This is more than one story. It is twenty-five years of narratives from farmworkers mostly in the Carolinas, told in labor camp kitchens, on trailer porch stoops, and in small living rooms with fans whirring and children playing nearby. It is stories of cultural celebrations, of helping a sick co-worker, standing up to the crew leader, of wage theft and illness from pesticide exposure, stories of crossing the Rio Grande, and threats of deportation. It is stories of struggles and dreams, why people come and what they miss about home, what they like about farm work and what they want to change, how they carry on, and how they resist. The stories don’t have borders; they follow the workers from crop to crop, state to state, and country to country.
This website, which accompanies a photographic exhibition, is organized into five major themes: life, borders, work, family and hope, and resistance. It is also a celebration of twenty-five years of creating community with farmworkers and students in the Southeast. What we hope you take away is that there are many stories of farmworkers– of the men, women, and children who plant, pick, pack, and process our food every day. There’s more than one story, more than one dream, and more than one hope for change.
Website created by SAF alumna Lucia Constantine and Solidaridad intern Daisy Almonte, edited by SAF Executive Director Melinda Wiggins and Communications Arts Director Joanna Welborn. Exhibit curated by Joanna Welborn and Lucia Constantine with support of SAF staff and interns. Translated by SAF alumna Alejandra Okie Hollister.
Many U.S. farmworkers come from small towns in Mexico and Central America with rich cultural traditions and festivities, where people gather in the square and chat for hours. Their lives in the U.S. can feel lonely and quiet by comparison. In looking through SAF’s archive of over 350 documentary projects collected over the past 25 years, we’ve noticed how often workers share stories of life back home as a way of keeping home with them here in the U.S.
They share stories of celebrating the Virgen of Guadalupe, Day of the Cross, and Three Kings Day; of indigenous languages spoken – like Quiche and Tarasco; and of traditional dance, songs, and folk healing traditions. They share about making crafts, such as papel picado, wire sculptures, and fishing nets; of woodworking; of creating piñatas, belts, and crocheted dolls.
Although many migrant farmworkers live with co-workers, sharing rooms and meals and stories of home, their housing is intentionally hidden and isolated from the rest of the world. They live at the end of long dirt roads, in barracks or trailers tucked away from view and far from town. When they come home after working long hours, there’s little time for anything other than a quick meal, a short call home, and a shower before starting over again the next day.
As more and more farmworkers call the Carolinas home, their presence in rural communities becomes more visible here. Tiendas, taquerias and panaderias are popping up in small towns across the South. Churches are offering services in Spanish and corridos can be heard on the radio. More and more, farmworkers are making life here.
Por la necesidad. Out of need. This is what we hear over and over from farmworkers when asked why they come to the U.S. For some, it’s economic hardship and for others it’s fleeing violence and environmental disasters. Times in Mexico are hard – a kilo of tortillas costs a third of what a person makes in a day. Many are recruited north by the promises of higher wages and a better life for their families. And so they leave their families behind, willing to do work that no one else is willing to do, sending money home when they can.
The stories we share here are just a small representation of the many border narratives we’ve heard from farmworkers over the last several decades: stories of crossing the border on foot and in the trunks of cars; of being separated from family in the desert; of missing out on whole chapters of their children’s lives; of coming to the U.S. on a guestworker visa; of traveling from state to state to follow the crops; and of being deported.
The potential benefits do not always outweigh the costs. Crossing the border remains a perilous enterprise for those without papers, particularly those from Central America who must cross two or three borders before making it to the U.S. Those that do make it across find it hard to spend so much time away from their families. Many farmworkers will not see their wives, children, and relatives for the better part of the year and for some it is many years. While the towns they are from may be improved by remittances sent home, they are often depleted of their young men, disrupting the family unit and community dynamics.
Days start before sunrise and end around sunset. Even though it’s well above 90 degrees by noon, farmworkers work as fast as they can because the number of sweet potatoes in their bucket determines the size of their paycheck. There’s no time for breaks – a little water here and there, maybe a quick rest for lunch. The pay is not much either way; usually farmworkers make around $17,000 a year. It’s not enough to make up for the burden on their bodies. If they’re not exhausted by the heat or the work itself, they are often made sick by the pesticides or the nicotine on their skin.
The passage of time is marked by the change in crops. In NC, first there’s berries, then cucumbers and tobacco, sweet potatoes and then Christmas trees. All are harvested by hand.
We hear many stories of work: of planting and harvesting peaches, apples, tomatoes, peppers, melons, and onions; stories of poultry workers and crab pickers on the line; workers from tree nurseries and orchards; stories of pesticide exposure and snake bites, Green Tobacco Sickness and heat stroke; stories of workers being self-taught, and of learning from co-workers.
Despite grueling conditions, farmworkers take great pride, even joy, in their work because at the end of the day, farmworkers feed the world.
For many farmworkers, their story begins and ends with family. For those who leave behind their families as they make the journey to the fields of the U.S., and for those who live in proximity to the fields and have family here with them in the U.S., family remains the center of their lives.
The decision to take on the role of working the land for arduous hours often begins with the hope that they will be able to send money back to loved ones, with the wish to provide for sons and daughters, to build a home for their mother back in Mexico, to provide them with what they need. They carry on with the hope that their children will receive the education they never could, that they will live better lives, and that they will overcome the hurdles of migrating and switching moving from school to schools, working in the fields before or after school, and not having enough food on the table at home.
The resilient spirit of farmworkers is sustained by a text from Mexico containing an image of a newborn daughter, the celebration of family and culture with a quinceañera or an anniversary party, and with the newfound bond established with fellow workers. Farmworkers share many stories of family and hope, stories of brothers and cousins, fathers and sons working side by side in the fields; stories of learning English, of going to community college, and of returning to work as an industrial chemist or marine biologist in Mexico; stories of being separated from family for 2, 8, 13 years; and stories of making a home away from home.
From César Chávez and Dolores Huerta’s efforts with the United Farm Workers’ Delano grape strike in 1965 to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ current Fair Food Campaign boycott of Wendy’s to FLOC’s current efforts to organize tobacco workers in NC, resistance by farmworkers and their allies has been marked by energy, zeal, and determination. Energy to fight for safe places for farmworkers to live and work, zeal to dismantle oppression, and determination to work for social change.
And yet resistance has many different faces.
It is the faces of workers uniting together for a common goal of improved working conditions. It is the worker experiencing the burst of adrenaline as they sign their first union contract. It is being fired for refusing to work on Sundays. It is following in your mother’s footsteps to be part of la causa. It is challenging the power dynamics of the fields when one worker covers for another when they are sick. Resistance is finishing school and going off to college. It is boycotting, marching, standing up to the crewleader, filing a complaint, becoming an advocate, becoming an activist.
From public events that yield huge crowds to intimate conversations, farmworkers and their allies will continue to resist until farmworkers have dignity in their work and lives.