Lali Moheno champions women farm workers’ wellness, rights

The 20th Farmworker Women’s Conference, Lali Moheno’s brainchild, is Friday Nov. 1

Kaitlin Washburn  @kwashy12

TULARE COUNTY – Lali Moheno threatened to divorce her husband when he wanted to move to Visalia for a new job.

She was happy with their life in Ventura, Calif. She loved her job and the community. Plus, she didn’t have fond memories of periods during her childhood spent in Tulare County.

Moheno’s parents toiled in the fields of California’s Central Valley and ranches in southern Texas throughout their lives and endured the hardships that all farmworkers face. She and her siblings spent a few summers working alongside their parents  picking grapes in the stifling hot vineyards of Tulare County.

“In mid-September, our parents would put all of us on a Greyhound bus in Goshen and send us back to Texas so that we could go to school,” Moheno said. “And we were terrified, because we were so young and alone. But they had to send us to school, my parents were strong believers in education.”

Despite this history, Moheno didn’t follow through on her threats. She begrudgingly moved with her husband to Visalia 30 years ago. And rather than run from the pain of her past, she became the advocate for others she couldn’t be for her parents.

Moheno is the brains behind the annual Farmworker Women’s Conference on Health, Safety, Employment, Education and Environment, a free event focused on the plight of women farm workers. It gives them the opportunity to learn about available local and state resources — everything from reporting sexual harassment to accessing child support.

The conference has grown over the last 20 years from a small gathering in a hotel meeting room to a full-day event at the Visalia Convention Center. This year’s sold-out conference is on Friday and more than 1,500 people are scheduled to attend.

“It’s all about the wellness of [woman farm workers] and her family,” Moheno said. “Without wellness, they face issues as workers and as parents. It complicates their life.”

Farm workers’ rights are deeply personal for Moheno. Both of her parents died from untreated health conditions exacerbated by lifetimes in the fields. In 1999, after her mom died, , Moheno decided to honor her with the first-ever women farmworker’s conference.

She booked a conference room at the Visalia Holiday Inn, assembled folders full of health resources and paid for sandwiches out of her own pocket. The conference room was designed for 50 people — 200 showed up.

She was born and raised in a small rural community in southern Texas. She is one of nine children, and when they weren’t going to school or attending church, they’d be working in the fields with their parents.

Moheno attended University of Texas Pan American and Antioch University in southern Texas for her undergraduate and master’s degrees in education. Between classes, Moheno studied César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW), who, at that time, was fighting for and championing farm worker’s rights in California.

Inspired by his work, Moheno and some of her classmates started picketing on campus for farm workers’ protections in Texas.

On the weekends, Moheno worked in the fields to pay for her tuition and send money back to her parents. She had to work whenever she could, she was even out in the fields the day before her wedding.

“I don’t know where I would have worked if it weren’t for farm work,” Moheno said. “No one would hire us [Moheno and her siblings] because we were Latinos so we worked on farms throughout college.”

While she was in school, she met Victor Moheno, a dean at the Antioch University. They married in the early 1970s.

She accepted the marriage proposal on the condition that it would be an equal partnership. She would earn her own money, have a social life and stay involved with politics.

“I’m not going to marry him just because I love him,” Moheno remembers telling her father. “I have to live with him and he has to live with me.”

Victor Moheno accepted all of her conditions, and even signed a contract she had drawn up. After she finished grad school, the couple moved to Los Angeles so that Victor Moheno could attend law school at UCLA.

While they were there, Moheno worked as a school administrator for the Los Angeles County Office of Education and got involved with a UFW chapter to continue her fight for farm workers. One issue she focused on was Proposition 14, a 1976 statewide farm labor initiative that César Chávez and UFW heavily supported, which, among other protections, would allow farm workers to unionize.

She eventually met Chávez and attended his trainings. Moheno said Chávez was a good leader, but his insistence on nonviolent activism sometimes frustrate her.

“I was angry and I wanted to fight,” Moheno said. “But he was very effective and I learned a lot from him.”

After graduating, Victor Moheno got a job in Ventura, Calif. and Lali worked for the Ventura County Office of Education. Moheno loved Ventura, it was an ag-heavy area with an active UFW office. She enjoyed her job and made great friends.

Five years later, a Fresno law firm offered her husband a job based in Visalia. While Moheno resisted at first, the two eventually moved to Visalia in the early 90s. During the first six months, Moheno went on strike — she refused to get a job, to make friends, to be social in any way. She eventually did find work with the Tulare County Office of Education and she started to settle into her life in Visalia.

In 1996, Moheno’s dad passed away, mainly from serious, untreated injuries after he fell off a ladder carrying a bag of oranges. Two years later, her mom died after suffering from diabetes and problems with severe injuries to her leg muscles and Achilles tendons from years of hard labor. Neither of her parents had the money nor the insurance to get proper health care.

Organizing the farmworker women’s conference was a way for Moheno to properly honor her mom.

“I didn’t want to buy her a monument, that’s not what she would have wanted,” Moheno said. “So I decided to do something to help women’s wellness, which was very important to her.”

The original idea was to provide women with the health care information they often weren’t equipped with, an important issue for Moheno and her mother. She armed the women with pamphlets on where they can get flu shots and the importance of regular breast exams.

The attendees of that first meeting in a Holiday Inn conference room were grateful for the information. But they told Moheno their problems didn’t stop at health care. Other issues they faced included education, child care, fair wages, sexual harassment, domestic violence and child care.

Moheno said she didn’t think about the overall wellness of a woman, which is more than just a pap smear. Throughout the last 20 years, she’s expanded the services and information the conference provides.

“After every conference, they’ve [attendees] told me what they wanted,” Moheno said. “It’s been working out really well and they really like it.”

She works with city, county and state agencies to gather information on other services those women can use. The district attorney’s office talks about domestic violence and shaddy mortgage lenders. The Tulare County Office of Education and Visalia Unified School District provide information on child care. Cal-OSHA representatives explain how to report sexual harassment that happens in the fields.

The Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency address things like mental health care and suicide prevention. Local health groups discuss issues like diabetes, which is one of the most popular sessions, along with suicide prevention, Moheno said.

Moheno doesn’t want her conference to appear political, she said her only concern is to help improve women’s wellness. She doesn’t invite unions or political groups to the conference.

Any funds and supplies raised go directly toward the conference. Moheno has never collected a paycheck for putting together the conference. Instead, her fee goes toward buying furniture, like beds and dining room tables, that are given to attendees during a drawing at the end of the conference.

“I figured I don’t need anything, so I give what I can to them,” Moheno said.

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