“Nadie le puede dar su libertad; la tiene que tomar por si mismo. Eso es lo que enseñamos aquí.”
“No one can give you your freedom; you have to take it. That’s what we teach people here.”
Migrant Worker: “a person who moves from place to place to get work, especially a farm laborer who harvests crops seasonally,” (“Migrant workers | Define Migrant workers at Dictionary.com.").
Seasonal Workers: workers who live in one area year-round, laboring in the fields while the produce is in season, but working different jobs the rest of the year.
In Oregon, we have both. Both sets are important, but at this point in the year, a lot of the migrant workers are gone. And my guess is you don’t know any of the seasonal workers who stay.
“Don’t ask,” my teacher had told me. I’d had this idea hooking its spines into the back of my brain for a while. Initially, I’d wanted to smuggle myself over the US-Mexico border like Ted Conover in Coyotes, but my parents had shot that one down fairly quickly. So I settled for my next-best option: interviewing “Illegal Immigrants” (as I’d called them)- the ones who follow the season’s crops around the country, who constantly change their location in order to earn money in agriculture year-round. I discussed this idea with one of my teachers, who told me firmly (but lovingly, of course) that the correct term is “Undocumented Workers.” I went to another teacher. And referring to them as Undocumented Workers this time, I told her of my plan. I knew it was a long shot. These people were in a compromised position- were they really going to tell me, the weird junior who randomly showed up asking for an interview, all about their lives? Were they going to place their precarious safety from la migra into my hands? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the cultural tightrope I might have to walk. “Don’t ask,” she said, and she let me know that they probably weren’t going to tell.
Obviously, the whole “Don’t ask” thing meant I couldn’t ask if they had papers- I’d gotten that far. But this ban meant I also couldn’t ask about their journey into the US- the route they took could provide clues to their citizenship status. I couldn’t ask them about the legal issues of undocumented workers (for example, could they call the police if they had a problem?). I couldn’t ask them about any tacit relationships with their employers, and I couldn’t ask their children’s opinions on the Dream Act- if the kids were even around. I couldn’t ask any of the questions that I thought might humanize the experience of the undocumented immigrant, which are the questions that we, as people who don’t inhabit that world, are innately most curious about. It killed what I thought would be the draw, or human-interest part of my LJP, and I was scared my paper would flop.
As my dad and I were driving to downtown Hillsboro, the sky and my sweatshirt were about the same color- gray. On the drive, I tried really, really hard to construe meaning out of the placement of an Albertsons, or Walgreens. I diligently and artificially strove to gain insight from road signs. But truthfully- I didn’t come up with much. Yeah, maybe we passed a few more Panaderías and Carnicerías than before, but I didn’t catch anything too significant.
We were headed to the headquarters of the Western Farm Worker’s Association (WFWA). The WFWA is more or less a union- it amplifies single voices, and gives farmworkers a way to express their problems while being backed by a community. But it doesn’t just fight for justice and social equality. They also help members by giving out clothing, as well as having emergency food on hand for any associates who need it. (Side note: it’s good food too- New Seasons donates a lot of it). At the headquarters, my dad and I were going to get an orientation about who the WFWA is, what they do, and what their membership demographic looks like. Then (or so I thought) we were going to go check-in with some of their members- see how everything was going, determine any problems that needed to be addressed, and maybe, I hoped, open a dialogue that would teach me about their lives. And at this point, I still thought I would be talking to migrant workers. That’s not quite how it worked out- understandably, since it turns out that most migrant workers had left a couple months ago.
By the way, don’t bother Googling WFWA- they don’t have their own website, at least not that I’ve unearthed yet. Instead, you’ll come up with a blurb about them on a church website, explaining the work of their donation recipients (if you Google Western Farm Worker’s Association), or a radio station in Indiana (if WFWA is keyed in). The WFWA house doesn’t even have a computer on any of the three front desks. The desks looked really weird when I first walked in- very large, sturdy, ornate, and missing something that I couldn’t place. I thought the tops were just extra clean or something. We’re so used to computers that we don’t realize how much clutter they add with monitors, internet airports, and ensuing chords until they’re all gone. And I think the lack of computers was an intentional decision- they almost don’t need them. They never ask for email addresses- a lot of their members don’t have internet access, much less a computer. This was the first glaring cultural difference: the WFWA was obviously much more tuned into their target demographic than I was. For OESians, it’s unheard of to not have constant access to a laptop. I practically count leaving my laptop at home as one of the deadly sins-almost up there with getting a A- on a test. Entering a world where the people were assumed to NOT have a computer, (some didn’t even have a telephone) made me totally lose my bearings. Only noticing something because of its absence—computers and phones to begin with, then school buses, and frankly even wealth later—was humbling. And I wondered what my shocked response to these absences said about me.
The operations manager at WFWA is named Guillermo. He grew up in California, and had worked with a WFWA branch there, until he was asked to come be the unpaid operations manager (none of the positions at WFWA receive wages) in Oregon. You can tell that this isn’t just a job for Guillermo- it doesn’t fit in a neat time frame. It’s not a sealable section of his life- he’s too interested in it to make the separation. His small talk centers around the current “hot issue” for farmworkers, even though it doesn’t always look like he meant to bring it up. He’s constantly working away at problems, on the path to one of his clear-sighted resolutions. And the transition between Spanish and English is so smooth I barely even noticed it. But most characterisitically, I don’t think he ever feels that his work is entirely done, or that he’s done his share. There’s no end of the day for him. No, “great, my time’s up, I’ll be leaving now.” I honestly don’t think any farmworker will be left uncared for while Guillermo is around.
It turned out that on this cloud-swaddled Saturday, meeting pre-existing associates was not on the agenda. Instead, we went canvassing: recruiting new members and looking for people who might benefit from the WFWA’s services. I was disappointed- I thought this would restrict the dialogue I would have with each worker, and truth be told, it did. After all, it’s quite uncommon to have deep, open conversations with door-to-door promoters. But in these front-porch encounters, I met more seasonal workers than I was expecting (albeit briefly)- and in these tiny snapshots, I saw the people who keep our city humming. There is no way to fully understand their condition without living it, but I at least saw the ingredients of their lives, even if I couldn’t necessarily appreciate the full impact of each individual element. My picture of their trials, triumphs and everyday toil became more defined, and the relief between our lives came into sharper contrast.
Each apartment alcove smelled differently. Back in seventh grade, I had complained to my friend that the guys in our dance class all had a really gross mint-gum smell. She promptly stared at me from the corner of her eyes and replied, “That’s not gum.” She seemed to think it was drugs. Silly girl. Like eighth grade boys know what those are! I didn’t take it as a good sign that I ran into a wall of a similar not-gum smell by the first apartment. The next one smelled like pee, and I stood outside, trying to cover my nose in the most discreet way possible. Never has notebook paper smelled so wonderful. A few seconds after I felt courteously obligated to remove my notebook from in front of my nose, I smelled onions--caramelized onions-- the type that could only be found in authentic Mexican food. But then the pee smell came back, and so did my notebook. Incense coiled its way in next, and artificial apples wafted down the strong breeze. The other side of the street smelled like my grandmother’s house- or laundry detergent, whichever you prefer. A mezcla of exposed wires, mismatched doors, smeared color differences, pock-marked concrete, and hot sauce, all in sagging, varying shades of a grayed-out blue dutifully supported the backdrop.
The people inside the apartments were different from my family as well. Very rarely were there men in the apartments, and if they were around, it was because something had gone wrong and they couldn’t work. Little kids peeked through the cracks of doorway their moms or bigger siblings weren’t filling, all peering at us from varying angles. A sideways pair of eyes appeared from behind an ankle, or dropped in on us from over the guardian’s head. Behind one door was a 16 year old who had already been working for two years. Guillermo spewed out our recruiting speech, and then we gave her a turn to talk. During the summer, she worked in the fields alongside her parents, earning nine dollars an hour, but only working four to five hours a day, since she was still a student. This winter though, things would be different. She would be working at a local Jack-in-the-Box, and her mom would not be returning to work; the school district had cut the bus service to the local elementary school. According to Guillermo, if the family let the kids walk to school alone, they could be charged with child neglect. So, many mothers either had to give up their jobs entirely, or had to scale way back on hours in order to get the kids safely to school. Both of those two options significantly decreased the income of the family- which was unlikely to have been high to begin with.
It seems like, as my dad pointed out, there should be some kind of rule requiring school buses in the public school system, but no such requirement exists. They can be, and were, cut as a cost-saving measure. Guillermo’s opinion was very strong and clear: a shortage of money is not the problem. In some communities, school buses are to an elementary school what bread is to a sandwich- the second needs the first to exist. If kids can’t get to their classes, there’s no point to a school. So if something as integral as transportation can’t be covered, what is being covered that shouldn’t be? If there aren’t enough funds to run the buses, the money is going to the wrong places. “Where is it going?” Guillermo asked. And I wondered, how can kids be expected to learn if the school district doesn’t make their presence a priority?
For some families, attending school is already difficult enough without the district throwing in a monkey wrench. Some families might decide that children are more valuable in the fields, or in other jobs more than in the classroom- the numerical embodiment of which we will see in a moment.
In 2011, Oregon had an estimated 30,840 migrant horticultural workers, and 67,551 seasonal horticultural workers (Doyle). Using the US Census Oregon estimate for 2011, those workers made up about 2.5% of the state’s population (“Oregon QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau"). And if they fell within the national percentage, 68% of them would have been born in Mexico, predominantly from Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán- the Mexican states that most commonly send workers (Facts about Farmworkers). Beyond that, statistics about seasonal workers are hard to gather, without making stereotypes: (for example, is an actor who jumps between filming, directing, and doing voice-overs a seasonal worker? No. But is a Spanish-speaker who works at Winco, then McDonalds, then for a wreath-making company? Most people would say yes.) Migrant workers are much easier to classify, and therefore study. The 115,301 Oregon farmworkers in 2011 brought in approximately 116,562 dependent children (Doyle)- the number of children exceeds the number of parents. The academic challenges for these children are apparent, school busses aside: only 40% of migrant children reach the tenth grade, and only 10% of migrant children graduate from high school. Granted, as the OPB site points out, these could be attributed to a couple of factors. Firstly, a lot of them have to take classes in their second language, which would be difficult. And secondly, very few of them get to stay in one place for a whole school year, which causes problems for continuity in subjects. But most tellingly, women, and children under the age of 14 make up 1/3 of the estimated 1 million farmworkers in the US (OPB Worker’s Issues).
As non-farm laborers, our very legitimate gut reaction is to keep kids in school until the very end. And give them all PhDs while we’re at it. And while he did seem to believe that children should have access to as much education as they want, Guillermo pointed out that, despite upper-class notions, more schooling is not just a magic cure that will solve all the problems for the working class with the flick of a wand. Realistically, someone does have to do the farm work- we wouldn't get by without it. We need to realize the inevitability of agriculture, and support those who do the farm work. It is our responsibility to make sure they’re getting paid enough to live healthfully and happily (living wages), ensure the accessibility of medical and dental attention, and not treat them like the bottom rung of the ladder; because somebody has to do it. We just got lucky it isn’t us. As Guillermo pointed out, farm work is a skilled profession. We need to treat it as such.
Unfortunately, school busses aren’t the only example of mishandled funds. Tuberculosis is a disease caused by bacteria that spread through the air when people with an active form of the disease sneeze, cough, or talk (“Tuberculosis”). The National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc. says,
The crowded living and working conditions, as well as the lifestyle common for migrant farmworkers, lead them to have increased chances of developing tuberculosis during their lifetime. Farmworkers are six times more likely to develop tuberculosis when compared with other workers,” (“Tuberculosis).
As if the workers’ conditions weren’t enough, the wealthiest county in Oregon refused to provide TB testing for farm workers who couldn’t pay, a denial that Guillermo said was illegal. The rejected workers came to WFWA, who then raised the issue to the hospital. In a meeting with one of the hospital staff, Guillermo was told that the workers had been denied testing because the hospital’s budget only allotted a shoestring amount to tuberculosis screenings for those who couldn’t afford them. The same year, WFWA reported, the same county gave Intel a $580 million tax break. It would be interesting to know how many screening 580 million dollars would cover. It would be even more interesting to know how many lives those screenings would have saved.
Aside from health, another common problem for farmworkers is that their wages stay the same for a number of years, while the prices of everyday stuff goes up. Guillermo told us of a farm like this: the workers hadn’t had a significant wage increase in 12 years while, from 2000-2012, the price of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes went from $2.99 for an 18 ounce box to $3.79 for a 12 ounce box and from 1992 to 2004 (which is also 12 years) Oreos went from $1.99 for 20 ounces to $2.99 for 16 ounces. The pay of this farm’s workers wasn’t adjusted for inflation, nor were the hired hands given more money the longer they worked, Guillermo said, both of which are increases that more people come to expect in their salary. Guillermo said that engaging in labor action brought about a significant pay increase for that farm’s workers- but only because they had been united. Had only one or two demanded raises, they likely would have been dismissed. But, Guillermo told us with pride, since all of the workers went on strike, the farmer had to give in- or else his berries wouldn’t have been harvested in time. In his recruiting spiel, Guillermo used this example to demonstrate the value of unification in groups like the WFWA. When he reached “the prices of everyday things are going up,” bit, the middle school boy we were talking to aptly piped up with, “Yeah, even the TV!”
The next apartment was what I initially (internally) dubbed The Pee Apartment- but it came to be much more than that. An older-looking man answered the door, and I was shocked- briefly thinking that my grandfather had come back to life and was living in Hillsboro. Neither my grandfather nor this man was exactly small, which was a good thing, or else their opinions would have outweighed them. My grandfather was always surprised when I had something to say (British children are seen and not heard), and this man was fairly shocked too- probably more because I was speaking in Spanish than because I was speaking at all. Actually, “tripping my way through Spanish” might be a more accurate term. It must have been pretty bad because I don’t even remember what I was saying. I could tell that this man liked to be listened to just as much as my grandfather had. Confidence and comedy secreted its way through his fuzzy flannel and out the door. When we asked what his name was, (I’d like to say I only changed his name to protect his identity, but in actuality, I didn’t entirely catch it) he replied, “Jorge Riviera, until I die!” I liked him pretty quickly. But also pretty quickly, I realized that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. But he was the one person in the whole day whose accent I couldn’t understand. I had to rely on Guillermo’s translations, and I was kind of disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to interpret the nuances of this man’s words for myself. As the equivalent English phrases were tossed out to me, that disappointment grew more and more acute. He sounded to be sharing vast numbers charismatic, articulate, and poignant ideas. Maybe even enough that I could have written my whole paper about him- if only I’d been able to understand. From the English that Guillermo threw, I began to understand that the man on the other side of the door came to the US in 1983, but five years ago, he’d had to return to Mexico to take care of his father. When he came back to his former employers in the US, they wouldn’t hire him back. He seemed to attribute this rejection to discrimination- a practice which he was vehemently against. You can’t work as hard after 20 years of labor, he told us. He might not have known it, but in that one idea, he neatly encapsulated one of the most basic problems for seasonal (and I’m assuming, migrant) workers, and therefore a lot of these apartment’s tenants: they are expendable. If they complain about unfair working conditions, a person who will not complain can be found to take their place. If they bring the exposed doorbell wiring to the attention of their landlord, the landlord will be able to find a new tenant who will ignore the wires. If they admit to being hurt or ill, a healthy worker can be found. Employers don’t have to take “old” workers when fresh-blooded young ones are jockeying for position. And if competing with workers in the US wasn’t enough, I learned that sometimes, when a farm can’t say “yes” to the price a company wants, agriculture is moved to Mexico, where a “Yes Farm” can be found. For starters, paying people in pesos costs way less than paying people in dollars, but also, my guess is that the Mexican farms are able to say “Yes” because of the desperation of the workers- some money is better than none. My not-grandpa was about to expand on his opposition to discrimination, but his friend nagged him into shutting the door and sitting down for lunch. He started to retreat into the apartment, but he turned around, and with such sincerity and urgency that I knew the following phrase would be imperative, he trusted us with, “I left my life in the fields.” Then three doors closed all at once: the door to the apartment, the door to the caramelized onions, and the door to the clearest vision there is- the view from the end.
Ah, lunch. Right off the bat, we were told that many of the families we would talk to might not have enough food. For some, it might be down to a choice between heat or eat. The availability of food is one of the guarantees of WFWA membership: both emergency, immediate food which I’ve touched on before, as well as help with planning a way to secure enough food for the family long term. Earlier in the day, we had brought some food into the WFWA headquarters. As the topic of meals came up, Guillermo told us that sometimes the workers who had grown and harvested the produce didn’t have enough money to then buy it in the store. An OPB website titled Before You Take a Bite breaks this occurrence down numerically: out of every dollar spent on a head of lettuce, 20 cents goes to the farmer, and only an appalling six cents goes to the farmworker ("OPB: The Oregon Story"), meaning that a laborer would have to pick 17 heads of lettuce for every one he wanted to buy- maybe even more. I knew and understood that the high cost of food meant that some families had to go without for periods of time, so I felt horribly guilty every time I hoped we were stopping for lunch. I wasn’t really hungry- I don’t even know the definition of real hunger- my tummy just knew that it was used to receiving food at a certain time of day, so could it please have it now? I didn’t eat a real lunch that day- crackery-chips, a pear, and a slice of bread. But I knew that I’d quite a lot more than most.
Part of WFWA’s job is to basically provide a united front, or solidarity against unjust actions. It’s able to bring mistreatment to the attention of the community, which will then be able to put up more resistance than a single person. WFWA is a support system- a unified group that can help amplify one person’s voice, and work towards solving the problem. One of their expectations of membership is “ayuda mutua”: mutual help. Outside the WFWA house, we met a lady in a green zip-up who shook hands by lightly squeezing our fingers- our arms didn’t move that much through the process. Initially, I just thought that’s how she shook hands, but then Guillermo told us that she had hurt her arm on the job (which explained her loose grip); the bathrooms where she worked were porta-potties on really tall, unstable platforms. One day, she climbed up into one, and while she was still inside, it fell off the platform. She had understandably been injured in the process- I think mainly hurting her shoulder, and still couldn’t work because it was too damaged. But the company wasn’t willing to take any responsibility- they wouldn’t help cover her medical costs, nor would they give her any money while she was unable to work, and they seemed to be saying that the whole occurrence was her fault. Had she not brought this issue to the attention of WFWA, the employers might have gotten away with it. But she had people to tell, and people to support her. WFWA is working on ways to make her shoulder feel better, as well as trying to get the company to take responsibility and compensate her for the injury- a feat she might not have been able to accomplish on her own.
The other canvassing group heard of a similar story. They ran into a woman who was on “strike” from her job. She worked as a cleaner from five am to nine pm, seven days a week. That’s 112 hours a week, and at least 480 hours a month- for which she’d agreed to be paid $1,900. If you do the math, that comes down to the ridiculous amount of $3.96 an hour. It would have been horrible- even if she had been paid the agreed about. But to make matters worse, her employer only actually paid her $500 a month, and she was on strike until the unnamed company came up with all the money she was owed. This lady’s situation is not unique- her friend was (and might still be) mistreated at a different job. The difference is, she’s not on strike. This woman works about the same number of hours a week, but she is paid a measly $200 a month, with a bonus of verbal abuse. Assuming she also works from five to nine every day, her hourly wage totals a whopping forty-two cents an hour. This lady had the gall to ask for a day off, and her employers told her, “You better come to work tomorrow.” She’s too scared to quit. My guess is it’s la desesperación: some work is better than none.
WFWA can help these two women, and any other abused, underpaid, or mistreated workers who may not know how to temper the situation on their own. If these workers come to the WFWA, Guillermo or another unpaid volunteer can contact the employers. Sometimes, the issues have perfectly innocent beginnings: in the case of underpayment, Guillermo told us that sometimes the employers are waiting for the money to come in themselves, and are then planning to give it right to the workers. But in any situation, the call opens a dialogue between the employers and the laborers where the workers are empowered by the support of the association. Also, this contact shows employers that their behavior has been noticed, and it won't be tolerated any more. However the resolution is not the most important part of the process. The imperative piece is letting their members know that they deserve and are entitled to fair treatment, then, knowing that, teaching them how to work towards a solution that reflects their wants and needs: “No one can give you your freedom; you have to take it. That’s what we teach people here.” And yes, maybe to begin with, the members need a little help. If that’s the case, WFWA is kind of the answer to the question, “You and what army?”
Guillermo does this work because he doesn’t believe that there’s a good reason that workers shouldn’t be treated with respect and dignity. After all, farm workers are just as important as doctors and lawyers, if not more so. Doctors and lawyers are fantastic when you need them, but we literally eat the fruits of farmworkers’ labor every day. Some people don’t seem to realize this. In the US, “Immigrants,” as Sonia Nazario puts it in her book, Enrique’s Journey, “have been reduced to cost-benefit ratios,” (Nazario XIV). Some people only see the costs- they don’t bother to look at the benefits. What seems to happen more often than not is that farmworkers’ contributions are forgotten and then their needs ignored. We seem to draw a direct correlation between degrees and importance to society; formal education determines value in the community. But without the farm workers, we wouldn’t have doctors or lawyers. We would all be in the exact same position: subsistence farmers struggling to eek out enough from our land.
I’ll be honest, even if that means going down in my readers’ estimations: when we returned to my neighborhood, the feeling in my gut seemed pretty close to relief. I was relieved to be back where wealth was a little bit more apparent- or rather, where there was no apparent lack of wealth. I was relieved to end the wobbly tip-toe-dance around the elephant in the room, more commonly known as illegal immigration. But I haven’t entirely felt right since I wore the tread off my shoes walking around that apartment complex. Produce has taken on a whole new meaning: is my buying this horticultural product supporting a company that mistreats farmworkers? Occasionally, I try to imagine finishing my homework, including this paper, after getting home from a job- what would I have to give up to do both? Even lacrosse doesn’t feel quite the same- why am I in a position to chase a rubber ball around a field while some people haven’t even finished their work days? I guess it all boils down to this: don’t be thankful only when you eat fresh produce. Be thankful whenever you can do something that is not farming; you’re only able to do your work or play your game because someone else is growing your food. Be thankful to those who left their lives in the fields. Dar sus gracias a las personas quienes dejaron sus vidas en los campos.
"Facts about Farmworkers." National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc.. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-Facts%20about%20Farmworkers.pdf>.
"Migrant workers | Define Migrant workers at Dictionary.com." Dictionary.com | Find the Meanings and Definitions of Words at Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/migrant+workers?s=t>.
"OPB: The Oregon Story." Television, radio, and news for Oregon and Southwest Washington » OPB. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. <http://www.opb.org/programs/oregonstory/ag_workers/bite.html>.
"OPB: The Oregon Story." Television, radio, and news for Oregon and Southwest Washington » OPB. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. <http://www.opb.org/programs/oregonstory/ag_workers/issues.html>.
"Oregon QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau." State and County QuickFacts. United States Census Bureau, 12 Dec. 2004. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/41000
"Tuberculosis." National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc.. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. <http://www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-What%20is%20TB.pdf>.
Doyle, Seth. "2011 Farmworker Population Profile." Northwest Regional Primary Care Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <www.bienestar-or.org/web/resources/2011_regional_profile_northwest_region.pdf>.
Nazario, Sonia. Enrique's Journey. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
Olver, Lynne. "TheFood Timeline--historic food prices." Food Timeline: food history research service. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.