Preparing for the new year involves a time of reflection. A time to look back to reflect on where we been and reconnect with what we learned through our successes and failures, so we can point to the future and with the new found knowledge the past has shared with us.
In this reflection, Dr. Ann Lopez sat down to share the history of Center for Farmworker Families and where we are going in the new year, and beyond.
The Center for Farmworker Families was developed as a response to conditions that I encountered in the central California farmworker population and in the rural farming communities of west central Mexico while working on a doctorate degree at UCSC. Mexico had an estimated 9000 year old organic, agroecological farming culture with a strong farmer attachment to the land. The genetic diversity of traditional corn strains (maíz criollo) was so great that Mexico became the world’s repository for corn genetics for the world.
I studied the impact of NAFTA (North American Trade Agreement) on the farms and families of Mexico. After studying and working with family members on both sides of the border, I learned that the farmworker community in the U.S. is really a binational community with family members living on both sides of the border.
What I found in my study was profoundly disturbing. NAFTA eliminated the tariffs at the border that once protected subsistence and small-producer farmers from foreign corn competition. Within 30 months of the tariff elimination, primarily GMO corn from the U.S. poured into Mexico by the ton load. The cheap U.S. corn destroyed the economy of the rural countryside by undercutting the price that farmers had once received at government outposts for the sale of a portion of their harvest. Almost immediately after NAFTA, the value of the farmers’ corn was literally halved.
Unable to support themselves on the post-NAFTA income, farmers had three survival choices: 1) stay on their land with their families and starve (many have done this since they are so attached to their land), 2) move to a big city in Mexico and try to find work, and 3) risk an undocumented border crossing to the U.S. as economic refugees of U.S. trade policy. Today, approximately 75 % of California’s agricultural labor force is undocumented; living in poverty in the shadows with a constant fear of deportation and separation from family members.
I realized upon the completion of my doctorate that I had to do something to ameliorate the suffering that I learned about in families on both sides of the border. I reasoned that if the general public had the awareness and knowledge of the U.S. role in undocumented immigration to the country, something would be done to correct the situation. Hence, I started the Center for Farmworker Families. We became incorporated as a 501©3 in 2012.
The purpose of the Center for Farmworker Families is to promote awareness about the difficult life circumstances of binational families while proactively inspiring improvements in binational life, both in the United States and in Mexico.
We realize this purpose by engaging in the following activities:
- Research and promoting the educational advancement of farmworkers and their family members working in agriculture, as well as family members who are living on their farms of origin in the west central Mexico countryside.
- Supporting projects in both Mexico and California designed to sustainably promote financial and nutritional well-being and independence.
- Examining the federal and state legal structures that govern the lives and well-being of farmworkers and promoting the changes necessary for improved livelihood and well-being.
I have given lectures and talks about farmworkers and their family members in Mexico in several locations in the U.S. and throughout California.
Projects in the Central California:
One of the most effective way for the public to learn about the lives of farmworkers is to meet farmworkers in person and hear their stories. The Center for Farmworker Families offers Farmworker Reality Tours for the purpose of informing the public.
Groups of 15 or more people can sign up for a tour online. On a Sunday afternoon in spring, summer and fall, farmworkers tell their harrowing stories of post-NAFTA undocumented immigration. Participants have an opportunity to observe a farmworker as he picks strawberries. They also visit the migrant camp and hear about the 50-mile regulation and the incidence of wage theft. Finally, we conclude the tour with a visit to the home of an undocumented farmworker mother of four citizen children who is renting a substandard house in central Watsonville. She prepares a delicious traditional Mexican dinner and tells her story. During the dinner, we discuss immigration, and participants reflect on the experiences of the day.
The Oaxacan shed grew out of my work visiting families in Watsonville and Salinas. The farmworkers live impoverished lives in crowded conditions with their family members and other Oaxacans who contribute to the household by providing a share of the monthly rent for an overpriced substandard dwelling. Most farmworkers work six days per week; up to thirteen hours per day and experience grinding poverty; barely surviving on an average of $12,000 per year. Oaxacan farmworkers specifically are among the most impoverished of farmworkers in the region and suffer discrimination, both from the society at large and even from other farmworkers.
The Oaxacan Community Shed, located in central Watsonville, California, is supporting the most recent Oaxacan farmworker family arrivals. The Center for Farmworker Families stocks the shed monthly with basic necessities that farmworkers cannot afford to purchase, including baby diapers in all sizes, baby wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, rice, beans, shampoo, bath soap, laundry detergent and dish soap. The 40+ families that regularly visit the shed are so in need of these essential items that they travel to the shed from all over central California, including Castroville, Salinas, Los Baños, and Las Lomas (distances range from 16 to 70 miles).
Over the past year, the Oaxacan Community Shed has become a central location for meetings, disseminating information impacting the community, providing medical services, science and math tutoring, English classes, a Girl Scout Boutique project in which teen girls can acquire needed clothing for school, and distribution of school supplies for children in August by the Food Empowerment Project prior to the onset of the school year.
We stock the shed at the beginning of each month and need financial donations from the community to continue our work.
One reason that many of the children of farmworkers do so poorly in school is because parents or other adults in the household don’t speak English. School assignments are in English, and most children of farmworkers are struggling to perfect their English skills. Without a fluent English speaker to assist them, farmworker children have little chance of completing school assignments successfully.
The Slug Tutoring Program was designed by a Center for Farmworker Families’ administrative assistant who recently graduated from UCSC. He has established a program in which any farmworker family that wants tutoring assistance for their children can be assigned a UCSC student tutor/mentor to visit their home once per week and receive assistance with assignments. The program has proved to be beneficial to both slug tutors and the children. The tutors are exposed to a way of life probably never experienced before, and the children receive school assignment assistance and mentoring to promote an interest in and future success in education.
- Farmworker Family Christmas
Farmworkers living on the Central Coast do not generally work in agriculture from the time that the growing season ends in November until the next growing season begins in March or April. Hence they literally survive on next to nothing in the intervening months. Christmas and Christmas gifts are considered to be an unaffordable luxury.
The Center for Farmworker Families joins local churches and other enterprises to host a piñata party with gifts for families every year at Christmas time. This year we will have two parties at Pinto Lake Park in Watsonville. One party will provide a piñata and lunch for 50 children and their families from 11:30 to 1:30 PM on 12/17/16. The other will be held on the same date and in the same location from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M. Bringing joy to the children is one of the greatest rewards of working at Center for Farmworker Families
The three Mexican states that supply most of the region’s farmworkers are: Oaxaca, Michoacán and Jalisco. The Center for Farmworker Families has been visiting the high mountains of Jalisco and working with the families in the poorest villages for about twenty years.
Most of our work has been in the form of distributing donations; especially shoes, providing school supplies, and sponsoring piñata parties in the villages. Currently, we have an opportunity to assist a small impoverished village with only 10 families, Rancho Nuevo, transition their traditional corn, bean and squash intercrop to agroecological farming without the use of any chemical inputs for the production of the native corn of Mexico, maíz criollo. To date, the most common synthetic chemical used in the corn is nitrogen-rich urea.
The transition time will be approximately two to three years. After the transition has been made, we will acquire USDA organic certification. The Latino community of Silicon Valley is very interested in purchasing certified organic, traditional corn from Mexico. One buyer in particular acquires organic corn in the U.S. to make traditional Mexican dishes which are then sold to the community. He will pay the Rancho Nuevo farmers in U.S. dollars for their exported corn. This export venture, which is supported by the local town of Cuquio’s municipal government can potentially raise this impoverished village out of poverty and allow the villagers to finally live a decent life.
Center for Farmworker Families is working with Food Empowerment Project to change the state regulation so that migrant farmworkers have the option of finding housing and remaining in the school district for the duration of the school year. Their children will then have a greater opportunity for academic success. In 2010, Center for Farmworker Families, with Human Agenda, introduced a bill in the California legislature, but it died in the senate. We will continue to push this bill until it passes.
As we move forward into 2017, we are committed to create more educational materials, build alliances with other organization, who are working to support farmworkers, and fight oppressive regulations. We look forward to doing this work with you in 2017
How You Can help:
Donate materials. If you have clothing, baby diapers in all sizes, baby wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, rice, beans, shampoo, bath soap, laundry detergent and dish soap, you want to donate , please fill out please fill out our donation form, located at the bottom of the Community Shed page.
One-Time and Monthly Donations. This helps us make sure we can keep the Community Shed stocked every month, so we can continue to offer the tutoring program, and to continue to raise awareness about these issues. You can make a monthly donatation here.