WHO HARVESTS OUR FOOD?
The Indigenous Roots of a Migrant Farmworker-The Story of Gervacio Pena
Text and Photos by David Bacon
Gastronomica, Spring 2018
Gervacio Pena speaks.
As consumers we know that what we eat appears in the stores when we need it. We know it must take the labor of people to get it there. Thanks to the media we know that most of the people who put food on our table are immigrants from Mexico. And many of us remember that Cesar Chavez led a movement half a century ago to change their conditions.
But how much do we really know about the lives of the people who feed us-today? Where are the workers who fill the fields coming from? What causes them to leave home? How does it feel to do some of hardest labor we can imagine?
To find answers to these questions, we need to hear the voices of those who do the work. One of those voices belongs to Gervacio Pena. Today a large and rising percentage of agricultural workers, the people whose labor provides the fruit and vegetables we eat, migrate from small towns in southern Mexico. In the rows of wine grapes of Sonoma County, where Pena has worked for many years, you are as likely to hear Mixtec or Triqui-indigenous languages that predate Columbus-as you are to hear Spanish.
Pena was born in the municipio of Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, from which indigenous people have been migrating to the United States for decades. But despite their dispersal, as he describes, they have found a way to unite, not just around language and their towns of origin but through their identity as indigenous Oaxacan migrants.
Mixtecos in their migration overwhelmingly belong to transnational communities-they retain ties to their communities of origin, and establish new communities as they search for work. Their ties to each other are so strong, and the movement of people so great, that people belong to a single community that exists in different locations..
These networks have a profound impact on work, families, social movements, and cultural practices. Traditions become a rich source of experience on which migrants draw as they seek social justice, and to preserve their culture, in the places they go.
As Pena says, migration has complicated social costs and benefits in communities of origin. It threatens cultural practices and indigenous languages. Emigration often seems, especially to the young, a profitable alternative to education. It exacerbates social and economic divisions but has become an economic necessity.
Yet while people decide to migrate to the United States for overwhelmingly economic reasons, the pursuit of work is not the sum total of their existence. As social beings, people create community, and pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world.
Gervacio Pena has been active in the social movements of farmworkers and Latinos in California for many years. David Bacon interviewed him, as he sat in front of the tent where he lives on the Russian River.
I am from Oaxaca, from the Mixteca region. I'm forty-nine years old and I've been living in California for at least thirty of them.
What has happened to my hometown, Santiago Naranjas, is the same story of many others that have sent so many of their inhabitants to the U.S. When I was a student the number of people living in town reached three thousand. Now there are more houses but fewer people, because so many of us don't live there anymore. About forty percent have migrated to the north of Mexico and to the U.S.
Some streets have been paved and we have sewers now. There is drinking water, electricity, and telephone service. In my youth these things didn't exist. Then most houses were made of adobe. We had one. When they widened the street, they tore it down, and now our house is made of concrete. Concrete houses are much hotter, and those little adobe houses were a lot cooler. They were built with taller ceilings and there was more ventilation. Some houses now have air conditioning but a lot don't because electricity is expensive. Sometimes in search of something better you don't take account of what you already have.
My father worked with my grandfather. In our town the first thing you learn is to farm. They would plant vegetables and corn on the mountain. ["on the mountain" OR "in the mountains"] They raised hens and turkeys. What they produced was to feed themselves. Then when my dad got married he learned to build houses-at that time still with adobe and tiles. Although he did not go to school, he learned to measure and use lead and a level, and became a master of that trade.
When he came to this side of the border he also worked in construction, even though he did not speak English. He would sometimes fix walls or floors before the building inspection, so the project could pass. But the contractors exploited him, and would pay him as little for that as they could.
Today people say, "We work very hard here in the U.S. so I want to have a big house in my town when I return." That is always the dream. We don't really believe in the American Dream. Instead our big dream is to return to our small town and have a place to raise a family or retire. Our migrant families always have that idea that one day we will return and we want to have something to return to.
The Mixteca region of Oaxaca is one of the poorest areas in Mexico. Indigenous Mixtec, Triqui, and other groups from this region now make up a large percentage of the migrants who have left to work in the United States. Zacarias Salazar plows his cornfield behind oxen, in the traditional way with a wooden plough. Because of corn dumping enabled by the North American Free Trade Agreement, it is almost impossible for Salazar to grow and sell corn in Mexico any longer, and his crop is now mostly for the sustenance of his family.
Santiago Naranjas is an indigenous town, governed by habits and customs (usos y costumbres). Most of our land is common, not private property. Your home belongs to you, and is protected for you and your family. But the fields and the mountains are worked only by the community, and with the permission of the community. If you are going to plant crops or cut a tree you have to ask for permission.
Our elders had to fight to save our lands from being sold to wealthy people. In years past the caciques (community bosses) could buy or claim land. They would do whatever they wanted. The elders thought it was better to keep our common lands. Elsewhere in the district of Juxtlahuaca land was divided up and sold as private property. Powerful people would forge crooked papers and dispossess farmers who borrowed money from them to plant a crop. If the harvest was too small they lost their land.
In the oldest communities, like Santo Domingo and Santiago Naranjas, the federal government agreed that the town land wasn't private property. Since our lands are held in common our towns are governed differently. Sometimes powerful people arrive in the district and try to maneuver to buy land. They pay to get a property title, register their ownership, and say the paper protects them. That is illegal, but we still have the risk that someone will buy everything.
In my town they don't allow someone from outside to buy land. That does not mean that other people from other towns can't come live there. They would have to serve the community for a certain number of years and provide a certificate saying they don't have a criminal record. Then they could be citizens of the community as long as they participate in the assemblies and in the usos y costumbres. Some people marry someone from our community, and we don't prevent them from being part of the town. Some from outside have even done well because they start a small business.
Santiago Naranjas is a peaceful town. There isn't much violence. At the time when they were delineating what was common land there were people who had property inside the commons. They wanted to create an ejido (a different form of rural land ownership) instead. There were fights about that.
Now water is becoming scarce. There's more awareness of the need to treat the waste so that contaminants don't reach the subsoil or pollute the water. Before there was more water in the valley, and people could plant more. Now there are more houses and fewer places to farm. You have to go up into the hills. But if you don't prepare the land well you only produce two or three harvests and then the erosion starts. So this is not very sustainable.
Honorina Ruiz, six years old, ties bunches of green onions together in a field farmed by a U.S. grower in northern Mexico. Her mother Esperanza and brother Rigoberto work with her. This is the same work that Gervacio Pena's family did for many years, and is part of the experience of thousands of Oaxacan migrant families.
Our town is trying to preserve the land and forests, but deforestation is also decreasing the amount of land for planting crops. Our forests are more or less preserved now with more supervision of the commons. We cooperate on projects with other towns, but often they're not well planned and there are landslides and more erosion.
People have migrated away in large numbers, but a lot of people have been called to return. There is no law that says they have to, but many want to continue to be a member of the community. Officials send announcements, asking people to return to serve the town. If you serve as municipal president, it's for a year. For other posts it is three years.
People arrive with new ideas to improve planning or for another way to organize the town. Often they have seen projects that have worked in other places. The difficult part is to start them up in our community because people in the town don't want to create something new. Mostly these projects have not had much acceptance because they also involve a lot of resources and money.
A lot of our families in Santiago Naranjas are dependent on our jobs in the U.S. Many people in the U.S. have made a better life for themselves here. They've brought their family to the U.S. and have no plans to return. They don't want to become involved in what is happening in the town.
I grew up speaking Mixteco because my dad and mom spoke it. I started school at the age of eight or nine. My mom and her brothers went to work in Sinaloa and saw that I needed to speak Spanish. I'm glad I learned to communicate in another language, but I feel fortunate that I also learned my own language within my family.
In Mixteco towns everyone has to participate in the dances and the festivals. You learn by looking at those who dance. It has changed, though. It is not precisely how Mixtecos lived many years ago. But the festivals have helped preserve the feeling of belonging to a community. When you know what you have lived as a community, it helps you survive in a society that dictates a different conduct or religion. Our traditions made us feel good.
Gervacio Pena in front of his tent by the Russian River.
When I was young there was no television. You listened to the radio, but it was in Spanish. When we got television later I could see programs like the novelas. But they don't show much about living in a small town. They're more about the city. In the last decade American movies have also arrived, which catch the attention of youth. So they don't live completely in the small town anymore, even though they are right there. They have a window to the world.
It's not good when it creates a mentality of competition, that I can do something better than others and I don't need them. Respect is lost for older people. Now there are young people who don't speak Mixteco and think they know more than their uncle or father because they speak Spanish well. But they only speak Spanish. At school this is what they are told. They don't need to know about their culture or history-just learn to speak Spanish well. I started to migrate at an early age but there was always that connection of not forgetting your family. I speak Spanish very well, but my color-no one can change that.
This is the risk with our youth-the mentality that they should show off and dress well. Now everyone is ordering clothing and athletic shoes used by great artists and players. You can dress like that but it does not change your life or make you a great athlete. It is not bad to have access to better communication, to receive news every day of something happening in another place in the world. But the media is filled with the idea that everything is fashion. When young people have a lot of distractions they forget to participate in the community or the festivals or the culture.
Young people now sometimes do better in an academic sense because their parents have emigrated. They've been able to provide an education and pay for school supplies. But do young people learn how to earn money to support a family, to take care of a place where they were born? They think, "I don't have to do that because my father is going to send me his biweekly pay. Now I have to buy this and that shoe."
In Santiago Naranjas, though, we have always had teachers who tried to teach students something different, and who were involved in the teachers' movement. My aunts were part of that, one from the teachers' union and the other from another union.
A big movement like the teachers' fight always has repercussions everywhere. People say teachers are lazy, that they don't want to teach the children and just want to make more money. They don't understand what the teachers want. The teachers are fighting so that the children don't lack an education, not just about their jobs. In rural areas the teachers always give more time than what they are paid for. They usually have to use part of their salary for basic supplies for the children-something to write or color with.
A striking teacher from Michoacán demonstrates in Mexico City in front of a line of police. Mexican teachers want to defeat proposals to remove job protections, and at the same time want economic reforms that would give students an alternative to forced migration to the United States.
When I was in school education was only in Spanish. In third grade the teacher did not want one word in Mixteco in the classroom. He'd fine us five or ten cents, which was a lot at that time, for each word he heard in Mixteco. The director, who was Mixteco, approved this. The rule prevented me from speaking my tongue. I felt oppressed.
I like the idea proposed by the teachers' union of a change in the education system that would make it more respectful of indigenous culture and language. Teachers who work in indigenous areas and communities understand the kind of reform we need. The politicians in the Mexican Congress or the state capital never go to those communities.
The structural reform the government has proposed would not help our children. That reform has removed much of the history of the indigenous heroes, of the fights we've had in Mexico. They are removing the only thing that could give value to children's education. They only want to prepare children to know the things needed to work in the places that are going to hire them. But these jobs they're being prepared for pay the least. Instead, we need to create a critical consciousness, to encourage students to question what they really want to do, and what can help their family and community. If they only prepare kids to assemble things in a factory, they will just become robots that use their hands but can't think for themselves.
After my father began emigrating he separated from my mom, so I only knew him for my first three years. He left to work in Baja California and Sonora. He didn't speak much Spanish and had to use hand signs to ask for something to eat or drink. He was ridiculed by people who thought he was ignorant because he didn't speak the same language they did. He worked building and fixing houses, and later crossed to the U.S.
He worked in bad conditions, but he thought he couldn't protest because he wouldn't be given any work. I didn't really agree, maybe because I was more educated. I believe if you keep quiet you let it happen. This country gives us an opportunity to work, and we all want a better life. We all want our family to live in a healthy environment. So if the conditions do not allow that we have to look for a way to organize. No government, however good it may seem, is going to give something to the community or to our families.
I came with my uncles and my mother to Sinaloa when I was seven. They picked tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants that were exported to the U.S. They worked on the outskirts of Culiacan. Nogalito and El Chaparral were labor camps. There was no school close to the camp, and I was not yet old enough to work. They would leave me in the camp, or if they worked close by, I would go with them.
A meeting of workers in the Graton day labor center.
There were no houses. We arrived before the picking started, and made the walls of our shack from tomato boxes and the bags that held fertilizer. They'd keep the wind out and give us shelter from the heat. In some places the bosses built barracks, partitioned with cardboard. People would start cooking inside at three in the morning, and at four they'd leave for work. The smoke would fill the inside of the barracks. The roof was made with tarpaper and cardboard, which got really hot. The smell was very strong and so was the heat. Much later they started to use metal roofs, but these were also very hot.
There was no drinking water in the camps. Everyone drank from the irrigation canal. To get the cleanest water you had to go up where no one was bathing. We would get water where they were growing rice, because we thought the rice plants filtered it. The water runs through the rice field because that is how it is cultivated. But we didn't know that they put fertilizer in the water. Airplanes would pass over to fumigate the tomatoes nearby, and the pesticide would fall more in the rice than the tomatoes.
When he harvest started in Sinaloa recruiters would come to Santiago Naranjas. The people who were the poorest would say, "Let's go." They would make announcements on a speaker on a car they'd drive through the town, saying there were good jobs in Sinaloa and work guaranteed for seven days a week. You had to agree to work at least four months. They would promise to bring you back to Santiago Naranjas and pay for the trip, but that never happened.
Then they started to bring people to Baja California-to Ensenada and San Quintin. They'd recruit people in Sinaloa so that they didn't have to go all the way to Oaxaca to get them. They'd promise that if you finished the season in Baja California, they'd bring you back to Sinaloa so you could continue working. In Sinaloa and Baja California the children could already work at eleven years old. Some children did not grow quickly as a result. Because they were small the manager would say, "You don't have to fill the bucket up-with three-fourths it's fine." Very considerate. And the poor kids, well, they would fill it up to only three-fourths but they earned only half of the wage.
I finished high school in Oaxaca, in Asunción Ixtaltepec. I wasn't living with my family, but with a group of youth who had the opportunity to finish high school. This group was formed by the Marist brotherhood. The director of their order had told the brothers, "We cannot commit ourselves more than just a little," and the brothers answered, "If you understand the gospel and if you want to make a real change for these people, you have to do more than what the church permits." So they left their congregation and went to indigenous communities where they saw the most need. They tried to help people learn carpentry and beekeeping, or how to farm in cooperative groups. One of them became my godfather when I left elementary school. My best present was receiving half a dozen books from him.
They gave me the opportunity to keep going to school. I'd never been on my own but I liked it. I was doing well in school, but my mom was still working in Sinaloa. In one of those labor camps she hurt her arm. She let me know that she couldn't work anymore, and was not going to be able to support me while I kept studying. I was sixteen or seventeen. I felt that if my mom was hurt then I was old enough to work. I decided to stop studying for a few years to work for her and the family.
Gervacio Pena speaks at a meeting in the Graton day labor center.
After '78 or '79 my uncles started to come to the U.S. I got to Baja California in '85. I wanted to cross to the U.S. right away, and I tried four times but couldn't make it. I didn't have money for a coyote. I thought I could do it on my own, but I found myself in the desert for the first time. Once I gave money to a man who was going to help me cross at Nogales, and he accompanied me to the fence. Once I stepped over to the other side, I turned and he wasn't there. I had to walk alone in the night. I said to myself, "Well, what could happen?" I woke up in Green Valley and went to wash in a stream and saw the sheriff. He turned me in to immigration authorities.
A family member from my town also took people across, but still they got us. Each time we crossed, robbers took our money. They called us Baja pollos (Baja chickens). They were youth born in the U.S. who did not want to work. They would tell us in Spanish, "Come this way because there are no migra [border patrol] here, and where you are going the migra will catch you." But it was just a trick to take the little money we had. Eventually I got this idea that even if someone is a pocho (an Americanized Mexican) and speaks your language, you should not trust him.
My uncles in San Quintin told me the grape harvest in California was over, but that they'd take me with them after New Year's when they went back. They had better coyotes, and with them I finally crossed in 1986. We got to Los Angeles, and from there a van took us to a ranch here on the west side in Sonoma County. When I saw the vineyards with no leaves I was shocked. I thought, "There isn't going to be a harvest because all the plants must be dead." Then my uncles told me it was just winter, and that they'd revive in a few months. It was actually pruning season, with plenty of work.
When I crossed in '86 I was eighteen. I was only going to come to the U.S. for two years, but I stayed. My father lived in Fallbrook, near Oceanside, but I never asked for his telephone number. I never wanted to contact him because of my pride. I thought how great would it be if a family here adopted me.
My uncles found a place to rent-a small trailer. With three of us in it, we couldn't even move. We were like sardines. Some cousins from Oregon arrived and they parked in some trees nearby, to sleep in their car. That night the owner came and asked who they were. When my uncle said they were cousins, the owner told him they'd have to pay rent too. Then some left with the car, and the ones who stayed behind slept in a wrecked car inside a stand of prickly pear cactus. But it was property of the owner too. When a week had passed, he came for the rent. I think we paid about thirty-five dollars or something like that.
I worked about nine years in the fields, but I did not like it very much because in Mexico I was a student until I was seventeen. My uncles would train me and tell me how to do the work. After ten hours all day in the sun, when I would come from work all my bones hurt. My uncles would make something for dinner but I'd go to sleep instead of eating. The next day very early I had to go to work again.
Day laborers check in for jobs at the Graton center.
If you were new you had to learn about pruning by working a week without pay. After I was there for a week the manager did not like my work and didn't hire me. So my uncle found me another job with Pablito, a foreman from Putla. It was my first job.
When we came here we would hear people say we could earn a lot, that everyone pays above the minimum wage. But you cannot buy a lot with that wage at the market and the price of everything keeps going up. Rent has doubled and wages have not risen fifteen percent.
A few years ago we stayed below Forestville, by the river. The boss gave us a trailer, but for only for two months. It only fit twelve or fifteen people, but we were twenty, sometimes even thirty. Some would sleep under the trailer. Others would put up a tarp to shelter from the wind at night inside the rows of vines. The boss came and said, "You can't do that because it damages the grapes. You can stay in your car but move where you cannot be seen from the road." That was his solution. There were many families living like that. There still are. It is normal.
A week after the harvest ended he came to take the trailer. Some workers were returning to Oregon and others to Southern California, but some of us didn't make enough money for the trip and we had nowhere to go. We were still sleeping in the trailer when the tractor came and hooked up to tow it away. We hear the noise and ran out asking what's happening?
In Graton and Forestville, close to the river, people always live outdoors near the grapes. The boss does not say anything before the harvest, but after it is over he does not want workers there. Supposedly they are at risk of flooding, and he says he is only helping them. Somehow he always finds the risk after the harvest.
I helped a group of people living next to the Russian River in Geyserville. They were Triquis, Chatinos, and Mixtecos, and with Lorenzo Oropeza, we tried to create a committee of the Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front (FIOB). They participated for a while, but a good committee was never established. Instead, people wanted to form groups just within their own ethnic communities. Maybe they had more trust in each other. That was when I started to participate in organizing the labor center. There I saw an opportunity to grow and represent workers.
Workers distribute food at the Graton center.
Before the labor center started there was a big camp right next to a vineyard, with a lot of people living under the trees. During the harvest workers accept these conditions which people see as inhumane or unsanitary. Some want to be close to their job. Others feel it's temporary and don't care. Maybe some growers cannot provide housing directly, but they can pay enough so that workers have the money to rent a place. After all, they depend on the workers' labor.
Many workers have always lived outside because of high rents. When we first came here we thought we'd earn as much as we could, and save as much as possible to send to our family. Living outside, without paying rent, was a sacrifice we made. But sometimes we don't consider the cost to our health in the future. Our families are happy to receive remittances back in Oaxaca, but they do not know the conditions in which we are living.
Before, living outside was more of a choice and we accepted it. It was not right, but at least we knew it was just for the moment. We never considered it permanent. But now it is getting worse. When families get an eviction notice where are they going to go? There are no places with an affordable rent. If you have a place you can't complain that something needs fixing because you are scared. If you complain you'll be forced to leave. You will not find another place to live.
When I got here I discovered that the fruit is better cared for than the worker. The rules say the boss has to provide shade, but that shade is not enough for more than three or four people, and the working crew can have at least eleven. Sometimes it seems more for an emergency-if someone faints and has to be put in the shade. It is not a general protection for everyone who works there. And now employers want to harvest the grapes at night, so after working all night you're still in the field when morning comes. You work at night and sleep in the day. You don't really rest because your body is used to sleeping at night and being awake in the daytime.
Everything has changed a lot. Supposedly we live in a country of opportunity. So why do people have to sacrifice themselves, give their lives to a job, and yet they don't even have a dignified place to live?
We organized the Day Labor Center in Graton to help the people who were living outdoors under the trees, as well as the people who wait for work on the corner. Most are people who are just arriving in this country. They don't yet know how to get work or get connected to our community. It opened because of the efforts of local people with good hearts, but we also needed to convince the business community to find a location for it. We started renting a place, and now the labor center owns it. It's small but it's something that did not exist before.
An English class for day laborers, teaching survival skills when facing police or the migra.
Everyone has the opportunity to go there, and everyone has the same needs. We all want to work, but work is scarce and it's hard for people to get hired in a regular job. Many companies have started to check for valid Social Security numbers. People without them get fired or can't get hired in the first place. Other companies look for an excuse to lay people off if they think they're organizing a union. Many workers at the center worked in the construction industry, and that crashed in 2007. Without the center, people who don't have a Social Security card can't find jobs easily. Often they have to pay a bribe to get one. For all these people the center is a safe space.
At the center you register for work. Membership is not required. You get a card and you have the same rights as anyone, so long as you follow the rules that the workers themselves adopt. Everyone comes wanting work, but you have to have patience because there are days when there is only work for a few. So we have a fair way for everyone to share. People also learn about ways to organize themselves. Sometimes we go to marches and protests. Right now we are supporting the farmworkers. There's education for people to learn English and the rules for living here. Now that we got the driver's license law passed, the center helps people pass the test. I don't really need the center to find work. I like it because I see it is giving opportunities to people who are like I was when I got here.
A majority of the people in the center are indigenous people from Mexico. The number of people from the south of Mexico is growing because people have made connections here for work. At first some thought that indigenous people were given an unfair priority. But it is not like that. Everyone has the same opportunity. Lately people from Samoa and Fiji are coming and registering. I'm glad we are growing like that. Our community is getting more integrated and we're learning how to live with other cultures. That gives me a lot of hope that one day when we organize a union, we will not look at the color of your skin. We want people to be conscious that everyone has rights and that organizing can change things for the better.
I think we really need a union, and we work for more representation in the unions that are already established. We need allies also with base groups of religious communities. We are fighting for justice. We know we live in a capitalist society, and that to get a decent wage we have to fight for it. I do not think that is taking something away that belongs to the boss-it is demanding something that they have always taken from us.
When the center started there was nothing like this. At the beginning I would go and listen. I was not out in front. But now they've elected me to represent them. I'm learning to organize women and men to work together, to find allies and plan strategy to expand centers into the rest of this county. There is no center on Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, and that would be a good place to start. We want places like this in every region of the country. There should always be a place for people to get support and help each other. I feel good that I have been able to give my little grain of sand.
My mom and sister still live in Oaxaca. I don't have any children, but I have nephews and nieces. Some are in school and they tell me when they need money to buy school supplies. I always help them, but I want them to study. A large part of what I earn is for them. We are squeezing everything here to send money to make life in Mexico better.
Justino Santiago, an immigrant from Etla, prunes grape vines in the Salinas Valley.
Last year my community, Santiago Naranjas, asked me to serve in a position in the town. I have permanent resident status in the U.S. so I can come and go. But this position is for three years. I am going, but it will be very difficult to be there that long. Where am I going to work and who is going to take care of my expenses? Maybe they will give me permission to come back to the U.S. from time to time.
I remember my grandfather who lived to be 102 years old and never had a lot of money. He would plant vegetables and trade them for fruits or other things he didn't have. The only thing he would buy from the market was a kilo of sugar and half of salt. He would raise his hens and his turkeys. He had a place to collect water that would fill at night, and every day he'd water his crops. He was not missing anything. He did not have much to worry about, like where to migrate or how to survive. I always have those memories in my heart and mind. What more do we need?
Santiago Madrigal prunes grape vines in Sonoma County.