Education, Housing

The Journey to Napa Ends with Plans to Go Back Home

From NapaValleyRegister.com, Rebecca Huval, 15 May 2011.

WEDNESDAY - MAY 04, 2011 - YOUNTVILLE, CA - Farmworker Karina Contreras walks through a vineyard at Kapcsandy Family Winery in Yountville, where she is part of a crew that is pruning the young vines. J.L. Sousa/Registe

YOUNTVILLE, CA - Farmworker Karina Contreras walks through a vineyard at Kapcsandy Family Winery in Yountville, where she is part of a crew that is pruning the young vines. J.L. Sousa/Registe

The Contreras family moved to Napa in 2003 with a singular image emblazoned in their minds: a house.

Karina and Jose Contreras wanted to build a home for their family in Guanajuato, Mexico, but couldn’t afford it on Jose’s carpenter salary. He made 500 pesos, or about $43, a week.

“We left for a better future,” said Jose Contreras, 32, in Spanish. They had been living in Guanajuato with their parents until they decided the only way they could build a Mexican home was by leaving Mexico.

They also said they wanted to give their children a stronger education. “We want a better life for them,” Karina Contreras said. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Their daughter, Paola Contreras, was only 4 years old at the time.

“I just remember they told me to say goodbye to my aunts,” said Paola Contreras, now 12. “I didn’t know where we were going.”

She eventually learned they were making their way to the city where her other aunts lived: Napa.

Work: ‘The Little Roses’

On a scorching recent day in May, the thermometer at a Yountville vineyard reached 91 degrees.

Karina Contreras was dressed in two layers: a long-sleeved shirt and T-shirt. She wore cuffed jeans and white-and-teal skater sneakers. Her ears were wrapped with a pink paisley scarf and her dark chestnut hair topped with a wide-brimmed hat.

“We’re all used to wearing clothes like this,” Contreras said.

At the end of the day, her back is sore from bending over to prune grape leaves and branches, she said. She makes $11 an hour.

Since they arrived in Napa in 2003, she and her husband have worked in Napa Valley vineyards to save money for their house in Guanajuato. “Our work is a bit difficult, but that’s OK,” she said. “It’s where we can earn more money.”

Contreras works with 12 other female farm workers, all from Mexico. They call themselves “Las Rositas” or “The Little Roses,” and work for different vineyards through the same management company.

At lunch, the women sit together on coolers and tarps underneath a tent in the vineyard. They lean their backs against knotted vines.

The workers eat cookies and fruit and sip water from plastic bottles. They enjoy working together “to chit chat,” one woman said. Or “to gossip?” another suggested. They laughed. “Eso.” Yes, that.

While the rest of the group snickered, Maria Guadalupe, the self-proclaimed “mayor de todas” at 52, the eldest of them all, fell asleep with her head leaning on her hand.

Her niece, Norma Valdivia, poked her unconscious face with a stick.

“Ay!” Guadalupe said, promptly smacking her niece on the knee.

In the fields, the women sing along to Bay Area radio stations and reminisce about singers from Mexico, such as the iconic Pedro Infante.

They wear holsters for their pruning shears and hang their purses at the ends of vine rows.

“We all get along well,” said Griselda Figeroa, 37. Karina Contreras is “good company. Sometimes she’s serious, sometimes she talks.”

On a far end of the vineyard beside the Napa River, Contreras quietly clipped at grape leaves with another “Rosita.” They brushed away at stray bark with their gloved hands.

The team had arrived that morning at 6:15 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m.

Contreras plans to keep up this routine, she said, until her work has earned her family a home.

Study: Catholic history

In her favorite class, Paola Contreras sat in her assigned seat by the wall and kept her plaid backpack on her lap.

The teacher, Patty Wyman, was teaching her seventh-grade class about Pope Gregory VII.

“From now until forevermore, the pope is going to rule the Catholic world!” Wyman said.

Wyman explained a key point in Catholic history to the class: Pope Gregory had granted the right to choose bishops to himself, and took that power away from King Henry IV, she said.

Paola, a Catholic who attends St. John the Baptist Catholic Church with her family, wears a small gold cross necklace every day. She said she enjoys history class best because “I learn about stuff around the world and their cultures.”

In front of the classroom, a skit explained the pope’s reign. The student playing Pope Gregory wore a crinkled miter, or hat, as tall as his body.

Many boys in the classroom spoke out of turn. Wyman said the class is often her most difficult to contain. Every time someone said “the pope,” a rowdy boy assigned to sit in the corner said “the poop!”

But Paola kept quiet, and occasionally laughed at others’ jokes. “She’s an angel,” Wyman said.

Even in a school with many Latino students, Paola Contreras said she hasn’t always felt entirely welcome in the United States.

“I used to whine and say, ‘Why do I have brown skin?’” she said. “The girls here are white. I used to want to be like them.”

As she’s grown older, Paola has grown comfortable with her skin color and made new friends, she said.

She sits near her friend since third grade, Maria, during history class. “Now, she’s my best friend, the one I trust,” Paola said. “We’re kind of random, we kind of laugh at nothing sometimes.”

During class, they occasionally pass notes to one another.

“I feel like, if we leave to Mexico, I’ll be leaving family again,” Paola said.

Home: Napa and Mexico

Karina and Jose Contreras now live in a modest apartment beside the Napa River with Paola and their 7-year-old son, Fernando.

Together, the family often watches Spanish soap operas such as “Los Herederos Del Monte”, or “The Del Monte Heirs,” on their suede couch. Beside them sits a picture of Karina’s recently deceased grandmother, laughing and wearing medals of patron saints.

When she died, the family hadn’t seen her in eight years.

But in two years, they plan to give up their Napa apartment and return to their relatives in Mexico.

After a decade of work, they have saved enough money to build their home. Construction on the Guanajuato house began in October.

“We’re still surprised,” Jose Contreras said. “We have friends who won’t be able to get their houses and won’t be able to go back home.”

Their parents, who initially didn’t want them to leave, are also in disbelief. Karina’s mother “wants us to be there now,” Karina said. “She’s happy that we’ve achieved what we’ve wanted.”

Karina and Jose still haven’t seen the property with their own eyes. At 1 million pesos, or $86,000, the two-story house in Colonia El Maluco, south of Guanajuato, includes three bedrooms. It also has a garage, a garden and a California-style roof.

If Paola was given the choice to stay in Napa or move to Mexico, “I’d rather go,” she said. “I have all my family there.”

At their Colonia El Maluca home, the distance between Paola and her dreams will be nowhere near as long as her journey from Guanajuato to Napa.

“It’s not far from my grandmother’s house,” she said, “so I can go there by myself.”

Source and more photos at: NapaValleyRegister.com, “The journey to Napa ends with plans to go back home” by Rebecca Huval, 15 May 2011.

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