A History of Exploitation.

Hey ya’ll this is Vicky writing to you.

When you think of Food Justice what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Was your first thought about the farmworkers who harvest the food?

In the Food Justice Movement farmworkers are sometimes left out of the loop, not intentionally, but because farmworker struggles have many interlocking struggles that make it difficult to push forward with change, but this doesn’t mean that nothing is happening in this sphere. There are a great number of organizations working with farmworkers to achieve the rights they deserve. One of the most famous is the United Farm Workers, organized by Cesar Chaves, who achieved great strides towards gaining basic human rights for farmworkers and now there are many more organization pushing forward to gain these basic human rights for farmworkers. I am one of hundreds of people that are working towards getting farmworkers the rights they deserve in a country that has a history of exploitation in the fields.

(Disclaimer: The following isn’t representative of the entire US, but of specific areas majority concentrated on the West Coast, majority representing the labor history of Watsonville, CA. Also many of these event interlay and overlap and many other events led to these events.)

If we look at the history of field works in the US we see a system of exploitation and slavery. Before Europeans colonized the Americas, Native American/Indigenous people moved across the land as hunters and gathers, taking only what they needed and nothing more. Then, there were also some Indigenous people like the Mexica (Aztec) who farmed crops like beans, corn and squash (the three sisters) instead of hunting and gathering, as they settled down in one place.

Then, Europeans started to colonize the Americas and farming was the main source of food. Europeans themselves farmed their own land, but they soon realized that farming large amounts of land was hard work and they didn’t want to do it themselves, so they contracted poor Europeans as indentured servants. This meant that poor Europeans (mainly Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, etc.) were talked into signing contracts where the farm owner in the Americas paid for the indentured servants boat fare and then the indentured servant had to work for the farm owner for a certain amount of years and then afterwards was freed from their contract and they could own their own piece of land. This system continued for years because it was a cheap way to get farmworkers, but the problem was that these indentured servants were only there for a certain number of years and then freed or ran away before their time had ended and caused the farm owners to lose money. The farm owners treated the indentured servants as property, almost like slaves, and had them living in bad conditions, but in the end indentured servants got their freedom. There were also cases in which Native Americans/Indigenous people were forced into slavery for the farm owners. (I personally haven’t done enough research to have concrete evidence, but I do know that Native Americans/Indigenous people were forced into slavery)

At this point in history a new source of farmworkers was being created. Slavery. Indentured servants were becoming expensive to have and buying slaves brought over from Africa was very cheap. The plantation owners kept their slaves until they were worked to death or until they were sold to another plantation. We all know the dark history of slavery and the conditions that slaves were kept in and how horrible they were treated because ultimately they were thought of as property and not as human beings. Slavery was the beginning of racism in the Americas towards people of color.

After the emancipation of slaves many moved to the North, but those who stayed became share croppers (rented a small piece of land from the plantation owner), but were still being exploited for their work. On the West Coast though there was a new system of exploitation. As slavery was prohibited workers were being brought in from China to work on the farms and railroads. A great majority of Chinese workers were men and they were paid very low wages based on a racial statement that Chinese (also towards Eastern Asian/Pacific Islanders) can survive on eating rice alone, when in reality the human body needs a variety of food in order to get the needed nutrients. It wasn’t just Chinese who were being brought here, but also Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, etc. Each wave of immigration brought with it a new wave of racism.

Watsonville, CA (my home town) had been a Japanese town before World War II happened and they were forced into concentration camps. I choose to use the word concentration vs interment because these camps looked very similar to the Nazi concentration camps. As well as, Japanese and Japanese-Americans in these concentration camps were interrogated because they were thought to be leaking information to Japan, but many were innocent and brutally beaten were many died inside these camps. While in these camps many Japanese/Japanese-Americans were forced to work on farms for very little pay or as free labor. Their labor was another cheap/free commodity to be exploited by farm owners.

(Disclaimer: I acknowledge that the concentration camps in the US weren’t a massive genocide like the Nazi concentration camps were, but they do have similarities and in a way Japanese culture experienced a cultural genocide and many Japanese and Japanese-Americans were forced to forget their Japanese culture and integrate into American culture.)

With Japanese and Japanese-Americans in concentration camps the workforce was then filled with Filipino immigrants. The Philippines was a US territory, therefore, men were allowed to come to the US with special visas and work in the fields and other sectors that need workers (i.e. canneries, fish canneries in Alaska, etc.).

As Filipinos continued the work in the fields they started to organize for better working conditions because many were “illegal” immigrants, but had visas and some were Filipino-Americans and they felt a sense of entitlement that they should be treated better than the “illegal” immigrants starting to immigrate into the US. Mexico and the US have had a tough history that goes back to before the Mexican-American War when the US slowly started to colonize Northern Mexico (present day Texas) because the symbol of wealth for the US land (property). Mexicans weren’t settling Northern Mexico, but instead were moving into the cities and the government wasn’t really regulating Northern Mexico, so land started to be sold off to (US) Americans and as they settled on this land they started to take more of it over and ultimately led to the Mexican-American War, where the US stole 2/3 of Mexico’s land and started to displace Mexicans and “recommended” Mexicans to go back to Mexico. But then when the US needed a labor force to work the fields during World War II they looked to Mexico and created the Bracero Program that brought thousands of Mexicans into the US in order to harvest the food before it spoiled. As the Bracero Program brought in Mexicans, many more Mexicans were immigrating into the US “illegally” because they couldn’t come in through the Bracero Program. Those that came through the Bracero Program were paid very low wages and lived in bad conditions and were basically being legally exploited. While those that came “illegally” were being paid much lower and were treated even worse and exploited as much as possible since this labor force wasn’t regulated. Then as World War II ended and soldiers came back from the war, Mexicans weren’t needed to work the fields, so the US had a national Wet Back Day were thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were deported back to Mexico by force, but that didn’t stop many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from staying in the US. Those that stayed faced racism and discrimination based solely on the fact that they were Mexican.

Now when you look at who makes up the majority of farmworkers they are still Mexicans, majority of them undocumented immigrants who came to the US to look for a better life for themselves and their children because back in Mexico farming was impossible to do as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) impacted corn farmers. What basically happened was that NAFTA allowed free trade between Canada, the US and Mexico. This meant that the US who produces tons of cheap corn started to be sold into Mexico which displace thousands of corn farmers in Mexico who had no other choice, but to sell their land and emigrate to US and work in the fields in order to provide for their families. As more Mexicans came to the  US many had children born in the US, who now are Mexican-Americans (or Chicanos, depending how they choose to identify) who started to moved away from field work and started to get better paying jobs and many pursued higher education, so this left the farmers dependent on undocumented immigrants to continue harvesting the food.

Now that Mexican-Americans are refusing to continue the cycle of farm labor, farmers are now looking towards Indigenous people from Mexico who are becoming displaced and forced off of their land. Not only are Indigenous people from Mexico immigrating to the US, but so are people from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.) as they are also becoming displaced from their land and forced to emigrate in order to be able to provide for their family. As the US continues to colonize the Americas people will continue to be displaced and forced to immigrate into the US and harvest our food in order to be able to provide for their family and survive.

Farm labor has a history of exploitation and will continue to exploit farmworkers unless the issues affecting farmworkers are being talked about and actions taken to gain basic human rights that for years they have been deprived of. There are many organizations like the UFW, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Center for Farmworker Families and many more organizations working towards gaining these rights that farmworkers deserve.

Next time your at the grocery store, stop and think of the hands that harvested your produce and the many struggles they continue to face.

If you would like to learn more I recommend you visit the the website linked above.

(This is part of a workshop I present to high school students at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville, CA. The workshop has three stages: 1. the history of farm labor 2. the issues impacting farmworkers and 3. some solutions and resources. Click Here for the Prezi presentation.)

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