Unsung Santa Cruz: From her home, she organizes a food distribution program for fellow migrant farmworkers

Farmworker Ernestina Solorio (left) and Ann Lopez recall how they met while sitting in Solorio's backyard in Watsonville.
Farmworker Ernestina Solorio (left) and Ann Lopez recall how they met while sitting in Solorio’s backyard in Watsonville.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Ernestina Solorio gives her home and her time to ensure farmworker families receive essential items they urgently need.

Ernestina Solorio spent hours one December morning preparing her backyard, organizing donations, setting up tables and supervising volunteers as they prepared for up to 300 farmworker families to line up for basic-needs items. She gathers donations, arranged by Watsonville-based nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families, from individuals, organizations and churches, delivered through her back gate, organizing them on tables and in a storage room. It’s a routine that is familiar as she has led and hosted the monthly distribution of the items from her home in Watsonville for two years.

The center’s founder, Ann Lopez, says not only does Solorio give her time but her own home and space to ensure that the distribution goes well. She has sometimes walked into Solorio’s home to see her organizing the stacks of diapers on her kitchen table.

“She’s wonderful. She’s completely honest, inclusive, loves her children — does everything she can for anybody,” Lopez said of Solorio. “She’s just, to me, an ideal form of humanity.”

Lopez founded the Center for Farmworker Families to raise awareness about the injustices farmworker families face and to provide direct relief for the families.

“It’s a question of life and death,” she said about providing for basic needs.

Lopez said many of the migrant farmworkers are undocumented, and after the harvesting season ends in the fall, other work is much harder to come by. Without an income, families struggle to afford expensive rents, child care, utilities, clothing and staples like food and diapers.

Volunteers prepare to distribute basic needs items to migrant farmworker families in Watsonville in early December.
Volunteers prepare to distribute basic needs items to migrant farmworker families in Watsonville in early December.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Recognizing this need, Lopez started doing monthly distributions of these essential items for farmworker families about 15 years ago.

She says volunteers over the years have helped make this distribution possible, but without the help of Solorio, the service would have really struggled over the past several years. Two years ago, Solorio offered her home to serve as the main location for the distribution.

“I feel good that I can help the community. There’s a lot of need,” Solorio said, standing in her backyard among tables topped with bags of dried goods. “I feel happy seeing that I can help others feel happy.”

Solorio’s home has a long backyard with alley access and a structure used for storing the bags of dried and canned goods, diapers, hygiene products and the diverse range of items that cycle through.

Each month, families start lining up in the alley in the morning hours ahead of the 2 p.m. distribution time, as they did Dec. 9. Shortly after 2 p.m., they started entering the backyard to pick up the basic-needs items in addition to donated bags of holiday goodies.

Solorio continued walking from the storage unit to the tables to the alley to make sure everything was running smoothly, while her 21-year-old daughter coordinated the list of families from the entrance. Occasionally, her youngest son looked out the back door from inside the house to see what was happening.

“I’m happy that my kids will see this,” Solorio said, “and hopefully when they get older they’ll also help their community.”

Solorio came to Watsonville in 1993 from Michoacan, Mexico — where she lived in a region with no economic opportunity, no running water and no electricity. She and her family worked in farming, harvesting corn and other crops, but it wasn’t enough to keep food on the table. At around the age of 22, she came to the United States seeking work to help her family get out of poverty.

Here, Solorio met and married her husband and had four children, who are now 25, 21, 15 and 10. She obtained a work permit and is in the process of getting her permanent residency. Despite many gains, there have been hard times. About five years ago, her husband was deported, and he died about a year ago.

To support her family, Solorio has been working picking strawberries in the Pajaro Valley for the past 30 years. She met Lopez at the Buena Vista Migrant Camp in Watsonville about 15 years ago. The camp is one of 22 others like it in California, according to Lopez, where migrant workers live from the beginning of April or May through the end of November.

Almost as soon as they met, Solorio began volunteering to help Lopez at the Center for Farmworker Families, which was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2012.

In addition to organizing the monthly distributions, Solorio also coordinates a monthly list of which families are in need of rental assistance. If a farmworker suffers an injury and is hospitalized, Solorio is the one families call to get connected to the center.

She’s done this all while working her strawberry-picking job and caring for her children as a single parent.

“She sacrifices everything for her children,” said Lopez. “She’s my hero.”

Volunteers prepare to distribute basic-needs items to migrant farmworker families in Watsonville on Dec. 9.
Volunteers prepare to distribute basic-needs items to migrant farmworker families in Watsonville on Dec. 9.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz )

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