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Examining The Life Of Farm Workers

Published: September 19, 2016

Farm workers at the farm
PHOTO BY JOE PHILIPSON

The plight of the farm worker will continue as the topic of a class offered next spring from Chicano and Latino Studies (CHLS).

Luis Arroyo, former CHLS chair and expert on the 20th century Latino experience, seeks to explain to CSULB students about the work, lives and families of farm workers, why so many farm workers are from the Filipino and Mexican communities and what conditions need to be created to achieve social justice.

“My most difficult task this spring will be to explain California’s agribusiness which is one of the most sophisticated in the U.S.,” said Arroyo, who joined the university in 1995. “Many Americans do not perceive farmers as sophisticated. But that impression changes when you look at agribusiness. You see people who are not only hardworking and determined to succeed but are well-educated about 21st century economics. And agribusiness’ success depends, in part, on maintaining a plentiful supply of underpaid and exploited workers.”

The class will look at the daily lives of farm workers with the goal of understanding why that community has among the shortest life spans of any U.S. population.

“Look at the health issues associated with pesticides and other chemicals in the agribusiness workplace,” he said. “Fields are workplaces where the working conditions are extremely difficult. Most of us are unwilling to get up between 3 and 5 a.m. day after day. Look at the extreme range of temperatures in that workplace. There is extreme cold in the morning and extreme heat when the sun comes up. Look at the month of July in the San Joaquin Valley. There will be a number of farm workers who succumb to heat exhaustion.”

Arroyo seeks to help his students distinguish between the office work they know and the world of the farm worker.

“One of the problems in farm work is the economic imperative on the part of some employers to ignore safety regulations,” Arroyo explained. “Why have the workers leave the fields during crop dusting? Why not have them return to the fields before it is safe? Most Americans are tempted to see working outdoors from the romantic side. But the reality is that nature is very tough.”

Arroyo reminds his students that farm work, by definition, is seasonal and therefore part-time and many workers seeking to eke out a living must patch together employment throughout the year.

“Plowing or preparing the soil or seeding is a time of low demand for labor,” he said. “Harvest time is a time of high demand. Raising food calls for variable labor. Historically agricultural labor has been poorly paid. Combine poor working conditions and poor wages with the imperative to get the work done and that adds up to a very tough life.”

Arroyo pointed to the original farm worker communities from the Chinese and Japanese populations in California.

“But then there was a public backlash against both those communities resulting in the 1882 Exclusion Act against the Chinese and a number of laws passed by the California legislature beginning in 1913 which were aimed at preventing the Japanese community from owning land or becoming sharecroppers. When Mexico underwent a revolution between 1910 and 1917, Mexicans became available as an uprooted population. As U.S. nationals, the Filipinos took up work in California’s fields in the 1920s. The Filipinos and Mexicans experienced social discrimination and economic exploitation.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by farm workers is constant movement. Working conditions in the U.S. are terrible but, compared with what they have in central and South America, farm workers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Over time, those who can escape the fields do so.

“That was the case of my mother’s family,” he said. “My mother was born in the great state of Colorado and when she was 2, her family moved to the San Joaquin Valley where they settled in Porterville. She eventually became a farm worker.”

Her family experienced the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“I remember the pressure of community groups to ‘get rid of the foreigners’ which meant my mother’s family,” he recalled. “That meant the Mexicans were fired and replaced by the Oakies who were profiled in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. This class will look at the experience of farmworkers of all communities as far away as Wisconsin and Texas to help open students’ eyes to the fact that farm labor is not just a local or U.S. problem. I want this class to have a transnational perspective.”

A top focus for the class is social justice. “The struggles of farm workers are over more than money and better working conditions. One of the most important issues is worker dignity,” he said. “In order to understand how things have changed, students must learn about the reality of farm work.”

Arroyo hopes students take with them a new understanding of the challenges involved with bringing about social justice for farm workers.

“Social justice is not something we do in the morning before resting in the afternoon,” he said. “I want our students to understand the importance of organization. No one person will ever save farm workers. Leadership is what we need to bring together all the different ways of looking at the world. If students can get that out of this class, they’ll go far.”

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

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