Student laborer gets lesson in COVID perseverance

Laveta Brigham

Gianna Nino-Tapias imagined the next time she would wake up at 3 a.m. for work would be for rounds as a medical resident. But this summer she woke up with her mom, back home in eastern Washington state, packed enough food and water for the blistering heat, and headed out […]

Gianna Nino-Tapias imagined the next time she would wake up at 3 a.m. for work would be for rounds as a medical resident. But this summer she woke up with her mom, back home in eastern Washington state, packed enough food and water for the blistering heat, and headed out to the fields.

After an hour-long drive, she and her mother, Susana Tapias, waited in line to get their temperature checked. Nino-Tapias, with a master’s degree in epidemiology, would think about the lack of social distancing in the lines while they waited.

They strapped gallon pails to their chests and picked blueberries as fast as they reasonably could. If farmworkers don’t pick enough to make minimum wage, they aren’t allowed to work.

They picked and picked until 2 or 3 p.m., the hottest part of the day. It reached 110 degrees recently. On days like that, it was hard to even think or talk; wearing a mask felt like suffocating. Before the  portable toilets were recently moved closer, she’d try not to use the restroom through the work day, as it would take away from time she could be picking.

Gianna Nino-Tapias holds a day's worth of buckets to be filled with blueberries. Workers are paid about $3.50 a bucket and can pick four buckets in an hour on a good day. They're usually out there picking for 8 to 10 hours a day, even when it gets up to 110 degrees, and they're cut from the job if they can't manage to make minimum wage.
Gianna Nino-Tapias holds a day’s worth of buckets to be filled with blueberries. Workers are paid about $3.50 a bucket and can pick four buckets in an hour on a good day. They’re usually out there picking for 8 to 10 hours a day, even when it gets up to 110 degrees, and they’re cut from the job if they can’t manage to make minimum wage.

After work, Nino-Tapias and her mom drove home, cooked dinner for their family, including her three siblings sent home from college due to the pandemic, and got ready to do it again the next day. She and her mother used painkilling creams on their knees, feet and lower back, but seasonal farmworkers don’t receive insurance, so going to the doctor is never really an option unless it’s an emergency.

The 24-year-old received her master’s degree from Stanford University in June and starts medical school there this month. She thought she would never have to trek out to those fields again, where her mother has worked for the past 20 years and where she started working when she was 14.

But, like for millions across the country, COVID-19 meant losing her work at a shopping mall and library. She applied to every kind of job she thought she could get, from retail to contact tracing, but she never heard back from anyone.

Gianna Nino-Tapias graduated with a master's degree in epidemiology from Stanford in June and is going back to start medical school this month. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people like her mother, who struggle to get proper help from doctors because they don't speak English well.
Gianna Nino-Tapias graduated with a master’s degree in epidemiology from Stanford in June and is going back to start medical school this month. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people like her mother, who struggle to get proper help from doctors because they don’t speak English well.

So she found herself back in the fields this summer, picking blueberries alongside her mom for $3.50 a gallon. On a good day, she filled four gallons in an hour.

On July 29 she tweeted, “How much do you pay for your blueberries?” More than 2,000 replied to the tweet, most expressing concern about buying ethically sourced food, and some offering to help Nino-Tapias with tuition.

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But the tweet wasn’t a call for charity, and it was about more than just buying blueberries. The words represented a burst of pride at how far she’s come as a low-income, Mixtec woman of color from a migrant farmworker family and an appreciation for how hard she and her family have worked. And it was a cry of frustration for the conditions farmworkers face every summer, as well as a resignation that some won’t ever have the path out that she does.

Alongside her mom, the farmworkers have been Nino-Tapias’ biggest supporters, ever since she was a child. “Get an education so you can get out of here,” they would tell her in the fields. “So you can get a job with air conditioning.”

Susana Tapias has always been the biggest supporter for her daughter, Gianna Nino-Tapias, wanting to give her children the opportunity to get an education in the U.S. because she never could afford to back in Mexico. She's been a farmworker for the past 20 years. "She's so smart and talented," Gianna said, "but sometimes people look down on her because she doesn't have a traditional Western education."
Susana Tapias has always been the biggest supporter for her daughter, Gianna Nino-Tapias, wanting to give her children the opportunity to get an education in the U.S. because she never could afford to back in Mexico. She’s been a farmworker for the past 20 years. “She’s so smart and talented,” Gianna said, “but sometimes people look down on her because she doesn’t have a traditional Western education.”

Susana Tapias is one of the smartest people her daughter knows, but she couldn’t afford a college education back in Mexico and had to take care of her family in the U.S. after moving here in her early 20s. 

Nino-Tapias, who was born  in the U.S, debated whether to attend a community college near home because her mom struggled to pay bills online or go to doctors’ appointments without her daughter’s translation skills. Ultimately, she decided Stanford offered the best education, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship. She could come back from California and help her family when she was a doctor, she told herself.

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Watching her mom out in the fields made her want to become a doctor in the first place. She saw the joint and back pain her mother endured, saw how she struggled to communicate with doctors without her daughter’s help.

Most medical students come from wealthy backgrounds, and many have parents who are also doctors. In 2019, fewer than 4% of doctors in the U.S. identified as Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin. Every additional one could make a difference, she decided.

In getting her master's degree from Stanford, Gianna Nino-Tapias took a community health advocacy course in 2016-17 where she worked in partnership with a woman's health department in East Palo Alto.
In getting her master’s degree from Stanford, Gianna Nino-Tapias took a community health advocacy course in 2016-17 where she worked in partnership with a woman’s health department in East Palo Alto.

Nino-Tapias has started the process of moving back to Stanford, where she has air conditioning, speedy wifi and loves to run around campus. It feels like living in a completely different world. 

But she still spends a lot of her day thinking about her friends and family in the fields — how they work so hard for so little, but how supportive they’ve been of her.

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She always tells people to not buy produce from big companies if they can afford it and support local farms that are more likely to treat their workers fairly. But if nothing else, she wants people at least to think of the workers in the fields when they buy a pack of blueberries.

“If you’re thinking about all the people that have touched your food before it got to you, all of the people who have hopes and dreams for their kids or for themselves,” she said, “I think that is a super invaluable gratitude to give, even if it’s just in your head.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Med student returns to blueberry picking for lesson in COVID resolve

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