WATSONVILLE — Labor rights organizer and activist Dolores Huerta was joined by Mireya Gómez-Contreras of Esperanza Community Farms and Ann López of the Center for Farmworker Families at the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville Saturday to discuss farm worker’s rights, farming practices and economic justice at the “Harvesting Equity” event.
Huerta, who has been an activist for more than 60 years, is just as impassioned in her fight for the rights of disenfranchised groups as she was decades ago because, despite some substantial wins over the years, the struggle for fair and humane treatment of farm workers is far from over.
“With all the work that we’ve done over the years, the farm workers have been elevated somewhat,” said Huerta, who spoke with the Sentinel by phone ahead of the “Harvesting Equity” event. “But they are still not where they should be.”
Huerta pointed out that many farm workers in the state were not given the personal protection gear they needed during the COVID-19 pandemic and that most farm workers don’t have health insurance or access to healthcare.
“During the pandemic, people talked about recognizing and celebrating essential workers, and they were talking about fireman and policeman and health care workers, but farm workers are the most essential because they are feeding the firemen and the policemen and health care workers,” said Huerta. “Farm workers are our essential workers and they need to be paid the same amount of money that fireman and policeman get.”
Among the topics that Huerta said she planned to talk about at the “Harvesting Equity” event, which came as the Sentinel was going to press for Sunday’s edition, was organic farming, the use of pesticides on farms, and the health problems that come with working and living near fields sprayed with cancer-causing chemicals. Huerta mentioned that farm owners often live far away from the farms themselves and don’t fully grasp the plight of their employees.
“It’s a very callous type of attitude that they have for their own workers,” said Huerta. “There is such a disconnect between the workers and the employers. They take no responsibility. They get labor contractors to hire their workers so they don’t know their workers.”
Modern day slaves
To help people better understand the day to day struggles of farm workers locally, Center for Farmworker Families Executive Director Ann Lopez, who spoke at the “Harvesting Equity” event offers “farmworker reality tours” every month.
“One of the main goals of the Center for Farmworker Families is to inform the public about the unjust life circumstances experienced by farmworkers,” said López. “With the tours, I wanted to bring the general public together with the farm workers who are willing to tell their stories.”
The tour begins at an organic farm in Watsonville, where various farming practices are discussed, and includes a talk from a farm worker who, like many others in the area, hails from Oaxaca. She talks about her life and the arduous journey to cross the border into the United States. The tour then takes participants to a migrant camp in Watsonville and ends at the home of a local farm worker.
“From what people tell me,” said López. “It just opens them up to a whole different way of life that they never even considered.”
The center also organizes and facilitates regular food distribution, health care clinics, and technology education for hundreds of farmworkers and those living in the country without permission.
“For this distribution coming up, we have about 350 families signed up,” said López. “Farm worker’s wages are so low that they can’t afford basic essentials or they buy food that’s not healthy for them. There’s a huge problem with diabetes and high cholesterol in the farm worker community and they have little to no health insurance.”
Lopez mentions that with rent costs so high, multiple families of farm workers will often pool their resources to share a one-bedroom apartment.
“There was one situation where there were 16 people living in less than a 1,000 square feet with one bathroom,” said López. “They all line up in the morning to use the bathroom. It’s no way to treat human beings.”
Lopez speaks with many female farm workers at the center who have been subjected to sexual abuse and raped without consequences of any kind. She said that women are raped so often while crossing the border that they will take birth control as a precautionary measure.
“There is a statistic that 60 to 80% of farmworker women are sexually harassed, groped, or outright raped in the field,” said López. “Sixty percent of women who cross the border are raped, and many begin taking birth control pills before they leave Mexico, so if they get raped at least they won’t get pregnant.”
López, who is also a professor emerita at San Jose City College and holds a doctorate from UC Santa Cruz, said that the agricultural labor force in California is “an extension of slavery from the South.”
“The difference is that nobody owns them theoretically,” said López. “Ownership has been replaced by laws, institutions, rules and regulations, and agricultural exceptionalism that keep them trapped, and from which escape is nearly impossible. To me, it’s a form of slavery that never ended.”
To help transform the current agricultural system and move away from the use of pesticides, Co-leader at Esperanza Community Farms Mireya Gómez-Contreras and others have helped local organic farmers in the Pajaro Valley and Salinas Valley to form the 9 Organic Farms Co-op.
“The co-op is a more recent expansion of Esperanza,” said Gómez-Contreras, who was a presenter at the “Harvesting Equity” event. “It is institutionalizing using local fresh organic produce to be consumed at institutions that are otherwise buying the same produce from neighboring states and even other countries.”
In addition to their organic CSA box distribution program and student-led Farm 2 Cafeteria program, Esperanza Community Farms recently facilitated a relationship with local growers and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District to get organic produce into schools and is working on developing contracts with other local school districts, according to Gómez-Contreras.
She mentioned that “food justice” is a primary focus of Esperanza Community Farms, which for them means that everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food and also being aware of where food comes from and who is producing it.
“You look at a carrot, hold the carrot and smell the carrot and know that it was grown by Guillermo who has two kids and gets paid well,” said Gómez-Contreras. “It’s about relationship and story, and it takes participation. It takes work. Food Justice requires us to be in action.”
At the event Saturday, Gómez-Contreras planned to speak about the model of Esperanza Community Farms and how it could be replicated. She hopes that the event will inspire others to think more critically about where food comes from and change the way agriculture is practiced locally.
“Who doesn’t want dignity for every worker?” said Gómez-Contreras. “Whether they are a farm worker, or a school teacher or a cafeteria worker? Who doesn’t want interdependence? We all depend on each other to live good lives and to have a good community.”
Gómez-Contreras mentioned that esperanza means hope, and that is something that Dolores Huerta has provided to so many people over the years.
“She has just done so much over so many years,” said Gómez-Contreras. “Her words are always hopeful and her actions are hope in action. She just won’t let go. It’s a real honor to have her in Watsonville.”
Huerta mentioned a quote that she had been mulling over recently by Robert F. Kennedy about the obligations and responsibilities citizens have to look after each other, especially those who are less well off, and that those obligations extend to farm workers.
“Farm workers feed us everyday,” said Huerta. “The people that are putting the food on our tables work in the horrendous heat and the bitter cold everyday, and they are not being treated the way that they should be. You have an obligation to the people that feed you, so advocate for them.”