The harsh conditions California’s farmworkers normally face have been exacerbated this year by the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires and rising temperatures. 

In Santa Cruz County, a grassroots effort is aimed at addressing one important, but often overlooked, consequence of this hardship: the toll it exacts on the reproductive health of indigenous women who work in agriculture. 

An estimated 165,000 of the California’s farmworkers and their families are indigenous Mexicans, and for many of these women, even basic necessities like sanitary pads or tampons are often unaffordable or inaccessible. 

Maria Ramos Bracamontes, a certified nurse-midwife, saw the problems firsthand in her work at Salud Para La Gente, a nonprofit health care organization with clinics in Santa Cruz and north Monterey counties that serves a large Mixteca population. 

“Women were coming with a lot of needs, complicated by all of the factors associated with working in the field, from poor nutrition to difficult labor conditions and pesticide exposure,” Ramos Bracamontes said. 

The women faced problems with prenatal care as well as menstrual health, she said, from cramps to cycle irregularities. Some had been sterilized previously but hadn’t always received sufficient counseling on the ramifications of their choice.

“I wanted to bring comfort to their womb, heart and spirit,” Ramos Bracamontes said. 

It was also important to her that she help preserve and create support for some of the traditional indigenous healing and care many of these women were used to, beyond just western medicine. 

The health care professional and Irene Juarez O’Connell, who had begun training with Ramos Bracamontes in womb health and support, decided to take action. In May, the pair used their federal stimulus checks to purchase, make and distribute supplies such as cloth sanitary pads, soap, toiletries, organic herbs and healing salves to indigenous women working in local agriculture. They tucked in written affirmations meant to lift women’s spirits, and included masks, bandanas and a $20 bill. Packages made specially for pregnant women included prenatal vitamins, belly bands and belly creams. 

Maria Ramos Bracamontes (left) and Irene Juarez O’Connell (right) have distributed over 600 womb care kits to indigenous farmworkers on the Central Coast.

Since that first distribution, the Campesinx Womb Care Project has distributed more than 600 of these “womb kits” with the help of a small group of volunteers. The pair partnered with the Center for Farmworker Families, a Santa Cruz County-based nonprofit organization focused on education and support for farmworker families, to connect with the community and conduct distributions. Distributions are held on a monthly basis, and signup is required in advance to protect the privacy and safety of the farmworkers who attend, many of whom are undocumented. Much of the effort’s focus has been on teenagers, younger women and pregnant women, but they hope to serve more middle aged women, too, helping to alleviate menopause symptoms, for example.

Womb care, or reproductive health, is largely about empowerment and bodily autonomy, in addition to the physical health aspects, Ramos Bracamontes said.

“As a very new health care provider working with this population, the political implications are very much in my mind.”

California’s farmworkers are among the groups hardest hit by COVID-19, contracting the virus at a rate nearly three times the population, according to a study published this fall by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

“I am very concerned about the health care of farmworkers,” said Ramos Bracamontes, whose parents worked in agriculture. “Working in the field is really hard, especially for women with children.”

Both Ramos Bracomontes and Juarez O’Connell say this year’s events — from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement — have catalyzed the grassroots, direct action work they are doing, as well as similar efforts around the country. That work takes place amid the larger conversation around immigration and indigenous rights. 

“The dire need and extreme challenges campesinos were facing was existent before COVID-19, but it has put a spotlight on it,” said Juarez O’Connell. “The root is extreme racism and exploitation. We’re just addressing one aspect of it.”