fieldworker and feel insecure about her work.

That’s why she's looking for jobs away from farmwork — in the food industry, as a hotel maid or in a laundromat — but worries her lack of English skills will hurt her chances at getting a job.

Maria said finding a job right now is her biggest worry. She says her unemployment checks help her pay the rent — for now — but she also needs to find a new place to live.

All of those challenges are compounded by the fact that, in Santa Maria, she’s alone.

“I’m alone. I don’t depend on anyone for anything,” Maria said. “So, what’s going to happen to me if I get injured and it’s an injury that just happens to be for the rest of my life — and alone? What’s going to be of me? What am I going to do?”

Maria said she’s alone because her siblings are far away, and because of family issues. She said if you’re an immigrant, you’re going to need family support to survive in this country.

“It’s very difficult — very difficult. Here, I think that, just as much for documented as for the undocumented, it’s difficult,” Maria said. “It’s only good for those who have someone who supports them. If you don’t have someone who supports you — no, no — it’s difficult.”

But Maria said she feels lucky to even be in the United States in the first place — especially knowing there are many others who are envious of her position.

“Many want to have residency — those who don’t have the opportunity I did to obtain my visa,” Maria said. “So if I get my citizenship, then I would feel free.”

Maria said being a citizen means she can stop worrying about non-citizen problems, like renewing her visa regularly. She also said she wants to participate in elections. It’s why she’s going through the citizenship process.

“Well, I prefer to defend my stay here,” Maria said. “I prefer to take care of my papers and now I applied for citizenship. And I don’t know if I’ll get it or if I won’t get it, but that’s my intention.”

Eighteen years waiting for a visa to come into the United States. Eighteen years in this country, working away and struggling to get by. And in those 36 years, Maria has shown continued fortitude and perseverance.

The future is uncertain for Maria, whether it’s about her job or her citizenship. But her greatest hope right now, she said, is finding a job and coming out ahead.

This episode of "Beyond the Furrows" is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

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