Los Angeles-Americans have an inherent desire to have plenty of food on their dining room tables. Anything less would be a tragedy of great proportion. Yet, many Americans refuse to accept the notion that hard-working people are responsible for providing this food. As the saying goes, “Americans want their cake and eat too.” American’s want it both ways. Unconsciously accepting the fact that food will be plentiful but are not concerned with the health and safety of those who provide this much-needed labor necessary to fulfill their desires.
If one drives down Highway 5 to Highway 99 out of Los Angeles over the Grapevine into the California Central Valley one will see vast stretches of farmland. In the summer months, but also year-round, you will see men and women working in those same fields. These workers are seen only as human flashes as one drives at 80 miles per hour down the highway past the fields.
Without farmworkers, many crops would rot on the vines, in the orchards, and in the ground. This destruction is playing out all over the nation’s farm fields.
Agribusiness in California is a multi-billion dollar industry. This industry brings in over $60 billion into the State of California. According to the California Farm Bureau, California's agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. Over a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts are grown in California. California is the leading US state for cash farm receipts, accounting for over 13 percent of the nation's total agricultural value. Agriculture is big business in California and in many other states. In just one example, one crop, grapes, are worth over $6.25 billion to the economy of California. Without farmworkers, many crops would rot on the vines, in the orchards, and in the ground. This destruction is playing out all over the nation’s farm fields.
According to Irene Bloemraad, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, about half of the nation’s farmworkers are estimated to be undocumented. 50-year-old Juan Martinez is a Mexican farmworker living in Fresno. He has worked in these farm fields of California since the age of 15. The farm fields are a constant reminder that work would come and go as the season’s pass. In the years that Juan has worked in the fields, he never has been seriously ill but he has serious concerns about working in the fields with the threat of the coronavirus all around.
Covid-19 has him worried. He has never been tested and doesn’t know how to get tested. He doesn’t have health care. He does not own nor has been given protective gear. He can’t survive without work. As he works alongside other farmworkers, he is exposed to over 40 or more farmworkers within talking distance of each other. Such recommendations as stay-at-home, or shelter-in-place and social distancing options don’t apply to his situation. After work, he and his son return to their one-bedroom rented house that includes his wife and two small children. He is troubled by the fact he could, if infected, pass the coronavirus to his family.
It has been said that when farmworkers become “essential workers,” it will be time to admit we need to change our perspective. How true. But if history is any indication not much will change for farmworkers like Juan, who labor in our nation’s farm fields. Over the past decades, our government policies and public attitudes have abdicated their responsibility, care, and safety of this sector in our society.
During the 1930s Great Depression, 1.8 million people of Mexican descent-many US citizens were deported in an effort to save jobs that were viewed as American jobs. Many of those deported were in the US working in the farm fields. In the years that followed. the US government, with the backing of agribusiness, saw the need to continue the Bracero Program in order to help farmers and ranchers develop their agriculture business. A Bracero Program was developed allowing agribusinesses to hire cheap labor from across the Mexican border. The Bracero Program of the 30s continued and the program was expanded in the 1940s because the US needed a wartime labor force to work in the fields.
In 1947, Ernesto Galarza’s book Merchants of Labor exposed the slave labor conditions and abuse of farmworkers in the US government’s “Bracero Program.” During this period tension grew as immigrant farm workers came into the country to work the crops. Mass deportation again took place in 1955. “Operation Wetback” used the same rhetoric and xenophobia views as in the past. Immigrants, documented and undocumented, were targeted for deportation. The justification for the mass deportation again was to preserve jobs for American citizens. The Bracero Program lasted until 1964.
The public attitude “I could care less about these immigrants,” and government immigration policy extended into a new low of hypocrisy and racism toward the Mexican and the Mexican-American/Latino population. History seems to repeat itself. Even now, the president has proposed new changes in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. We have seen in the past how these types of programs have worked out. Let’s be clear. The public attitudes and government policies are not an issue of a clash of cultures. It’s about a long historical embedded attitude of colonialism.
Even during this difficult time of the coronavirus where over a million people are infected and thousands have died, the conditions on the farms of our nation will not change much. Although farmworkers have expressed their concerns, these concerns have gone unheard. The plight of the farmworker remains the same as always as they work in the shadows of the coronavirus farm fields.
No one really knows how many farmworkers and their family members have been infected. There is no universal testing for those who work in our nation’s farm fields. Many health experts have said the coronavirus is way worse than feared. Yet, the government has mandated that those who work in the farm fields are considered a protected occupation. In other words, a protected occupation simply means more bail-out money for the ranchers and farmers.
It is hard to understand why our government wants to send millions of people back to work without protections or testing. In many cases, this will be a death sentence for thousands. Juan must continue to work because he has too. But this is the world that Juan is now living in and not much has changed over the years.
As in the past, there will be a lot of talking and posturing but little will be done to protect Juan and his family’s safety and health needs. In the meantime, farmers and ranchers will get $16 billion in direct funding in a government bailout.