21 for ’21: Ruby Vasquez pays homage to — and fights for — Pajaro Valley’s essential workers

Ruby Vasquez talks to campesinos in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Educator Ruby Vasquez and her friends regularly visit the agricultural workers of the Pajaro Valley with a message of gratitude and information on how to stay safe. Those community connections will continue to be essential in the new year, she says.

Though it was common in the vocabulary of the early pandemic period, the term “essential worker” didn’t quite sit well with Ruby Vasquez. She had no issue with what that category often included — doctors, nurses, first responders, service workers — but rather what it generally excluded.

“Look at the campesinos out there,” she said, in reference to the field workers apparent to anyone driving through the Pajaro Valley on any given day. “Once again, we felt, they were going unrecognized and unseen.”

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

The Watsonville-born-and-raised educator knows of what she speaks when it comes to the subject of the agricultural workers of the Pajaro Valley. She grew up in those fields as the daughter of campesinos; her parents, Rudy and Ester Vasquez, still sell berries at local farmers markets around the Monterey Bay from their Vasquez Farm near Moss Landing.

Campesinos listen to Ruby Vasquez's message.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though Ruby Vasquez now works for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, when the pandemic hit, her thoughts immediately turned to those in the field, supplying the rest of us with our food. She and a handful of friends decided to establish a regular caravan to go out to the work sites in the Valley and express their appreciation and gratitude to the campesinos.

It was an impulse that quickly grew into a movement. At first, Vasquez and her friends brought signs and loudspeakers to be heard, then they began a campaign to provide workers with crucial pandemic information. Soon, they were bringing lunches and gifts for the families.

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The caravan attracted national media attention with a story in April on NBC News. That attention brought crowds, some from outside the county.

The caravaners urged others across California to form their own caravans for campesinos in their own regions.

Bags of appreciation await the campesinos.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Soon, people from across the state were contacting them for guidance and inspiration. The Watsonville caravan was also getting the support of local non-profits, as well as the agricultural companies that employed the workers.

Today, the caravan is still operating in the Valley, going out two or three times per week.

The focus these days isn’t so much gratitude as it is on protection in the age of COVID-19 and wildfires. The caravaners share information on the pandemic, encourage masks, tips on safety with both the virus and smoke in the air.

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A federal CARES Act grant, along with private donations from across the county and beyond, has allowed the caravan to supply campesinos with many kinds of household goods and to sponsor gift giveaways, such as one slated for Saturday, Dec. 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe as observed in Mexican culture. On that day, the caravan will be giving gift certificates aimed at campesino families with young children.

Vasquez said that the caravan will continue into the new year, regularly providing a connection between the campesinos in the fields and the community, in hopes that appreciation of the work they do will become something that people think about even in less extraordinary times.

Ruby Vasquez
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We tell them when we’re out there, ‘Hey, we know this work first-hand. We know that it’s a noble job and we know people never come out here to say thank you. But we’re here to say ‘thank you.’

“And it’s not just us. We’re here representing everyone in this community who has given. So many people are represented here to say ‘thank you.’”