While efforts were made to help essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of those core groups—farmworkers—was overlooked. One woman made it her mission to change that dynamic.
San Josean Darlene Tenes wanted to support those who toil in the fields. She understood their vulnerability to COVID, pesticides and smoke from wildfires. She assembled a caravan in April 2020 to deliver supplies to farmworkers. Almost two years later, she is still at it.
“In the beginning they weren’t provided with (personal protective equipment),” Tenes said, “and they have the highest level of COVID cases due to living in cramped quarters, working side by side and traveling in buses.”
Tenes applied her community-building, marketing and event planning skills to rally friends and family to clear out their pantries and head out in four cars on that initial food drive organized by Assemblymember Robert Rivas for Watsonville farmworkers.
“We never stop to look at the farmworkers in the field,” Tenes told San José Spotlight. “We just drive past. We don’t see them bending over, covered head to toe in 90-degree weather all day long.”
Wanting to do more, Tenes decided to return with a larger caravan the following week. She reached out to the community on social media and was flooded with people signing up to help; she capped it at 90 cars, enlisting three box trucks to transport additional donations.
As they drove past the workers, volunteers honked and waved from cars decorated with handwritten signs and “thank you” written on their windshields. On later trips, placards and window flags bearing hearts filled with produce were displayed.
The volunteers found purpose, Tenes said, in a time dominated by Trump politics, Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement and the pandemic. Before setting out on caravans, Tenes led volunteers in singing “De Colores”—a Spanish folk song that became the United Farm Workers anthem, and prayer.
“It was all these people of different faiths, ages, ethnicities, coming together in peace,” she said. “We had this glimmer of hope. This moment of peace and hope and doing good.”
People and purpose
Tenes partners with Catholic Charities and other nonprofit agencies who have relationships with farmworkers to distribute donations to churches, migrant camps and agricultural areas in San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
They have delivered Halloween treats and Christmas stockings, as well as donated rainboots, raincoats, thermoses, backpacks and heating pads to workers in Half Moon Bay. This year, Tenes will aid grape pickers in Sonoma County and collect donations of toys and back-to-school supplies for children, as well as hygiene products and undergarments for female farmworkers.
Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, executive director of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, joined her for the initial donation delivery.
“She’s a rock star,” Chavez-Lopez told San José Spotlight. “She’s a great organizer. She’s always giving back and is invested in the community, her family and friends.”
Chavez-Lopez said Tenes speaks her mind and inspires others, which she attributes to her upbringing and family history. Tenes parents, Rudy and Lily Tenes, influenced her with a strong Catholic faith and a foundation for social justice, Chavez-Lopez said, teaching her “to uplift the voices of those who are struggling.”
Tene’s mother was a founder of People Acting in Community Together, a multi-faith, grassroots organization that provides leadership training. Cesar Chavez asked her cousin, political cartoonist Andy Zermeño, to design a character which became the symbol of the farmworker movement.
In 2005, Tenes started CasaQ, a Hispanic lifestyle company featuring products that showcase Latino culture. She also founded marketing firm Marketing Maniacs. She’s served on the boards of Catholic Charities, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and has volunteered with Juvenile Hall Detention Ministry.
Chavez-Lopez said Tenes has a talent for bringing people together and has involved artists and drivers of low-riders in donation drives.
“The impact it is making with the families is quite incredible,” she said. “She has farmworkers tell their stories. It is very moving and a bright spot for me.”
Araceli Gonzales, director of disaster program services at Catholic Charities, said Tenes is a beautiful person inside and out. There wasn’t a dry eye when field workers and children came out of their homes one day to wave to the volunteers in appreciation, she said.
“This fills my heart,” Gonzales recalls Tenes telling her.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]