Napa vineyard worker struggles to pay bills after cancer keeps her out of fields

Margarita Viorato, at her Napa apartment, was without work after the Wine Country fires in October 2017.
Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Margarita Viorato missed working. And she needed to keep working.

Viorato, a 48-year-old from Napa, stopped working at vineyards, where she toiled in fields as well as cellars, soon after doctors determined in summer 2018 that a little ball she felt in her chest was cancer.

“When you get that kind of news, you think about your kids,” she said. “It’s difficult.”

Fear spread through Viorato as she reflected on the lives of her 20-year-old son who wants to be a firefighter and her 17-year-old daughter who is in high school.

“I had seen that a lot of people get ill,” she said.

Viorato underwent surgery in September 2018. Then came chemotherapy treatment once a week for about six months and daily radiation treatment for about 20 days to eradicate the cancer.

“I stayed strong,” she said.

But Viorato’s strength could not curb her bills — credit cards, loan payments and rent — from piling up.

She planned to rent out a room in her apartment. Her son, who is in college, picked up a part-time job at a restaurant. She started receiving disability benefits after she had to stop working, but one month this spring, all the costs ballooned while she was out of work. She could not afford to pay her rent. She worried she’d be evicted.

But then a woman that Viorato had met shortly after wildfires raged in Napa mentioned the Season of Sharing Fund.

The Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund works year-round to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. Donations to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund help thousands of people in the Bay Area throughout the year, with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Assistance is in the form of grants paid directly to the supplier of services, such as a landlord.

Blanca Macias met Viorato when fires ravaged the North Bay in October 2017, putting Viorato out of work. When Viorato sought help in the spring, she ran into Macias, who told her about the Season of Sharing Fund.

“She is a warrior because even with the cancer she had to confront, she continues working because she is a single mother,” said Macias, a caseworker with Neighborhood Initiative, a Napa organization that provides resources to families. “She is a woman with a personality that transmits a lot of peace.”

Season of Sharing helped Viorato pay a month’s rent, and she said the aid made it easier for her to pay off other bills.

“If I hadn’t gotten help, what was I going to do?” she wondered in a recent interview, repeatedly expressing her gratitude. “I felt less drowned.”

Now, Viorato, who has worked at vineyards for more than a decade, can go back to doing what she loves. A seasonal worker, she has not had steady work recently. But it has been sufficient to keep her afloat — and happier.

“I would prefer 1,000 times over to be working than being stuck at home,” she said.

She said she enjoys watching wine production unfurl, be it helping clear grape vines in the fields or packing bottles of wine.

And since completing treatment, Viorato’s cancer has stayed away.

“Let’s hope it remains that way,” she said.

Alejandro Serrano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @serrano_alej

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