Stockton, CA / Bilingual Weekly
No jail, just community service, probation and a fine.
That’s what Merced Farm Labor Contractors owners Maria de Los Angeles Colunga and her brother Elias Armenta got from San Joaquin County Superior Judge Michael Garrigan nearly three years after their employee, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez —then 17 years old and pregnant— collapsed while pruning grapes in a Farmington-area vineyard on a hot summer day. She died two days later. Prosecutors say Vasquez died because supervisors denied her shade and water while working for them, then calling for relatives to take care of her rather than calling medical professionals.
On Wednesday, March 9, 2011 —and in spite of months-long pressure from Vasquez’ family and United Farm Workers union representatives, prosecutors and defense lawyers reached a plea bargain, condemning Colunga to three years probation, 40 hours of community service and a $370 fine. Armenta was given five years probation, 480 hours community service, and a $1,000 fine. The defendants will be barred from contracting laborers ever again. A third defendant, Raul Martinez —the then crew foreman and only contractor’s representative at the scene— fled to Mexico. Merced Farm Labor Contractors ceased operations shortly after the tragic incident.
Prosecutors and the judge have stated the lack of witnesses willing to testify and the little evidence available does not guarantee harsher measures.
Outside the San Joaquin County Courthouse, UFW representative Merlyn Calderon said they were there to offer support to Vasquez’s family, and demand stiffer sanctions against the contractors. “Fifteen farmworkers have died unnecessarily since 2005, this has to stop,” she said.
Questioned why the UFW, based in the Fresno-Bakersfield area, showed up after the tragic events had already occurred, UFW’s national Vice-President Armando Elenes pointed out there are 85 thousand ranches in California… “We don’t have the manpower to cover such area (…) all we can do is to demand respect of existing legislation as well as push for its revision.,” referring to the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA). Since 2007 the UFW has been trying to get farmworkers to be able to join unions by just signing a card, whereas growers and others prefer to know the workers’ will through the secret ballot.