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The need for farmworker justice yesterday and today

[Note: This is part of a speech given by Cecilia Pérez on Saturday, August 22 on the streets of downtown Olympia as part of the March Against Farmworker Exploitation. Cecilia is a Chicana and the proud daughter of immigrant farm workers from the Yakima Valley in Central WA. She currently lives and works as an RN in Olympia. Her story touches on farmworker justice and the long history of US economic imperialism in Mexico.]

For those who are unfamiliar with “Chicano/Chicana” these terms were popularized during the civil rights

and Chicano movements of the 1960s. Simply put, a chicano or chicana is someone of Mexican descent and typically first generation born in the US.

To be Chicana is to reject cultural assimilation and the homogenization of my Latinx community through terms like Hispanic. These terms were made up by the racist US government as a way to whitewash us and discredit our indigenous roots.

The Chicano movement of the 1960s undoubtedly influenced labor activism especially in farmworker communities during the 1970s and beyond. For me, Chicana is an assertion of my cultural pride and a reclaiming of my agency and love for my brown body—which in a culture of white supremacy—is nothing short of radical and transformative in itself.

Farmworkers are subject to crowded housing conditions.

My story begins in the late 1950s with my abuelito Delfin. My abuelito was among the millions of men contracted to work in the US between 1942 and 1964 through what was known as the Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program, or the Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program was a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the US. In 1942, wartime efforts in the US meant a productive boom of labor supply was desperately needed in the agricultural economy as well as on the railroads. The US looked to Mexico for a constant supply of cheap and vulnerable laborers. The program brought in close to 5 million workers from Mexico.

These workers were among Mexico’s healthiest and strongest men, carefully selected only after having passed extensive screening and physical exams. Despite this, it was common for Braceros to develop illnesses while working—arthritis, tuberculosis and serious injuries.

Even though my abuelito Delfin despised his work as a Bracero, he renewed his contract four times, working in Texas, Idaho, Oregon, and California. At the time, the economic situation in Mexico was dire. Massive poverty in Mexico then and now is a direct result of US intervention. The start can be traced back to the construction of a US national railroad network in Mexico in the late 1800s. A present-day example of US economic imperialism would be the failed 2001 NAFTA. In both instances, there was a displacement of people from their land, prompting an economic migration to “El Norte.”

The Braceros of the mid-20th century faced cruel and inhumane work hazards: exposure to cancer-causing pesticides, poor housing conditions, frequently withheld wages, and inadequate medical care. Braceros were regarded as commodities and exploited for their labor. Ultimately the program worked to serve the economic interest of US corporations and the US government.

Fresh fruit; broken bodies

Washington state has a unique history of utilizing Braceros and attracting farmworkers in general. The Yakima Valley is a huge agricultural hub in Washington, and it’s also where I grew up.

After making their migration journey to El Norte, my parents moved to the lower Yakima Valley in the 1980s. My apa worked as a farmworker for 20+ years, picking asparagus, blueberries, apples and everything in between. It was a lively time for farmworker activism. Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers visited the Yakima Valley often to organize farm workers and make demands for better working conditions.

It was also during this time that the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic was established to make desperately needed medical care more accessible. The clinic has grown to become the largest community-based health center in the entire Pacific Northwest!

It’s also important to note that this rich labor history of my hometown was never once shared or taught to me in my 13 years of public school there. This is an example of white supremacy and epistemic violence, denying communities the right to know our own history, and silencing us.

Despite this historical labor activism, living conditions for farmworkers haven’t improved much—not even during the time of coronavirus. Farmworkers are once again deemed essential, yet are treated as disposable.

Unsurprisingly, COVID outbreaks are far too high in farmworker communities. In late April, the Yakima Valley had the highest number of cases per capita in the entire West Coast. This is no coincidence given that farmworkers work in close contact with one another and often are subject to tight and crowded migrant housing conditions. Until very recently, many were forced to work with or without personal protective equipment.

In early May of this year, COVID cases were approaching an all-time high in the Yakima Valley. This prompted farmworkers to tap into the labor activism spirit of earlier decades. Farmworkers in fruit packing warehouses joined in solidarity with field pickers, going on labor strikes together. As a result of these strikes, employers conceded and were forced to provide masks, hand sanitizer and increased safety measures. Proof that when we the people organize and fight together, we win.

It’s also important to acknowledge that this health burden is an example of racialized class exploitation and oppression. In general, farmworkers in the Yakima Valley and Washington are almost exclusively Latinx, though with notable exceptions across different communities.

The estimated average individual wage for a farmworker is between $15,000 -$17,499 annually. About 1 in 4 farmworkers currently fall below the federal poverty line which is already egregiously low.

Consider how we are able to have food on our tables

Community members are living in poverty, breaking their backs day in and day out so that we’re able to have food on our table. Largely without access to health care. During a deadly global pandemic.

One demand we all need to support is healthcare for every single person living in our communities. Health care is a right that we as humans with inherent dignity and worth are entitled to.The push towards universal health coverage in the US means supporting Medicare for All. Full stop.

COVID humbly reminds us all how interconnected we are. When one person in our community is sick the individual suffers and the community as a whole suffers as well. Medicare for All (M4A) acknowledges that a community is only as strong as our sickest and most vulnerable community member. We need to demand comprehensive quality care for every person in the community, so that our communities can be more equitable and healthier.

M4A ensures that no one is left behind because of their inability to pay for care. No one is left behind because of employment status. No one is left behind because of their citizenship status. No one is left behind, period.

Finally, let us not forget that we are living through a special moment in history, a time of global uprising. At the forefront are demands for black liberation and for the abolition of racist policing and all other forms of the prison industrial complex here in the US including the NW Detention Center in Tacoma.

All our struggles for liberation are interconnected: Continue showing up in the streets supporting Black Lives Matter. Continue showing up for Farmworkers. Support workers on strikes. Follow organizations doing amazing work like Familias Unidas por Justicia.

A better world is possible but it won’t happen without persistence and solidarity.

Cecilia Pérez is a community organizer involved with Economics 4 Everyone and Olympia DSA.

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