I’d be lying if I told you that it never occurred to me to question the beauty of the countryside that I loved to explore as a young person of color in the South. Many people, like me, can’t help but admire stretches of crisp green plants that interchange with golden fields and eventually give way to pristine farm homes with freshly trimmed lawns. However, there is a deeply entrenched legacy of injustice and inequality that no amount of romanticizing or denial could remove from the reality of life in the country. But people like to forget and forgetting is costly.
I’d seen third world poverty before when I worked with a nonprofit organization in Honduras in the summer of 2012, but I still felt shocked when I went out to the camps of the trabajadores with whom FLOC organizers work to build community power. It was shocking, I think, because for the first time I was faced with the harsh realization that there is a widespread human trafficking operation of cheap labor thriving in my back yard.
One of the ugliest things I’ve seen in the fields confronted me this past Tuesday night when my companeros y yo visited a worker camp in North Carolina that was surrounded by barbwire fence. For me, it looked like a prison. It made me think of a cage where the workers are contained until they are needed to work in the fields. There were approximately 60 people living in 5-6 trailers with worn out mattresses backed into a small space, allowing hardly enough room for people to move around.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon; 24 mostly 20-something-aged kids are role-playing in Spanish – an animated exchange between their comrades role-playing “farm workers at the labor camp” and the 4 young FLOC organizers who comprise a team both for this role-play, and for the real-life interactions they’ll have in 4 hours out in real farmworker labor camps. Six teams of four practice for a total of 5 hours today. The “farmworkers” throw obstacles in the path of the union-recruiting organizer team trying to discuss with the “farmworkers” why solidarity through FLOC is the best option for improving their own welfare in their own camp, and that of farmworkers across NC.
All 24 know many of these obstacles well, for they’ve faced them every night – in real life — for the last week …. and will for the next 7 weeks. I listen in as they’re reminded, in debriefing sessions, of best responses. For example:
“We already get paid here much better than in Mexico – why should we complain?” Response: “But what control do you have? If your paycheck is shorted, what can you do? If you’re charged to be able to cook at the camp or for transportation to Wal-Mart, what can you do? If the boss tells you to go into a field right after pesticide application, what can you do? Life may be OK now, but what about tomorrow? When you have no control, things can go bad very fast. With a union, we get some control for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters across North Carolina.”
“Soy lo que dejaron. Soy toda los sobra de lo que se robaron…mano de obra campesina para tu consumo…el sol que nace y el dia que muere con los mejores atardeceres…Soy America latina, un pueblo sin piernas pero que camina”
The song, “Latinoamerica” by Calle 13 plays in my head as we head out from the office and toward the worker camps. Every time we are out on the road I can’t help but think about all the people that we have spoken to and all the people that we will speak to in the upcoming days. I still can’t decide what it was that compelled me to come to North Carolina to be a part of the FLOC campaign. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for that energy that pulled me all the way from Southern Cali to the Southern U.S.
These past two weeks have flown by and I have already become close friends with three amazing mujeres. It’s important to have a good support system when you are far away from home and embarking on an amazing yet arduous campaign like this. First there’s Julia who has been so welcoming, even sharing her home cooked meals during lunchtime. But perhaps the most important thing she has shared with me is her own experience as a farmworker. I am happy to call her my team leader because even though she is only 17 years old she has so much wisdom. Another awesome friend that I have made is Patsy. You wouldn’t believe she is only 22 years old. She is truly an inspiration for what it means to be a strong woman. And of course, Julie who is one of the bravest people I know. I definitely would not have had the guts to come on this adventure all on my own.
Federico is one of the approximately 100,000 farmworkers working in North Carolina this harvest season. Every year, individuals like Federico put everything on the line and migrate from Mexico and Central America to North Carolina to work the tobacco harvest season. Expanding from early July to late September, the tobacco harvest season not only brings a lot of migrant workers to the state, but also lots of revenue. North Carolina-grown tobacco accounts for over half of the total U.S. production, making tobacco the most profitable cash-crop in the state of North Carolina. Companies like Reynolds American, Altria Group, and Lorillard, collectively known as “The Big Three,” hold nearly 90% of the tobacco market share in the US, profiting from the hard labor performed by workers like Federico.
While tobacco brings in approximately $770 million dollars to North Carolina according to the USDA, workers like Federico do not see much of that money. After being recruited and gathered at the US consulates in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, migrant farmworkers are transported 1,600 miles to their work camps by way of overcrowded buses. With little stops and much less spending money on hand, workers must endure the travel and the uncertainty of not knowing their final destination. The reward: A promise of housing and a weekly paycheck for three months. Federico has made the arduous journey five times now, each time getting it a little harder because of his age.
“I do it because back in Mexico things are not well…There’s no jobs, crime is up…and I have a family to feed, children to send to school…I do it for them,” explained Federico. Read more
As an International Organizer from OPEIU/AFL-CIO and as a native Mexican I feel very proud to be part of FLOC’s “Respect, Recognition, Raise” Campaign here in North Carolina. Having thousands of “campesinos” coming from Mexico every year for the harvest season creates a great need for them to have and to belong to a “sindicato” that protects their rights and supports them in labor issues they may confront. As the campaign develops I am learning of so many amazing stories from my “paisanos”- good, honest and hard working people that are here with the hope to provide a better life for their families back in Mexico. From now on one thing is for sure, every time I eat a vegetable or a strawberry it will come to my mind the smiling face of that farm worker when I shook his hand when he joined the union. That I will never forget. Hasta la Victoria!