The Other Coachella: Long, Hot Days of Farmwork

A young filmmaker looks at her mother's work as a field hand in the Southern California desert.
Apr 23, 2014·
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Other than the two weekends when the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., is the center of youth culture and music, the eastern stretches of the Coachella Valley aren’t exactly a destination. Tourists may come to Palm Springs, but in towns like Mecca and Coachella, where 14-year-old Janelly Martinez lives, agriculture is the driving economic force, and the people who come and go tend to be migrant workers. Nearly all of the country’s dates are grown out in the desert here, and irrigation makes it possible to turn the otherwise bone-dry land into fields of vegetables.

Martinez’s mother, Camelia Maribel Sanchez, who emigrated to the United States 30 years ago from Michoacán, Mexico, picks and packages red peppers for a living. In the summer, she often works eight to 10 hours a day in 120-degree heat. In an essay for Zócalo Public Square, Martinez writes that despite regularly driving out to the fields with her grandfather to pick up her grandmother, who also picks peppers, she didn't think too much about her mom’s job. Then she took a filmmaking class taught by Global Girl Media at the local Boys & Girls Club and had to come up with a topic for a documentary.

One of the teachers asked me where my mom worked.

“Agriculture,” I answered.

“That’s a great subject,” she said.

The students decided to shoot a series of short documentaries about their moms, titling it “Mother/Madre.” In Martinez’s doc, she interviews her mother about her work and looks at the stereotypes found in both English- and Spanish-language media that depict people like Mari (as Sanchez is known) as being dirty.

“They’re ashamed in school to say that their parents are working in the fields,” Sanchez tells her daughter. When she asks Janelly if she is embarrassed by her work, she quickly says no. The title of the short is “I Am Not Ashamed/No Me Averguenzo.”

“One reason why I decided to create this film about my mother is to fight against this bias” that people who work in the fields experience, Martinez writes in her story for Zócalo. “My hope is that when those children grow older, they won’t want to keep distance from their parents.”

Exhausting farmwork has taken a toll on Sanchez, ranging from aches and pains that come from repetitive hard labor to health problems from chemical exposure.

About five years ago, my mom found out on visits to her doctor that she had health issues related to her work. She has rashes on her face, arms, and chest that the doctor thinks are related to the pesticides she encounters every day. She was just diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which her doctor said is connected to all the physical farm labor she has done over the years. Even though she just turned 40 a few weeks ago, her entire body hurts all the time—especially her legs and hands. At the end of the day, she just wants to go lie down.

Sanchez’s hope for her children is that they can go to college and get an education that will allow them to find other, less grueling work. “I just don’t want to see you in the fields,” she tells her daughter.