The Fruits Of Labor: A Look Into The Lives Of Migrant Farmworkers

By Surabhi Bhupathi

On September 16, MAP attended its second Farmworker’s Reality Tour, sponsored by the Center for Farmworker Families. This year, 25 students traveled to Watsonville to get a closer look at the marginalized farmworker populations, and to learn about the work of Dr. Ann Lopez, who leads the tour.

The Farmworker Tour begins at a relatively small-scale sustainable farm, primarily tended by migrant farmworkers. Enduring severe hardships, back-breaking labor, and the relentless California heat, workers tirelessly labor to fill their crates. For example, An entire crate of strawberries, which holds about eight individual boxes packed full, can earn the workers as little as fifty cents. It’s no surprise that this labor-intensive works leads to the average life expectancy of farmworkers to be about fifty years. In addition to the labor, farmworkers run the additional health risks that come with being exposed to pesticides, and for those who are undocumented, they also face the constant risk that they could be discovered and deported.

A lone farmworker demonstrates the back-breaking labor that he must endure while filling the strawberry crates.

After visiting the farm, students travelled to a migrant housing camp, a small group of dwellings for the families of the farmworkers. Until this past June, farmworkers were burdened with what is known as the infamous “50-mile rule.” This outdated law, made when the farmworkers were primarily single, young, men, stated that farmworkers could not stay in the same area for more than 6 months if they wanted to come back to live there the following year. However, for families with children, this meant that halfway through the year children would have to change schools every year. Naturally, this took a toll and children were unable to graduate high school, let alone go to college. This perpetuated the cycle of poverty among farmworkers and ensured that their children would be forced into a life that their parents did not want for them. Despite efforts going on for decades to end this practice, no laws could go into effect due to expected cost of upgrading housing centers to accommodate farmworker families during winter. Luckily, through the combined efforts of Dr. Ann Lopez and the testimony of farmworkers, the practice ended.

Dr. Lopez (center) educates students on the hardships of farmworker life.

The tour ended at the home of a farmworker family. The family was gracious enough to provide dinner, and students ate while listening to their story in an experience that can only be described as humbling. The story heard was all too familiar — the story of a family who undertook extreme risk to smuggle themselves across the southern border to the “Land of Promise,” only to end up in a low-paying, labor-intensive job with almost no security. While Dr. Lopez expressed some hope for the future, she reminded students of the frequent crimes that occur against farmworkers. Sexual assault against farmworker women occurs at an extremely high rate. Additionally, despite working long hours and with the promise of extremely inadequate pay, farmworkers often are victims of wage theft. Their struggles are often not as heard because of the reality that migrant farmworkers, due to their undocumented status, are seen as undeserving of a voice. It is up to those who have a voice, and the willingness to use it, to speak up for the marginalized.