Monument honors generations of California field workers

Albino Pineda can’t forget his backbreaking youth as a migrant field laborer, the days when he came home so tired he could barely pull his heavy boots off.

In Camarillo, he stooped over tomato plants for 10 hours, earning $14 a day. In Morro Bay, he sprayed the toxic chemical DDT on pea plants without protective gear. In San Jose, he filled heavy gunny sacks with apricots under a hot sun.

Now, at age 86, the Santa Paula great-grandfather is living comfortably on a retired heavy equipment operator’s pension. On Sunday, he witnessed the fruit of his latest task: the unveiling of a monument honoring the nation’s farmworkers.

The 3 p.m. dedication at the corner of 9th and Santa Barbara streets drew national labor leaders, city officials and, as keynote speaker, astronaut Jose Hernandez, who worked alongside his family harvesting crops in California as a youth.

Pineda came up with the idea four years ago, calling it an honor that’s long overdue.

“It’s hard work,” said the lean man with snowy white hair. “The hours are long, the pay is minimum. People work sunup to sundown to just subsist. We should acknowledge them.”

There are numerous statues, murals and streets named after labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, but Pineda and other supporters say this is the first tribute to the people who toiled in the fields.

The monument includes two life-size bronze statues of field hands — a woman in a hoodie and ball cap bent over strawberry plants and a man in a long-sleeved shirt carrying a ladder and a citrus bag. The figures bookend a large limestone slab engraved with the names of more than 1,500 farmworkers.

“It was like, ‘Wow! What a great idea,’ ” Santa Paula Councilman Gabino Aguirre said, recalling his reaction to Pineda’s presentation to city leaders three years ago. Aguirre helped guide the process, securing a spot on city-owned land near a barn slated to open as a farm museum later this year.

The monument makes sense for the working-class city with a large population of agricultural workers, Aguirre said. Farming remains a vibrant industry across Ventura County, adding $2.5 billion to the economy and employing 31,000 workers.

Funding for the $250,000 project came from donations large and small. The James Irvine Foundation gave $50,000 and Limoneira Co., a Santa Paula-based citrus packer, matched donations up to $125,000, officials said.

Families of farmworkers paid $100 to add their loved ones’ names to the wall. Grants were given to those who couldn’t afford a donation, Aguirre said. Latino names dominate but sprinkled throughout the plaque are farmworkers of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Dust Bowl ancestry.

More names will be added to the back of the limestone slabs as donations come in. Aguirre hopes to raise an additional $100,000 for an endowment that will finance maintenance of the 45-foot brick plaza.

In bringing the tribute to fruition, Pineda displayed the same patience and grit that helped him rise from his humble beginnings, friends say.

He was born to farmworker parents in a one-room cabin in Phoenix in 1923. His earliest recollection is of staring up at a hot sky as his mother dragged him along cotton rows on her long canvas sack, Pineda said.

His father died just as the Depression hit, prompting his mother to move her four sons back to her hometown of Nogales, Mexico. He recalls a childhood of grinding poverty that started to turn around when he moved back to the United States at age 17.

He worked as a migrant field laborer until he enlisted in the Army and fought in World War II. Upon his return, he settled in Santa Paula, where an older sister lived, and built a prosperous life, Pineda said.

A religious man, Pineda says his background has taught him that struggles are a part of life, and that “how we deal with them is what counts.” Most farmworkers, he said, are just trying to earn a living to provide for families.

“We should honor their sweat,” he said.