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A farmworker’s story of giving back to her children and her community

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Francisco Martinez
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Reina Mendoza stands for a portrait outside CAUSE’s office in Santa Maria.";

Reina Mendoza is 50 years old, and has been in the United States for the last 21 years. She’s called Santa Maria home for the last nine years.

Mendoza is a single mother with five children: four boys in their early-to-mid 20s and one teenage daughter. But life as a farmworker, Mendoza said, made it initially difficult to enjoy motherhood.

“Before, I used to complain and I didn't know why — maybe it was the pain I carried inside, the frustration that there were five children, [on top of] working very hard in the strawberry fields,” Mendoza said. “I used to get up at 2 or 3 in the morning. I was always on the run. That made me change a lot. Well, it was worth it.”

Mendoza said she later realized that she needed to value and appreciate life and its duality: the beauty of it — and the suffering that comes along with it.

“You look for a way to get up in the morning, even if you feel bad or if you can’t do it anymore,” Mendoza said. “But you have to get up for those kids. I got up, sat down, looked at my kids and said ‘Lord, give me strength.’”

Mendoza said it’s her love for her children that motivates her, saying “it’s not a sacrifice — what one does for their kids is for love.”

Mendoza said she did a lot of things for her kids when they were younger: volunteering at their school, assisting school nurses, or attending school parent meetings.

“As the years go by, I learn a lot of things and I like getting involved with the community — I love getting involved with the community,” Mendoza said.

However, Mendoza said that being a mother didn’t allow her the chance to focus on her own personal growth.

That changed after she was invited to a meeting organized by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE.

She said that, through attending CAUSE’s meetings, she learned about her rights as a farmworker, and realized the information CAUSE shared at its meetings is very important.

“I said, ‘why not get involved?’” Mendoza said. “That way I can learn and defend my rights as a farmworker, because in the fields, we’re treated poorly by the bosses who have the position to shout at us. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

So she got involved. Some of her volunteer efforts include distributing masks and food during the pandemic, assisting in vaccine information campaigns, participating in meetings for community organizations, and sharing what she learns with others.

Zulema Aleman, a community organizer with CAUSE, said Mendoza was one of the first people she met when she started her job at CAUSE two and a half years ago.

Aleman praised Mendoza for being invested in self-growth — something Aleman said not many people can do when raised in environments where emotion-processing is discouraged.

“That's not something that I think a lot of us grew up with,” Aleman said. “And to see her be that mom and then see her advocate for the community in different ways — I think it's a really cool experience.”

Mendoza said bringing positive change through her community involvement matters because many people in the community might not know about their rights as farmworkers or resources available to them. She said other farmworkers come over to her house to get brochures and information pamphlets; sharing this knowledge is fulfilling to her, she said.

“It’s something that motivates you,” Mendoza said. “You’re busy, you’re working to give back to the city and give back to the community.”

Mendoza’s efforts to bring positive change to the community line up with her philosophy about change.

She said change is something everyone has to go through in their lives — not just for themselves, or their families, but for the community as well.

“I’ve tried to change for the better,” Mendoza said. “I think many people need to give change a chance and they have the opportunity to learn. It’s never too late to learn.”

Mendoza said she didn’t always have this approach to life. She said she didn’t learn much in her youth because of how busy she was with her farm work and her family.

“I didn’t have a life, I’d say. And now I do,” Mendoza said. “Why? Because my kids let me and say ‘do whatever you like and we’ll support you’ and that’s something beautiful to feel: the support of your kids.”

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Francisco Martinez joined KCBX in January 2021 as a substitute announcer for on-air programming. You can hear him host regularly during KCBX midday programs, and also occasionally on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Francisco also hosts the alternative music show Citizen Sound each Sunday night at 11:00 on KCBX. In addition, Francisco contributes reporting to KCBX News. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in June 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in journalism and a minor in history.
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