Listen to voices you rarely hear: the mothers who pick your strawberries. They say their kids are paying the price for our bounty.


Pesticides in the fields

Lookout spoke to five Watsonville berry pickers, all of them mothers, about the effect working around pesticides has had on them and their kids. It’s part of our continuing series on the issue. Leukemia, asthma, learning disorders, all they believe, were caused by the exposure. Agricultural giants dumped 620,000 pounds of pesticides on Santa Cruz County crops in 2021, some of them near schools in Watsonville. We’ve provided video snippets of our interviews so you can see and hear these mothers and grandmothers talk about themselves and their kids.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Pesticides harm children.

That’s the message we got while talking to close to two dozen farmworkers – mostly mothers – at a Watsonville holiday food giveaway in December.

Many of the hundreds who stood in a line that snaked through back alleys in a quiet Watsonville neighborhood were too shy or too afraid to talk to us, particularly when they saw our cameras.

They feared the attention. They didn’t want to stand out or make a problem that could risk their jobs or make their already perilous situations worse.

Close to 83% of Santa Cruz’s 17,000 farmworkers are undocumented, according to the Center for Farmworker Families, an advocacy group that tracks this data. Fear of deportation keeps them quiet, submissive, nearly invisible. Even when they are sick. Even when their kids are sick.

But some did talk to us, did share their struggles. Five went on camera for us.

We asked them specific questions about their exposure to pesticides while pregnant, about the effects they believe the pesticides have on them and their kids.

In these videos, we bring their voices and stories to you, so you can hear them firsthand.

Their daily experiences with pesticides – and with kids born prematurely, with disabilities, asthma, learning disabilities and, in some cases, cancer – echo research done across the country (particularly on the West Coast) in study after study.

UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford. Research routinely points to pesticides as dangerous, harmful, toxic – particularly to unborn babies and children.

Since 1999, the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas Study has tracked more than 800 farmworkers’ kids exposed to pesticides before and after birth.

The study has generated more than 150 publications pointing to the serious medical dangers of pesticides on children.

And yet in Santa Cruz County, agricultural giants dumped 620,000 pounds of fumigants on crops in 2021. The spraying occurred near 10 Watsonville schools and on the workplace of our 17,000 farmworkers.

Lookout has been covering this issue for months, after Pajaro Valley group Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA), called our attention to the problem of pesticide application near Watsonville’s schools and homes.

Since then, we’ve attended community meetings, talked to local politicians, published an editorial and two opinion pieces.

Agricultural workers faced temperatures in the 90s in Santa Cruz County's fields Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now, we are introducing you to some of the people affected by the spraying.

Here, in these short video clips, you can listen to five mothers and grandmothers talk about how the pesticides they breathed and got on their hands, faces and bodies while working in Watsonville’s berry fields changed their lives – and those of their kids.

Four were pregnant while they worked. All believe the pesticides affected their unborn babies, changed their kids and families’ trajectories forever.

We are publishing the interviews in Spanish (with English subtitles) so you can hear their voices, listen to them tell their own stories.

You will see 8-year-old Gloria, who has leukemia and often can’t go to school because her “bones hurt.” In the video clip, the first in the series, she hangs about her mother and smiles.

Many days, she does not smile at all, her mother, Elvia Pineda Ortiz, told us. Some days, she cannot even get out of bed.

Gloria knows she has cancer and that it makes her different from the other 8-year-olds, different from her two little brothers, who were not exposed to pesticides in utero because Pineda Ortiz stopped picking berries before those pregnancies.

You will also see 5-year-old Jacqueline Daleyza, who, like her 9-year-old sister, Kayla, has learning disabilities and is struggling to learn to speak. Her mother, Gracida Daleyza, hopes one day she will. She blames pesticides and those who spray them for her daughters’ developmental struggles.

“All they care about is the harvest, not the kids,” she tells us, of the “bosses” in charge. “Even if you are sick yourself, they don’t care. As long as they have their harvest.”

Berries are, of course, Santa Cruz county’s agricultural lifeblood.

They bring in more than $200 million a year, four times more than any other single crop. It would be a huge undertaking – financial and logistical – to switch how they do business and to transfer to organic farming, as some of the workers and CORA are pushing them to do.

These stories offer a glimpse at the cost paid for our current bounty – five quick snippets of lives affected by our community’s decision to continue spraying pesticides.

Elvia Pineda Ortiz


Elvia Pineda Ortiz

Elvia Pineda Ortiz worked in the strawberry and blackberry fields for six years, including in 2014, while she was pregnant with her daughter, Gloria, now 8.

Gloria started to have health issues when she was 2 and in 2020, doctors diagnosed her with leukemia. Gloria misses a lot of school because she doesn’t have the energy to go. She tells her mom her “bones hurt.”

Pineda Ortiz gets emotional when she talks about Gloria, about how hard it is to see her suffer, about how she didn’t have to be born this way.

Pineda Ortiz believes her daughter’s problems stem from pesticides, which she says have a strong smell, gave her headaches and led her to lose her sense of taste while she was pregnant. Gloria is currently being treated and doctors say she is doing “well,” Pineda Ortiz said. But, it can come back anytime. Which is why she is always worried.

She stopped working in the fields after Gloria’s birth and has not returned. Her husband works in the fields daily and is now the family’s sole breadwinner.

Pineda Ortiz also worries about him, what future ailments he will have. The average life expectancy of a farmworker is 49.

The couple has two other children, boys ages 6 and 6 months. Pineda Ortiz did not work in the fields while she was pregnant with them.

Both are healthy.

Pineda Ortiz is open with Gloria about her illness, about what happened to her. What else, she says, can she do?

She says her former boss knows about the problems with Gloria, but there is nothing to do, no way to definitively link the problems to the pesticides. Her husband now picks for a different company.

She believes pregnant women should not work in the fields, that they should be warned that the work can harm their babies. That is why she is willing to tell her story.

Ernestina Solorio


Ernestina Solorio

Ernestina Solorio has worked in the fields in Watsonville since she arrived from Mexico in 1993. She is a staple of the Watsonville farmworker community, a grandmother, a leader who organizes regular food giveaways in the backyard of her Watsonville home.

She is also struggling.

Two of her four children — the youngest, ages 10 and 15 — have serious learning disabilities she attributes to pesticides. They can’t read or sit still. They need special schooling, time and attention she doesn’t have to give after long days in the fields.

She picked berries during both her later pregnancies. She had to. She needed the money. Five years ago, her husband got deported back to Mexico, leaving her as the sole possible breadwinner. So she picked even more. He passed away last year in Mexico.

“If I had known the consequences of working in the field and being exposed to pesticides while pregnant, I wouldn’t have worked in agriculture,” she says in the video.

She also says she knows numerous families with kids with disabilities. As a mother, she says it’s terrible to not be able to help your kids. “I have suffered, seeing them want to get ahead and they can’t,” she says.

Gracida Daleyza


Gracida Daleyza interview

Gracida Daleyza worked in the Watsonville berry fields while she was pregnant with her two daughters, Kayla, 9, and Jacqueline, 5.

Both girls have had trouble learning to speak. Jacqueline doesn’t speak at all yet. But she smiles shyly at strangers and, after we finish talking to her mom, she runs up behind and tries to get our attention, to communicate.

“I don’t know what everyone thinks,” Daleyza says, “but there are a lot of people complaining about the chemicals.”

She says it’s hard for Jacqueline in school. She sees the other kids speaking so easily and she can’t. She also speaks of the feel of the chemicals on her hands and body, how even when she washed her hands, she couldn’t get the chemicals off.

Guadalupe Bartolo and Maria Valdez


Guadalupe Bartolo and Maria Valdez

Guadalupe Bartolo and Maria Valdez are mother and daughter and both have worked in berry fields. Bartolo’s daughter, who is still in school, also picks berries and works in the fields during school vacations.

Valdez has a heart condition which she believes is connected to the pesticides she touched and breathed during her years in the fields. It’s now keeping her from working much anymore.

Bartolo, a single mother with two grown kids and two young ones still at home, is grateful for the work and says she is happy to help in the fields. But, she says the work is tough, that workers regularly have back and body and eye problems and need more protections.

She and her son have asthma and her daughter who works in the field has unusual pains in her arm. “We all need the help” she said, “especially with our health, so we can continue to work.”

More from Community Voices