Silvia's Story: A Farmworker's Illness Brings Exposure Questions

Feb 15, 2016

05/25/2016 UPDATE: Silvia passed this morning.  The church bells are ringing in her pueblo in Oaxaca so that she can rest in peace. She will be buried there next to her father and grandmother. 

A great blessing was that Silvia's mother was able to visit for three weeks in March.  
 

    

(correction: In 2013 Farmworker Justice reported: “Farm workers suffer elevated risks for prostate cancer, esophagus cancer, and oral cavity cancers.  Pesticide exposure is attributed to higher rates of birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia, and brain cancer among farm worker children.”  [The original essay said that information came from an August 2015 Center for Public Integrity report.]

Genelle Grant has been working with farm worker families for more than 23 years in Southwest Florida. She directs the GRACE or Guatemalan Rural Adult and Children's Education Project to prevent human trafficking.  Today she tells the story of a woman who used to work in the fields whose severe health issues bring farm worker safety into question. 

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1982, Silvia spoke Mixteco at home with her Aztec mother, and Spanish at school.  When she was 17, she got and with her husband and brother migrated north to the US by land.

To earn their living in this country, Silvia and Pedro picked vegetables, and followed the harvests around the West and South.  In 2006, Pedro found work in a local orange grove and the family, now with two children, settled in Lee County.  Silvia, as traditional Mexican women do, woke up at 5:00 am every morning to make corn tortillas for the family. 

Silvia was selling produce at the Ortiz Flea Market when I met her.  This was in 2009, when we in the GRACE Project were looking for someone to record a Mixteco translation of Lucia’s Letter. This was the telling of an indigenous girl’s journey with a coyote (or human trafficker) from her Guatemalan homeland to southwest Florida and her years enslaved in captivity.  Silvia was magnificent in the radio production studios at WGCU, and recorded the whole letter on the first take, in Mixteco.  Silvia’s intelligence and dignity shone brightly and we invited her to join the GRACE Project.

Over two years Silvia grew from student to teacher, with a hunger to learn and skill for encouraging others and she began to teach a Family Health Class in North Fort Myers.

All that time, Silvia herself was suffering violence.  Fortified by what she learned in the classes, and with support from her brother, Silvia was able to create a more peaceful home for her family. She blossomed as she organized and led an ongoing support circle for local Spanish-speaking women. 

Silvia, seated left, with members of her Family Health Class in North Fort Myers.

Then her sister, who works the fields in North Carolina, gave birth to a baby with serious heart and liver problems and Silvia started sending money for the baby’s treatments.

In August of 2015, Silvia went to the Emergency Room with severe pain in her right side. The tests showed Liver Cancer, both nodes, Stage IV.  Too weak to clean or cook for the family, she focused on adjusting to the strong, prescribed medicines.

Lucy Garcia, another GRACE Project Teacher, enlisted help from the Hope Hospice and the Cancer Alliance of Naples to cover the payments for Silvia’s chemotherapy sessions and medications.  Silvia’s friends and family members drive her to wherever is needed, we bring food to her family, and help her at home.   Silvia cut off her waist-length braid, the pride of an Aztec woman, to give to her daughter. 

Three weeks ago her  doctor told Silvia three weeks ago that the treatments were not working.  The cancer has spread to the pancreas.  Still, Silvia wants to continue the treatments.  She has a son who is 15 and a 9-year-old daughter.  She is 33-years-old. 

It seems so unjust that a baby and young woman could be so sick.  Is it from working with pesticides in the fields?  Their clothes carry home the dust? In August 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported: “Farm workers suffer elevated risks for prostate cancer, esophagus cancer, and oral cavity cancers.  Pesticide exposure is attributed to higher rates of birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia, and brain cancer among farm worker children.”

Life as an immigrant farm worker can be dangerous.  Conditions are difficult.  Families disintegrate.  Silvia hasn’t seen her mother for fourteen years.  We’ve petitioned the Mexican Consulate to provide an emergency visa to bring Silvia’s mother here.  Now, hope for the reunion life up the family and friends.

It is February 2016.  Silvia’s niece is almost two and cannot walk. She needs several surgeries. Silvia continues chemo treatments when her blood count allows. The Hospice nurse visits her weekly.