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Looking to the Labor

news2 PlantingStartsCesar Chavez Day provides a good reminder for locavores to thank the farmworkers

The county’s seven farmers’ markets are signs of growing interest in buying local and knowing where one’s food comes from. But the cheery bustle of these local food hubs is still worlds away from the dusty, sun-drenched farm fields of the outlying county. As consumers pick from the colorful produce at the market, how many also think of the hands that picked it from the field?

This question worries Sarah Broker, who says she gets frustrated when people congratulate themselves for buying local food but overlook those who labored for it.

As a social work intern at the Davenport Resource Service Center, Broker interviews farmworkers to better understand the region's agricultural society and says she has learned amazing stories that she wants to share with the public. She has come to believe that there are epic elements to the plight of farmworkers that make these workers unsung local heroes.

"I want to bring more light into the lives of farmworkers," says Broker, who recently reached out to GT about the topic. "My goal is to just get the laborers' stories out there.”

Broker tells the story of "Cecilia," who traveled from Mexico with her three children to join her husband working at a local farm. Along the journey, Cecilia had to temporarily separate from her children for safety's sake. After finally reuniting with her family at the end of her trek, she then endured hostility from coworkers who disapproved of women working in the fields. But she kept her head up, says Broker, and inspired a change at that farm, which now welcomes new women workers.

The intrepid tales of migrant and seasonal farmworkers are almost as old as the country itself, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. Farmworkers have always lived in the shadows of communities, often living and working under hazardous and unsanitary conditions while surviving on meager wages with poor access to education, welfare, and healthcare.

This population remains one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the nation, and rarely do they have access to worker's compensation, occupational rehabilitation, or disability compensation benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department estimates that there are more than 13,000 such workers in Santa Cruz County, many of whom work at berry farms in Watsonville, which is home to some of the largest strawberry yields in the nation.

The struggles faced by fieldworkers were raised nationwide on Sunday, March 31, a day of celebration for the birthday of the late Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor leader who used non-violent strategies in the struggle to gain rights for migrant farmworkers. He founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, and organized strikes and nationwide boycotts to recognize the thankless toil of workers.

This year, March 31 coincided with another major holiday, Easter, leading the UFW to organize Cesar Chavez Day events before and after that weekend. Some local farmworkers took part in an organized march through Salinas on March 24. 

"This march was to celebrate the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez, but to also push for immigration reform," says Jesus Valenzuela, a community outreach director with the United Farm Workers Foundation, a sister organization to the UFW.

The march was one of five held throughout the state that day. Thousands of people attended as part of a national UFW campaign aimed at creating a pathway for migrant farm workers to earn U.S. citizenship. The union is planning more marches and other events in the near future.

"In April, we are sending 100 farmworkers to Washington D.C. to lobby for immigration reform," he says. "The group will include some union members from Watsonville."

Valenzuela is unsure of the exact number of Santa Cruz County union members, but says it is well over 100. He says many of them work in Watsonville, but that the union has contracts with multiple farms in the area, including Swanton Berry Farm, located just north of the City of Santa Cruz.

"All of our employees belong to the UFW," confirms Barrett Boaen, the on-farm manager for Swanton Berry Farm.

He explains that the owner, Jim Cochran, had a vision to open the farm using a socially just strawberry farm model, which was virtually unheard of at the time. Boaen says the farm has always paid their workers an hourly wage rather than the common "piece" wage, which is dependent on how many pieces (or buckets) of fruit is picked. The latter wage is known to calculate lower and often causes employees to forego lunches or breaks in order to pick more crops. This can also lead to more injuries, more sick days and employee dissatisfaction.

"From the beginning, this farm has held social justice as a main goal and priority," Boaen says.

The Swanton Berry Farm website openly invites anyone to visit their organic farm to see where the food comes from and who it is grown by. The farm has a strong presence at nine Bay Area farmers’ markets, including in Downtown Santa Cruz. If consumers cannot find the time to visit the farm itself, their stand may be at least one way to help support unionized migrant farmworkers.

Valenzuela speaks highly of the 30-year-old operation.

"It's an amazing company," he says. "The union has strong support and our black eagle flag is flown everywhere."

In a letter to GT, Broker argues that a shift in perception of farmworkers would go a long way in earning them more appreciation. "There are few tales as representative of the ‘American’ dream as that of the immigrant farmworker,” she writes. “But because they have ‘only’ moved from abject poverty into minimum wage jobs, somehow the change is less glamorous.” 

In the spirit of Cesar Chavez Day, Broker suggests the following: “rather than pat yourself on the back for 'Buying Fresh, Buying Local,' shake a farmworker's hand and say 'thank you.'"

Comments (3)Add Comment
...
written by Don Honda, April 09, 2013
A couple of decades later, in their book,The Fight in the Fields, journalists Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval recalled the border violence and wrote that the issue of illegal immigration was particularly vexing for Chavez.
...
written by Don Honda, April 09, 2013
Under the supervision of Chavez's cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to persuade Mexicans not to cross the border. One time when that didn't work, they physically attacked and beat them up to scare them off, according to reports at the time. The Village Voice said that the UFW was engaged in a campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net.
...
written by Don Honda, April 09, 2013
When he pulled workers out of the field during a strike, the last thing he wanted was to see a crew of illegal immigrant workers take away his leverage.

Chavez ordered members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and report illegal immigrants who were working in the fields so that they could be deported. Some UFW officials were also known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants.


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