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Lockeford’s Charlene Martin left the corporate world to teach farmworkers English, delve into photography

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Posted: Saturday, April 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:28 am, Sat Apr 21, 2012.

"Enfermera." Charlene Martin says the word hesitantly, scanning the eyes of nine men sitting elbow-to-elbow in folding chairs.

Dressed in hoodies, work boots and baseball caps, they are fresh from a day of positioning wires in the vineyard. It is the same vineyard that stretches behind them through the sliding glass door — the rolling hills sliced by straight rows of grape vines.

"Enfermera?" she ventures again, with an encouraging laugh.

Several of the men crack a smile and nod. They spell out the word "nurse" in English.

Remembering only bits and pieces from the two semesters of Spanish she took in college, the 44-year-old stands in front of the farmworkers for an hour and a half twice a week to teach them English at Bokisch Winery.

The men tend to be quiet, often self-conscious. They struggle to pronounce the words and write them in their workbook.

So when she makes a mistake spelling "reloj," the Spanish word for clock, or has to grab the dictionary to translate the word "feel," it puts the men at ease.

"It gives me an opportunity to make mistakes, laugh and have them laugh with me and show that it's OK," she said.

During the last two years, Martin's life has been a transformation. She was a manager for Hewlett Packard, supervising eight employees, meeting deadlines and teaching computer science graduates.

Now, Martin finds herself at home in the cramped room of a building in the middle of vineyards east of Lockeford teaching English to farmworkers.

She also stops her car on rural roads to capture the worker's lives with her camera. Through her photography, she is expressing her creativity like never before while discovering her family's farming history. She's learning about the lives that up until now were unknown to her.

And she is making a difference.

"If you have compassion, you can bring it down to any level and teach anyone," she said.

Finding her passion

Most of Martin's childhood was spent in Santa Barbara. In 1980, she moved to Stockton, completed high school, then graduated from California State University, Sacramento with a degree in computer science.

As a trainer with Hewlett Packard, she started climbing the career ladder.

She held classes, conducted webinars and taught employees about how to help customers troubleshoot mass storage products.

She was in charge of eight trainers who lived across the country from Washington to Massachusetts. The trainers worked with developers to come up with new products.

As she was putting in long hours at HP, she met Pete Martin. Her mother introduced the two because she worked with Pete in the civil engineering department in San Joaquin County.

He fell in love with her smile. The couple enjoys hiking, watching the San Francisco Giants, camping and fishing.

"She's just a very upbeat person," he said.

The two married in 2004. In 2005, they bought a house in Lockeford. Charlene Martin started telecommuting full-time.

Her husband said he knew the long hours were tiring, and she wanted an outlet for her creativity.

When she got the news that the company was going through its third acquisition, Martin could not bear the thought. It meant making decisions about people staying or going.

"I didn't have the heart for it," she said. "I had survived a lot of those, and it wasn't always the happiest thing to survive those things because you have survivor's guilt."

Within the corporate creature had always been a creative spirit.

During especially stressful days, she would grab her Canon point-and-shoot and try to capture the elusive butterflies on flowers in the couple's garden.

Her mind also went to her time in Yellowstone National Park, less than a year after she got her Canon Rebel. She fidgeted with the settings to capture the still reflections of trees and mountains in lakes, the rapid movement of the geysers and the bubbling orange, blue and green of algae in open pools.

"It was so much fun. I thought, 'Maybe I can do this,'" she said.

'A natural teacher'

Camera in hand, Martin decided that it was time to go back to school at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.

Around the same time, Martin started tutoring at the Lodi Public Library literacy center, teaching two mothers how to read. Hunched over workbooks, they would spend hours penning words that were new to them.

Living in Lockeford, Martin drove near vineyards and noticed the workers in the hot sun.

As someone who enjoys wine, the questions started flooding in: What jobs do they do? Why do they work in the scorching sun? Where do they live?

"Do we really know what happens and what work goes into making that big, beautiful bottle of wine on our table?" she said.

But her biggest question was, "Can I photograph them?"

At first, she couldn't build up the courage, driving past fields multiple times. One evening, she went to one of the fields and shot the sunset.

The next day, Martin did stop. She drove up at 7 a.m. in her Passat, put the car in park and jumped out with her camera.

After speaking with several supervisors in broken English, she grabbed her gear, went down the row of grapes and waited.

She snapped frames: A man in gloves snipping clusters of grapes off of a vine, men whose faces were hidden by hats bending to reach a vine, and dirt covering a worker's hands holding clippers.

The men were puzzled.

"I don't think they understand why anyone would be interested, because they do it every day," she said.

Martin began to feel a kinship with the workers, thinking back to her family's roots farming grapes in Texas, Colorado and California. Her older aunts and uncles in a family of 13 kids remember harvesting the bunches.

"The whole tradition of working with the land was lost in my generation," she said.

She still wanted to do more. While at the library one day, she agreed to teach English to a class of farmworkers.

Her husband was not at all surprised when she told him.

"She just is kind of a natural teacher. She does well in the environment," Pete Martin said.

Out into the fields

Standing in front of a class full of students in December, Martin had no lesson plans yet. So she started with the basics.

"Hello, my name is ..."

"How are you?"

"I'm good."

Then the alphabet. Then short vocabulary words.

As the classes progressed, she sat down to think about the most pressing skills that they would need — both on the job and at home.

Bokisch Winery wanted the workers to know how to call 911 and ask for help.

Owner Liz Bokisch said the company also would like to promote some of their employees, but they needed better language skills to communicate with customers.

"We offer this to our key employees who have shown dedication and reliability," Bokisch said.

Martin realized she needed to adapt the class to the men's lives. She noticed the men could not come on Thursdays because it was payday and they had to get to a check-cashing store. Most of them did not have bank accounts.

"It's intimidating to go into a financial institution and not know if they are going to understand you," she said.

Once she knew that, Martin did a unit on financial literacy and Bokisch brought in a representative from Wells Fargo to give a lesson to the men.

On a recent Monday night, a group of nine men ranging in age from 21 to 60 gathered. Clods of vineyard dirt stuck to their boots. They wore the baseball caps they use to protect their faces from the sun. Their calloused hands held pencils at the ready.

And their quiet voices sounded out the words.

"Cabeza, head."

"Ojo, eye."

"Mano, hand."

The men split into groups. George Ramirez and Luis Lagunas sat at a table in front of a shelf filled with Bokisch wines that have won awards.

While staring at a piece of paper with numbered body parts, Ramirez said, "What is No. 5?"

Lagunas correctly answered, "Nose."

In the back of the classroom, Emiliano Tellez smiles every time Martin yells, "Speak in English!" to her students.

For him, it's important to learn the language to help his wife and their newborn child.

"I need to learn to read and write. If I went to the hospital and I asked if they speak Spanish, and they said 'no,' I would need help," he said.

Martin is successful, Bokisch said, because she is disarming with a big smile and hearty laugh, and the workers can tell she wants to be there.

"She really can put herself in their shoes, and she respects that they are making this effort, because she knows how hard it is for them to be putting themselves out there," Bokisch said.

Martin does not care about her pupils' backgrounds. She cares about their future and the future of their families.

"They are here and they are contributing by doing something for a price that is hard work," she said. "They are committed to being here."

Discovering the goal

At the April First Friday Art Hop, a man stood for a couple of minutes in front of one of Martin's photographs. It was two rows of wine grapes; one worker had his back to the camera and another had just turned before she pushed the shutter.

The man bought the photo because he had a son who was a high school junior, and he wanted to explain their family's heritage.

"He said, 'This is a memory for us that we are all connected in this way,'" she said.

When Martin started, she was not sure where her photography would lead her. It brought her into an entirely new community.

"These people are anonymous to me on a daily basis. If I didn't go out there with my camera and the literacy program, I wouldn't know who they are. I want people to think a little about that bottle on the table, that glass of wine," she said.

Her work has changed how she reacts to people. When she speaks to people, she remembers that maybe they came from working eight hours in a hot field.

And she's found a new calling. She plans to keep tutoring, to keep making a difference in their lives.

On Monday, she sat across from Ladislado Domingez. She pointed to parts of a face on a worksheet and said, "eye," "nose," "mouth" and "ear."

She didn't give up, repeating the words slowly.

So when Domingez simply pointed and said, "Eye," Martin yelled, "Yes!" in celebration and then started to giggle.

The rest of the room joined her, and the sound echoed over the rolling hills of the vineyard.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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