Today in UFW history—May 14, 2008: Remembering Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, whose death from the heat helped save other lives.
Maria Isavel’s death is still hard to accept because it didn’t need to happen. May 14, 2008 was a hot day. It was hotter inside the wine grape vineyard where she and her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, worked.
It was her third day of work after immigrating from Oaxaca, Mexico to make money to send to her family in Mexico.
She was laboring for a farm labor contractor on a vineyard east of Stockton, Calif. for nine hours that day, since 6 a.m. There was no water at all for workers from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., no shade and no training for foremen or workers on what to do if someone fell ill from the heat. All these were protections demanded by the state of California since 2005, when the United Farm Workers convinced then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first state regulation in the country to prevent deaths and illnesses from extreme heat.
At 3:40 p.m. on May 14, Maria Isavel passed out, Florentino holding her in his arms. The labor contractor foreman stood over them, staring. She was carried to the back seat of a nearby van. It was hotter inside the van than outside. The foreman told Florentino to get rubbing alcohol from the store. Maria Isavel had to wait for her crew to finish as other workers used the same van.
The rubbing alcohol didn’t help. Driving home, Maria Isavel looked so ill the van driver headed to a clinic. The foreman called on the driver’s cell phone and said, “Don’t say she was working [for the contractor]. Say she became sick [while] jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us.”
Arriving at the clinic at 5:15 p.m., more than an hour and a half after Maria Isavel was stricken, she was immediately taken by ambulance to the hospital. Her temperature upon arrival was 108.4 degrees, far beyond what the body can take. Maria Isavel’s heart stopped six times over two days. Doctors revived her. Her good heart stopped again and efforts to revive her failed. The doctors learned Maria Isavel was pregnant.
Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had been taken to the hospital sooner, she might have survived. It was hard for Maria Isavel’s family and her friend, Florentino, to accept her death, knowing it could have been prevented.
This was not the first time farm workers needlessly died from the heat, compelling the state to issue its heat rules in 2005. If the law had been followed, Maria Isavel might be alive today. Her case was one of the most disgraceful examples of contractors and growers ignoring their legal duties. The contractor had been fined earlier for similar violations, but the fine was never collected by the state.
Maria Isavel’s death helped the UFW strengthen enforcement of the state’s heat regulations through settlement of class action lawsuits the union helped farm workers file and beefed up rules issued by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.
After similar tragedies, Cesar Chavez said farm workers are not agricultural implements but rather important human beings. “Maria Isavel’s life was worth a lot—and she deserved a lot better treatment than she received at the hands of the labor contractor and grower,” UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez said at her funeral on May 28, 2008, in nearby Lodi, Calif.
Thanks in part to Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, many other lives have been saved and farm workers are safer today.