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One farmworker’s long journey to a better life fueled by a goal to return home

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Francisco Martinez
Francis Salvador in her Santa Maria home

It’s been a while — a month and a half, actually — since I talked to Francis Salvador in person.

The last time we spoke, Salvador was on strike, asking for better pay outside West Coast Berry Farms just north of Guadalupe, in San Luis Obispo County.

This time, we meet in her small Santa Maria home — a garage converted into a studio for three: Salvador, her husband and their 3-year-old son, Joshua.

When the 23-year-old has time, she takes her son on walks to the park so he can play basketball, which Salvador said is Joshua’s favorite activity.

Salvador said she loves being a mother, but it’s difficult because she needs to focus on work: picking strawberries in the fields, just like her dad.

“Whenever I’m at work, I try to forget about my son and focus but, in reality, I can’t do that, because I’m always thinking about him: how he’s being treated, what he’s doing, or if he already ate,” Salvador said.

Taking care of her son and working in the fields are tough things to balance, Salvador said. It’s a tiring life, but she said she’s better off here than in Mexico.

“My childhood was very sad because in Mexico, we were very poor,” Salvador said. “Everyone continues to be poor, needing so many things. There are a lot of families who lift themselves up, but that’s because they’re getting out of the state, looking ahead to the future.”

Salvador is from Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. There are 12 siblings in her family: two brothers, nine other sisters and her.

When she was a kid, Salvador said she played with friends and went to class, but stopped after elementary school because it was too expensive for her family.

Salvador started working at 13, but at 16, she left for the United States with one of her brothers — something her parents disapproved of initially.

She said her father worked as a strawberry picker and told her about how hard his job was, but that he did it for the family. Salvador wanted to return the favor, so she came to work here.

“But I thought a lot about it, and there was a lot of need for it,” Salvador said. “So I thought that if I came to the United States, that would help out my parents a lot.”

Crossing the border is demanding: You have to pack adequate food and water for the trek, and Salvador said there’s no time for stopping. She also said if you run out of food or water — in Salvador's case, she ran out of both — it becomes even more difficult. In many cases, she said, that's when the journey ends.

But in spite of the difficulties, she and her brother did make it to the United States, settling in Santa Maria where some of their sisters were.

Family, to Francis Salvador, is key in her life: her husband, her son, her siblings, her parents. She knows she wants to be with her family. It’s why she wants to go back to Mexico, especially for her son.

“I think Mexico is everything, with its traditions and its customs and — more than anything — it's where I was born, where I grew up and where my youth was,” Salvador said.

But her son, who was born here, might make going back to Mexico a bit more challenging. She is afraid that her son might want to come back to the United States.

“I don’t want to cross the border anymore because when I came, I crossed the border and it was very risky,” Salvador said. “And that’s what I fear the most. I don’t want to return to the border.”

Salvador said she knows her dreams are meant to be fulfilled in Mexico — she says being here is necessary to save money. But she and her husband want to buy land near their family in Mexico and start a business. She doesn’t know the specifics yet, but she says saving up to get to that dream is what makes her work here worthwhile.

“I want to save as much as I can so I can go back home and see my parents,” Salvador said. “That’s what I strive for the most. That’s why I keep working.”

Salvador wants her dreams to come true, even if she knows it’s a long way there. Life in Mexico, getting to the United States, and working long days as a farmworker — Salvador said she knows all of that is challenging, but it's for an end goal that's bigger than she is.

“It costs nothing to dream, right,” Salvador said. “So that’s what we’re dreaming about and hopefully God helps us.”

Francisco Martinez joined KCBX in January 2021 as a substitute staff announcer, then became a regular midday host, occasional reporter, and host of Citizen Sound — the alternative music show each Sunday night at 11:00 on KCBX. Francisco left KCBX to move back to the Bay Area in January 2022.
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