La sabiduría de nuestras comunidades | una charla con Mónica Ramírez
The Wisdom of our Communities: A Conversation with Mónica Ramírez
Who Better To Tell Our Stories Than Ourselves?
Una charla, con un cafecito, with the brillant Mónica Ramírez, to sharing about connection to family and community, storytelling and Latinx visibility.
Mónica and I have worked together on two projects, Poderistas and #Masks4Migrants. But before we get there, I would like you to share about your journey. What in your life journey brought you to start these organizations and do all the powerful work that you’re doing?
I come from a migrant farmworker family. I’m sitting in Fremont, Ohio, which is the small rural community where my parents settled out of the migrant stream. Actually my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side of the family arrived in this little town, for the purposes of working in agriculture and eventually they found their way out of agriculture.
I’m the first generation in my family that did not have to migrate for the purposes of work, which if, you know at all about agriculture, that’s a a huge accomplishment. It’s very difficult to break the migrant cycle. I was the first in my family that got to experience living in a place year round. When I was growing up, me and my two siblings, we were not in the same position that my parents had been, or even some of my cousins. We never had to work in the fields.
It was really important to my parents to make sure that we understood that we came from this migrant farmworker background, [to understand] what it was like to work in the field. In their own way, they were trying to educate us about our privilege and to make sure that we understood that we had a job to do and that we needed to figure out how to give back.
From the time I was a little kid, my dad would talk to us about working in the fields, migrating around the country, what the housing was like, and about the poor working conditions. That was always part of my reality.
When I was a teenager, I guess I became an activist. I never thought I was an activist, I thought I was doing stuff in the community. That’s what people decided to call me. Because my parents educated us about farmworkers, I recognized when injustices were happening and started writing for a newspaper. Eventually that led to me wanting to become an attorney. As an attorney, I created a project for migrant women in Florida, which I scaled to what it is today, Justice for Migrant Women.
I feel like my work is in my blood. It’s in my roots, for me and my family in this country, and in this community. I feel really fortunate that I had parents who understood that, part of their work as parents was to make sure that we didn’t forget where we came from, and that we didn’t live this life free of the hardships that they experienced [without] doing something to make it better.
How did they make sure you knew about their lives? What stories did they tell you? What kinds of narratives were part of your family?
One of the most memorable experiences from my childhood was a trip to Mississippi that my father took us. My dad started working in the fields when he was eight years old, picking cotton. He’s one of 10 children and his older siblings had been working in the fields for years. At five he wanted to start working in the fields, but my grandparents wouldn’t let him, so he started when he was eight. When we were little kids, he took us back to what used to be a plantation where he worked. Eventually the farmers opened up the land to sharecroppers and migrant workers. He worked for a family, a farmer named Gaydon Smith.
I was probably eight or nine years old when he took us there. We got to see the one room shack where he and his nine siblings and my grandparents lived, without running water inside. We got to go to the plantation where the family lived and we met with Gaydon Smith and his wife. It was very much like an old Southern plantation, with a plantation store where they would take credit out during the winter when they didn’t have as much work. That really left an impression on me.
My father took us to the cotton fields where he had worked and told us stories about how sometimes they were so tired, after working all day and they would sleep on the bags to put the cotton in, and then they would put those on trucks. Seeing it in person, even as a little girl, really left an impression on me.
My father did not have formal education until he was 14. During the time when he was growing up, it was the segregated south and there really wasn’t a school for Latino children. There was a school for white children and a school for black children, but for kids like my father and his siblings, there wasn’t a school. They worked in the fields from the time they were little until they grew up. My older aunts and uncles never went to school. When my dad was 14, Gaydon took an interest in him, and I guess, saw promise in him, and taught him how to read and write.
[Gaydon] taught [my dad] his alphabet and how to read and write, and then he paid for him to go to the private school. When he started school, he failed his first year because he’d never had any formal education. Afterwards, he was able to graduate from high school, and that’s actually how our family got out of the migrant cycle. Because my father had just graduated from high school, he was able to get a job at a local factory. These are the stories I was told growing up — what it meant to be a child worker, and what it meant to experience racism.
My dad talks a lot about how while living in the south they couldn’t speak English. My grandparents were monolingual Spanish speakers, and my father and his siblings spoke Spanish and that was their dominant language. So they couldn’t communicate with the African American farmworkers who were working alongside them. My dad always said that they even though they didn’t understand each other, they were gracious and supportive of each other. That left an impression on him because when he grew up, he realized that they had been treated badly. I like all of those stories, even though I was a little kid, those were foundational and informed my understanding of civil rights, the civil rights movement, and my understanding of economic justice.
My mom’s experience is [different] from my dad’s because she [and her family] worked in the fields up north, in Ohio and Michigan and other places. But they both worked in the fields, and both understood that reality. What I know today is that many of the things that they’ve talked to me about are things that still haven’t changed. Farmworkers still don’t have rights, they are still being exploited and discriminated against. Those early teachings are a constant reminder of what is to be done. The possibility that there can be change and that people who come from communities like ours can be the drivers of that change.
What were the stories that your mom told you? How were they different from your dad’s?
My mom’s story was different for lots of reasons. My mom wasn’t raised by her parents, she was raised by her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles. By the time my mom and her sisters were born, they were still going to the fields, and they picked cherries and other crops. But it was a much different experience than my dad’s because whatever my mom and her sisters earned was supplemental. Whereas when my dad was working, it was necessary for the family to live. My mom always says that they ate more cherries and they actually contributed to the basket that was going to be weighed for pay.
For my mom it was a much lighter load, but what I appreciate the most about my mom’s experience is that my great-grandfather became a trusted worker with a local farmer and the local farmer gave my great-grandfather the opportunity to stay in farmworker housing in Ohio year round to help maintain the farm in the winter. And so that’s how they were able to break the migrant cycle, and they weren’t traveling back and forth from Texas to Ohio anymore. Because they stayed, they were a constant presence in this area. My great-grandparents were thought of as leaders in the community because they they stayed and were connected with people.
It meant a lot to know someone when you were not local, when you only came for a couple of months each year. Having a community like my great-grandparents and my older aunts and uncles, familiar with other people in the community was very helpful to other farmworkers that were coming here. When you’re a migrating farmworker, I think one of the things that makes you most vulnerable is that you’re not connected in the community. I remember my mom talking about how they always had all these visitors every summer. And it was because when farmworkers arrived in town, they would go to see my great-grandparents, to find out about anything they needed to know.
I’m very fortunate [because] I got to know my great-grandparents. They were still alive when I was born. I remember that every summer, starting in June, farmworkers would come into our community. And it was this huge party for three months, because people were always coming over to my great-grandparents to find out where the jobs were, to share information and to bring buckets of cucumbers and tomatoes. It was the merger of both of those experiences that helped create the organizer that I am. I learned the importance of being present, of resource sharing, and being the person that helps create community. I learned that from my mom and my mom’s side, and from my dad’s side, I learned the range of issues people were confronting.
I talk about my parents all the time because they’re incredible. I’m so fortunate that they’re my parents and they raised me the way they did. I think it’s the combination of their experiences that made me able to have the career and to do the work that I do today.
Thanks for sharing all that. From these stories, there are a couple of things that really talks about justice, or lack of justice. Your father had the opportunity to go to school because this man decided that he had promise and that he was deserving of it, as opposed to access to education for everybody. It is striking that this element is present in the story of your great-grandparents as well. Random acts can change entire generations.
I say that often, there are two farmers who changed our lives forever. My story is very unique — I can tell the story of going from the fields to Harvard Square. And that story is only possible because these two farmers took a shot on my grandparents and my great-grandparents, and it literally changed everything. For all of us, my parents included, my son, who will never know what that work is like because his life is so different, it’s [our] responsibility to make sure that there’s an understanding. It is important to share is that what I appreciate so much about my parents is that they understood that we’ve been given opportunities, and that we have to do something with those opportunities that are not only to our benefit.
My dad only went to school a couple of days a week, so that he could continue to work on the farm with my grandparents. He was a part-time student, and still was able to graduate. My father then got another job as a bag boy at the Piggly Wiggly, so that he could use the money from this job to pay for him and his younger siblings to go to school. Even at that age, he [thought], ‘I had this chance and now I’m going to give this chance to my brothers and sisters’. I think that’s a very special trait, and it’s certainly something that I think many of us can learn from. That’s the way our communities will get stronger, if we continue to see that with every opportunity there is a responsibility. It’s our job to determine how we’re going to use the opportunities that we’re given to help more people.
That’s a beautiful story. It makes sense that you not only created the organization that you created, but also the project of masks for migrants. The importance of giving back and the idea of how communities develop a sense of belonging while they are going through transition and migration. One of the other important elements that comes through your stories is the understanding that migrants are in a constant place of transitioning and how hard that is for families, for individuals, to find belonging. Can you talk a about the Masks for Migrants project and how can folks participate?
# Masks for Migrants was co-created with Mercado Global, which works with entrepreneurs, with This Is About Humanity, which works alongside the U.S. Mexico border and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. The project is an extension of another project we created, Masks for Farmworkers. Both started during the COVID pandemic, because we understood that farmworkers and migrant women were probably not likely to receive the masks they needed, at a time when we were all told ‘if you want to have a chance of being saved during this pandemic, it’s really important that we wear masks.’ I thought that the project was important for us to do not only because we wanted to provide masks to the migrant women and children alongside the border, but also to understand how migration happens and why many migrant women leave or are forced out of their countries. For many of them, there are a few economic opportunities.
Mercado Global was creating jobs to give female entrepreneurs the chance to stay in their home country, in their communities and to work. That was really compelling for me. They make these masks to keep their neighbors safe, to keep the people who are traveling from their country and from their towns safe. This is really powerful and beautiful to me.
At this point we’ve been able to raise enough resources to give out 120,000 masks, which is more than we thought we would be able to give out. We almost doubled what we thought we would give out when we created the project. Our goal initially was 75,000 masks. We will surpass the 150,000 masks mark very soon. The masks are for adults and children, and have been given out at the shelters and the tent cities along the border.
The protection is important, but the joy that people feel when they receive them, I mean, there’s no price tag that you can put on that. Being able to watch the videos from when people are receiving the masks or hearing about their reactions, has been so special to me, because it is so meaningful to them to know that people from their country or from their town took the time, and with love created these masks to protect them. It’s been incredible to witness that, and unfortunately, the COVID pandemic is not over. We don’t know how long it will last.
We know that people who are in these migrant shelters are very vulnerable to the illness, given the conditions in those shelters. We’ll continue to build the project as long as we can. We’ve given masks out on the us Mexico border, but we’ve also supplied masks in other places. We’re actually getting requests from the interior of the United States for migrants who are moving to different parts of the country.
One of the things that’s important about this project and also about all the work that we do, is that people think that we can only make change or engage if it’s going to be a huge campaign or some monumental act. It might seem like a very small act, but what the masks are doing is it’s providing a life-saving tool to families who really need it. It’s sending a message of love, hope, belonging, and of mutual care. We can’t underestimate the importance of that.
People are trying to figure out how to get engaged, how to make a difference. No one should discount these small projects, because together they make a big impact. I hope that one of the take away from Masks for Migrants is that we provide PPE and send these messages of love, but it is also shows that anyone could do it. I’m looking forward to seeing where the project goes next.
In terms of the response to COVID, I know that you started a new program to bring access to mental health services, treatment and therapy in migrant communities. Can you talk about access to mental health services as part of your response to COVID in migrant communities?
We launched this project called Healing Voices because at the start of the pandemic, we had town hall meetings with different farmworker community members around the country. We wanted to understand what their needs were, and they changed throughout the pandemic. For some, it was food and for others, it was diapers, and formula and things of that nature. But one thing that remained present in all of the conversations was that people kept talking about the stress they were experiencing depression, fear, anxiety. As we continue to hear those comments from people, we kept thinking we can have a mutual aid fund, we can get people money, we can get people products, we can create masks, but what people are really calling for is some relief when it comes to their mental health, tools to help manage this moment.
The Healing Voices program is a virtual therapy project that we co-created with the Eva Longoria Foundation, the Latinx Therapy Network, and with the National Migrant Seasonal Headstart Association. We are piloting the project in California and Florida, with an advisory board made of folks who come from farmworker families, who were farmworkers themselves, and also people who work closely with the farmworker community. We’ve created a specialized curriculum thanks to the help of two therapists. There’s actually two curricula, a clinical one that is being administered by trained therapists, and a non-clinical one. The non-clinical curriculum is really important because therapists are licensed by state and because farmworkers migrate from state to state we needed to have a non-clinical model.
We have two long term goals for this project, one is that we will scale it to reach farmworkers all over the country. The other goal is that we believe that mental health care is an occupational health and safety issue for all workers, not just for farmworkers and low paid workers. The strain that people are experiencing during COVID, is unique because of COVID, but workers experienced stress and strain all the time. We believe that the federal government needs to create a health and safety workers standard through OSHA that will provide workers with mental health care, resources, and benefits in the same way that we take care of people’s physical health at work. If we are successful in getting the federal government to adopt a standard like this, it will address some other really important social ills. I’m really proud that we’ve been able to take this first step and I’m looking forward to watching the project continue to grow.
And we are as well. Where in California and in Florida are you piloting this program?
It’s a virtual program, and we have folks who are in different parts in both states. We hope that at some point we’ll be able to have in-person groups. Right now we have people who are participating from different rural communities throughout California, including Fresno and Southern California. In Florida, folks are participating from the Tampa area. We’ve been getting requests from different parts of the country from farmworkers who want to see the project in their area. The response has been overwhelming. People are excited to see what’s going to happen. People have contacted us also from other industries, we also want to figure out how to scale this model to other industries. I think there’s a lot of promise with the project, but like I said, we’re in the early stages. We’re still learning. We’ll see what happens.
That’s wonderful and congratulations.
I want to ask about your work on narrative change. You wrote the Dear Sisters letter to farmworkers, you co-founded Poderistas and Latinx House. All of these efforts are really important in terms of culture and narrative change, in particularly for women of color. Can you share about these projects?
All of them are different initiatives; Latinx House is very focused on uplifting the Latinx community across mediums, not only in entertainment and film, but also looking at how media portrays the Latinx community. We’ve called out the fact that book publishers are not publishing enough of our books. We’ve been focusing on how museums are representing us and figuring out how to create and support artists who are creating art that is reflective of our community. There’s a different story that needs to be told about our community, and we need to be the ones who are telling our own stories.
The Latinx House is creating more original content and we are working on our first short film right now. We’re excited about it. I can’t share much about the first project, only that it’s an animated short, focusing on a story of equality and I think you’re going love it. We hope to release it this year. It’s an, it’s a story of empowerment and equality, based on a nursery rhyme that many folks from Latin America will recognize. that was really the brainchild of old essay Buddha, who’s one of the co-founders of the Latinx House. I’m super fortunate to have helped write the script.
We came together because Latinos in this country are, and have been for too long, an afterthought. Politicians don’t think about us until the very last minute, if they think about us at all, we have the largest wage gap and the largest wealth gap.There’s so many ways in which Latinos are being left behind, but we all know that we are the centers of our families. We are the center of our community. We are the center of our workplaces. We know that we are the organizers in our community. We decided that we were not going to wait for people to build something for us. We know what we need. We’re just going to build it.
If you were to look at all the work I’ve done these projects and others, I believe that if we don’t tell our stories, there is grave risk because we’ve been erased in this society. Our contributions have been undermined, have been stolen, repurposed, reshaped without us having any ownership or possibility of changing things. We know that the consequences of not telling our stories authentically has meant discrimination, harm and violence. I often say that in our country, people think of us as takers. They think that we take jobs, we take resources, we take benefits, but the truth is that we are givers. We give of ourselves, we contribute to the economy, we contribute to our communities. We give when we have nothing to give. We might not have much, we might only have a few beans in our pot, but we share the beans that we have.
My father taught me when I was a little girl that we have to tell our truths. We have to tell our stories. For me, that’s been very important and I’ve done it across all of my work. I’ve been really fortunate that people have decided to support this work and understand that there is value. If we have nothing else, if we don’t have resources, if we don’t have big buildings or big companies, if we have nothing else, we have our stories and our experience, and no one can take that from us. Taken together, all of these projects are an attempt to make sure that one day, when we look back on the history of this country, that we will be part of the stories, that are remembered and that we will have had something to do with crafting those stories in a way that is both meaningful and accurate. Something that we have not been afforded for far too long in this country.
For More on Mónica
Mónica Ramirez is dedicated to ending gender based violence in the workplace and achieving gender equity. She created the first legal project in the US focused on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination against farmworker women in 2003, which was incubated at the Migrant Justice Project of Florida Legal Services. She later scaled this project and founded Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2006, which she directed for nearly seven years. In addition, she created the award-winning Bandana Project, an art activism project that raises awareness about workplace sexual violence against farmworker women. In 2014, she founded Justice for Migrant Women, a national advocacy and technical assistance project focused on representing female farmworkers and other low-paid immigrant women who are victims of workplace sexual violence. Mónica is also co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, The Latinx House and Poderistas.