Agriculture

Loved ones honor teenage farm worker killed by heat stroke near Farmington in 2008

Teenage farm worker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez died 11 years ago Thursday from heat stroke suffered in a vineyard near Farmington.

Her family and the United Farm Workers gathered there on the anniversary to unveil a small monument to her. The death of Jimenez, who was 17 years old and two months pregnant at the time, helped tighten California’s heat protections for farm and other outdoor laborers.

“We want this to serve as a memory to all farm workers, that we all help each other,” uncle Dagoberto Lima said in Spanish, translated by Armando Elenes of the UFW. “... As farm workers, we all work so that everyone has food to eat.”

About 15 people braved unusually wet and windy May weather to remember a teen who was overcome by nearly 100-degree heat while pruning grapevines for nine hours.

The monument sits on the side of Escalon-Bellota Road about a mile south of Farmington, a tiny town east of Stockton. It consists of a cross and a plaque describing in Spanish how Jimenez collapsed for lack of water on May 14, 2008. The native of Oaxaca, Mexico, died at a hospital two days later.

State officials found that Merced Farm Labor, which had provided the vineyard workers that day, failed to offer the required shade, drinking water and safety training.

The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office at first brought charges of involuntary manslaughter against two supervisors, Maria De Los Angeles Colunga and her brother, Elias Armenta. A plea deal in 2011 resulted in community service, fines and probation, despite calls for jail time by farm worker advocates.

Merced Farm Labor, now defunct, also got a record $262,700 fine by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The state enacted its first heat rules in 2005 and revised them in 2015. They mandate at least a quart of cool water per worker each hour and access to shade during breaks, once the temperature tops 80 degrees. The California Farm Bureau Federation and other groups spread the word about the rules.

Elenes is from Hilmar and is employed as secretary-treasurer of the UFW, based in Keene, Kern County.

He recalled how another of Jimenez’s uncles, Doroteo Jimenez, reacted to her death.

“He called and said, ‘Look, my niece, she collapsed, something happened to her, and I don’t want her death to be in vain. I want something to be done.”

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