Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Trans farm workers celebrate in Salinas parade, reflect on work

Roselyn Macias (Photo: Seth Hemmelgarn)

Roselyn Macias (Photo: Seth Hemmelgarn)

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Salinas, several women wearing traditional Mexican dresses with colorful stripes and flowers rode in the back of a black Toyota pickup truck in the El Grito parade, the annual event marking Mexico’s independence from Spain.

As they made their way along the route among contingents that included people riding prancing horses and a high school marching band, the group exchanged waves and smiles with spectators. Another member of the women’s contingent wore a glittering tiara and a “Miss Conexiones 2017″ sash as she sat in the back of a Mustang convertible, representing the group for transgender women that meets monthly at a nonprofit that’s near the start of the parade.

The route, which would wind its way about three miles around the south part of the city, passed places like the Foods Co where people have been known to gather daily at 5 a.m. in the hopes of getting picked up for work in the nearby fields.

It’s the kind of work that the women in Conexiones know well. The group, which is hosted by the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance, offers a place for the women to share their stories and support each other.

This is the second year they’ve participated in the El Grito parade. Like the parade, Conexiones provides a break from the fields and ranches where many of them spend their workdays, picking strawberries, artichokes, and other crops. It’s work that would be hard for anyone, regardless of orientation or gender identity.

Several Conexiones members met for an interview September 16 a couple hours before the parade in CRLA’s pink brick, one-story Salinas headquarters to talk about their experiences.

Hard work

Roselyn Macias, who’s been coming to Conexiones for several years, now drives a watering truck to tamp down the dust on the dirt roads of ranches in the area, but her first job was in the fields.

“It’s hard work, especially the artichokes,” said Macias. “It’s hard work walking down the field with your bag, especially when it’s full and you have to walk across the other side” to unload it.

When one of the bags is full, Macias said, “It probably weighs more than 100 pounds.”

And it’s not like the fields are always flat. Many are sloped, so workers may end up walking up or down hills with the heavy loads on their backs.

Lisa Cisneros, CRLA’s program director, said that when she was 17, she briefly worked in the fields. She said after hearing family members’ experiences, “I wanted to see for myself” what it was like, she said, so she and a friend got a spot on an all-women’s crew.

Cisneros had been on the state cross-country team, and she was in great shape.

“I wanted to be the fastest picker in the strawberry crew,” said Cisneros.

She and her friend lasted a week.

By the second day, “I had to lie down in the furrows. … I was stretched out in the muck on my back,” she said. Meanwhile, “everybody else in the field was on the other side already.”

“I did not think it was going to be difficult for my physically,” but it was “the most physically arduous experience I’d ever had before,” said Cisneros.

Extra challenges

On top of the physical challenges, being transgender can make the work even harder.

Jessica said she’s had “lots of bad experiences” in the fields.

Legally, her first name is still male, which makes things “very hard, especially when the crew leader gives out the check,” she said. When the leader calls out her name “people turn to look.”

“If he’s in a good mood, he calls me by my last name,” said Jessica.

Estefani said, “It’s really difficult to work in the fields. … Coworkers and crew leaders constantly discriminate against us,” even over restroom use.

She also recalled times when she and a transgender friend would take their lunch break.

“We would always be by ourselves,” she said. “Nobody wanted to hang out with us.”

At other times, a crew leader would tell her to cut the lettuce they were working in, even though that task is usually reserved for men. Women typically pack the cut leaves.

“The crew leader would see that no one would help us,” she said. He’d tell her, “You could cut it because you’re a man.”

Estefani felt like she and others were being pressured to leave.

It’s as if “they think we’re some sort of monster, that we’re going to do something to them,” she said.

Conexiones member Tania said in response to emailed questions that she’s worked in the strawberry fields for three months.

It’s “a new experience,” said Tania.

It’s “been a little difficult” and the work is “a bit heavy,” she said. She indicated that at first, other workers didn’t see her, but now, she gets along with them.

“I love to live here in Salinas,” said Tania. “I also love my job.”

Although supervisors have become more respectful, there needs to be more training on LGBT issues, said Macias, whom coworkers have approached with their troubles.

“If there’s something wrong, I try to listen to them, and I try to fix the problem,” she said.

Even though the work is tough, Macias said the environment for transgender women is “getting better year by year,” and Estefani said that after being on a crew for a while, “you get to know the people, and they’re even nice to you.”

Few options

Finding other jobs has been difficult for many of the women.

“There are very few options for us,” said Estefani.

Because of discrimination, she said, when transgender people go to a place like Carl’s Jr. for a job, “they’re not going to say no.” Instead, they say, “We’ll call you later,” and then they never call.

Macias said another problem comes when prospective employers call former bosses for references, and the old bosses don’t understand who the call is about because they only recognize women by their former names.

In the fields, “they don’t ask for a resume,” she said. “They don’t ask for your past work” experience.

While they may have had few options in the past, the women are looking forward to more opportunities.

Macias said she’d like to get into a field like nursing, since there’s a lack of transgender women working in hospitals. She’s planning to start going to school part-time.

Jessica, who’s worked in strawberries, lettuce, and broccoli, would like to have a restaurant or another business.

“I don’t want to work in the fields my whole life,” she said. “… It’s very, very, very hard on you.”

Estefani, who had similar feelings, thinks about opening a beauty salon some day.

“I want to be the owner, because working in the fields, it’s pretty hard on you,” she said. “You can’t do it your whole life.”

‘Respect and equality’

Salinas is known more for its farm fields than for any liberal attitudes, but the Conexiones parade contingent didn’t seem to stir any controversy.

Tania said this was her second time in the parade.

“I loved it from the beginning, because I think it’s a way to let us see people,” and for “people to see that we are there and we exist and that we are not bad and we want respect and equality,” she said.

As she watched the group make its way down the street, Maggie Cardenas, a lifelong Salinas resident who was there with her three young children, said simply, “Transgender … Interesting.”

Cardenas, who hadn’t been to the parade before, said she was “surprised” to see the contingent, but she said, “It’s a good thing,” since it’s “showing more open-mindedness in the community.”

Sergio Sanchez, president of the Comité Cultural de Salinas, which organizes the parade and festival, said in a phone interview that he thinks Conexiones is “a great group, and I really appreciate their willingness to participate in the parade and activities,” which drew more than 55,000 people.

“We feel very strongly about being inclusive and diverse,” especially given “what our country is going through and some of this sentiment against immigrants and people of color and people of the LGBT community,” said Sanchez, who added the committee’s “honored to have them be part of our celebration. We celebrate culture, and we celebrate heritage, and we celebrate al the great things that our communities have.”

Interviews with Jessica and Estefani were conducted with the help of a translator provided by CRLA. The email interview with Tania was translated through Google Translate.

Macias was the only worker who gave permission to publish her last name.


— Seth Hemmelgarn, October 11, 2017 @ 1:11 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

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