Teresa DeAnda was one of the very first people I met when I moved to the Central Valley to cover the region for The California Report a decade ago. I decided to take a Great Valley Center bus tour of the valley with some incoming professors at the newly established UC Merced, which was just about to open its doors.
We traveled to rural Tulare County, where DeAnda shared her story about trying to raise seven children near fields where farmers regularly sprayed pesticides.
She told us about what she called “the big accident,” in November 1999. More than 170 residents in her town of Earlimart were exposed when a soil fumigant applied to a nearby potato field drifted into people’s homes.
The fire department rounded up those who were vomiting or ill at the middle school football field, asked them to strip down and blasted them with firehoses.
She described this incident as a “turning point” in her life, after seeing how disrespectfully her neighbors were treated by emergency crews. “My anger became awareness, my tears became action, and I became an advocate,” she would later say.
"Everywhere I go to all the little rural communities, everybody has a story to tell about being drifted on by pesticides," she told me in a 2009 interview. "It’s that they were outside barbequing, or they were having a birthday party. It just happens so commonplace, people don't report it.
"If you think about it, if a pesticide accident happened in Malibu or Beverly Hills, there would be [an outcry], but because it's Tulare County, it's the poor people that are getting affected, the ones that are least able to pay the bills, the ones least able to afford a nebulizer or medication for asthma or other health problems already," De Anda told me.
Teresa DeAnda, who died of liver cancer in late October at age 55, told her story to legislators in Sacramento and helped pass SB391, the California Pesticide Drift Exposure Act. The law helped improve emergency response to pesticide drift. She also helped establish protective buffer zones limiting pesticide use around schools, homes and labor camps.
But she was honored daily by community members who recognized her as a voice for tiny, rural farmworker communities. She was a mother of seven, a grandmother of eight and a tireless advocate for a son with autism. She loved animals and would drive around with water bottles and dog food in the trunk of her car in case she ran into any stray animals.
She would reach out to families, many of them immigrant farmworkers whose children had been sprayed while waiting for the school bus, or who inhaled toxic quantities of pesticides from adjoining fields while harvesting crops. She would encourage them to report these incidents, rather than stay silent.
I interviewed DeAnda several times over the last 10 years, including for a two-part series on pesticide drift and its impact on children and communities in the San Joaquin Valley. I was struck by her humility, her candor and her courage, as well as her ability to maintain a sense of humor.
"I remember when I was little, there was that campaign, 'Don’t litter, don’t be a litterbug.' I would love a campaign that would put signs on the freeway billboards saying, 'Be careful with pesticides,' " DeAnda told me. "I’ve seen signs on the country roads that say, 'Drive slowly, dust hurts crops.' I would like to see signs that say, 'Be careful with your pesticides. Pesticides hurt people.' "