By David Bacon
The Progressive - 12/1/17
SAN DIEGO, CA - Just after arriving from Mexico, a Mixtec farm worker lives with her son in a tent on the hillside in Del Mar.
At the end of the 1970s California farm workers were the highest-paid in the U.S., with the possible exception of Hawaii's long-unionized sugar and pineapple workers. Today people are trapped in jobs that pay the minimum wage and often less, and mostly unable to find permanent year-around work.
In 1979 the United Farm Workers negotiated a contract with Sun World, a large citrus and grape grower. The contract's bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90. If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $10.50, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $19.00 per hour.
Today farm workers don't make anywhere near $19.00 an hour. In 2008 demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in California from indigenous communities in Mexico - Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others -- counting the 45,000 children living with them, a total of 165,000 people. "One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum," he found.
In other words, growers were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers. The case log of California Rural Legal Assistance is an extensive history of battles to help workers reclaim illegal, and even unpaid, wages. Indigenous workers are the most recent immigrants in the state's farm labor workforce, and the poorest, but the situation isn't drastically different for others. The median income is $13,000 for an indigenous family, the median for most farm workers is about $19,000 - more, but still far from a liveable wage.
Low wages in the fields have brutal consequences. When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars. For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, "the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops. They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this."
In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines. Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have found others. As Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explains: "There isn't enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do."
Compounding the problem of low wages is the lack of work during the winter months. Workers have to save what they can while they have a job, to tide them over. In the strawberry towns of the Salinas Valley, the normal 10% unemployment rate doubles after the harvest ends in November. While some can collect unemployment, the estimated 53% who have no legal immigration status are barred from receiving benefits.
Yet people have strong community ties because of shared culture and language. Farm workers in California speak twenty-three languages, come from thirteen different Mexican states, and have rich cultures of music, dance, and food that bind their communities together. Migrant indigenous farmworkers participate in immigrant rights marches, and organize unions.
Indigenous migrants have created communities all along the northern road from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada. Migration is a complex economic and social process in which whole communities participate. Migration creates communities, which today pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world. The function of these photographs, therefore, is to help break the mold that keeps us from seeing this reality.
The right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival for millions of people, and a new generation of photographers today documents the migrant-rights movements in both Mexico and the United States (with its parallels to the civil rights movement of past generations). Like many others in this movement, I use the combination of photographs and oral histories to connect words and voices to images - together they help capture a complex social reality as well as people's ideas for changing it.
Today racism is alive and well, and economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. People are fighting for their survival. And it's happening here, not just in safely distant countries half a world away. As a union organizer, I helped people fight for their rights as immigrants and workers. I'm still doing that as a journalist and photographer. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice - we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.
FRESNO, CA - Raymundo Guzman and his partner, Miguel Villegas, do a rap number in Mixteco at a place in the fields outside of Fresno, where indigenous farmworkers get together to eat, drink and listen to the latest creations by the pair combining traditional culture with the music of the U.S. streets and barrios.
I'm going to be a rapper with a conscience - Raymundo Guzman
I was very young when my mother first took me to work in the fields -- about eight or ten years old. At first only she and my older brother were working. My brother would work with her, while the rest of us went to school. She took me to the fields so that I could start to learn, so that I would be ready when I was old enough to work.
It was just her and us kids, and she couldn't earn enough to support us all. She sold tamales and chicharrones, and tried to make money any way she could. In December she pruned trees. She was our mother and father. She had to look out for us. When there wasn't work in the fields she would kill a pig and make tamales, make mole and sew.
My memories of those times are good because I was working with my family and the people from my hometown. We all came from the same town in Oaxaca, San Miguel Cuevas. When I first arrived in Fresno I only spoke Mixteco. I had to learn Spanish to speak with other people in the street and in school.
I graduated from high school. I was the first in my family to do it. My mother was so proud that she threw me a party. It felt good to stand on stage and hear my name being called. I felt sad immediately afterwards, though, because I didn't know what to do with my diploma. It's like accomplishing something so big, and then everything comes crashing down. It's very depressing.
I was already working in the fields then, so I actually lost a day of work for graduation practice. I went to work in Oregon right after graduating, because I was saving up for a car. But the money seems to slip away. It's not much to begin with. The money you earn in a week goes to rent, food, gas and the cell phone bill.
I'm going to be a rap star. I think I'm going to be big, but I'm going to be a rapper with a conscience. My idol is Tupac Shakur. He spoke about politics and told the truth about all of us kids in poverty. He talked about our lives. It's like Tupac used to say, we're a flower that grew in concrete. You can see the rose and stem is twisted, but it grew out of the hard concrete. We're from the hood but we're going to come up. Some people may not want us to achieve much, but we're human too.
Rómulo Muñoz Vazquez
Here on the hillside - Rómulo Muñoz Vazquez
In San Pedro Muzuputla, the town I'm from, we're very poor, and I have four children. JThis is my second time coming to the United States, and I've been living in this encampment in San Diego for a year. When I first arrived I rented an apartment, but I couldn't make enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do, so I asked a coworker and he told me about this place. I bought some nylon and a tarp for the roof, and built my shack myself. My main goal is to save money and send it to my family.
We're outsiders. If we were natives here, then we'd probably have a home to live in. But we don't make enough to pay rent. We're poor and can't afford to go elsewhere.
Here in the camp very few speak Spanish. Most just speak their indigenous language. Those from Guerrero speak one language; the people from San Pedro Muzuputla speak another. We speak Amuzceñas. We don't understand Mixteco or Triqui -- it's very different. That's why it's good to speak Spanish.
When we aren't working, we're looking for work. Sometimes Americans stop by, and even though we only communicate by hand signals, they can tell us what job they want done. I was beaten at work five years ago, on a ranch by the freeway in San Diego. The boss asked us why we weren't working hard. I told him we weren't animals and we had rights. I still remember everything they did to me afterwards.
SAN DIEGO, CA - Jose Gonzalez, San Diego coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, urges farm workers living on the Del Mar hillside to participate in the big immigrant rights march on May Day, 2006. Workers gather around the lunch truck at the bottom of the ravine below the camp to buy food or clothes, recharge cellphones and socialize with friends.
COACHELLA, CA -A crew of farm workers harvests romaine lettuce for Pamela Packing Company near Mecca, in the Coachella Valley. This crew cuts and packs the lettuce into boxes on the ground, the way lettuce harvesting was organized until the 1990s. This system gave lettuce workers control over the speed of the work and the amount cut. Growers replaced this work system in most places with lettuce machines, to end control of the harvest by workers.
MECCA, CA - Rafael and his grandson Ricardo Lopez work picking grapes in the Coachella Valley. They come from San Luis, Arizona, and live in their van in a parking lot in Mecca during the harvest. Ricardo says, "This is how I envisioned it would be working here with my grandpa and sleeping in the van. But it would be better if they put up apartments for us to live in. It's hot at night, and hard to sleep. There are a lot of mosquitoes, and the big lights are on all night. There are very few services here, and the bathrooms are very dirty. At night there are a lot of people here, coming and going. You never know what can happen, it's a bit dangerous. But my grandfather has a lot of experience and knows how to handle himself. I'm working here to save money for school. I look at how hard my grandfather has worked. He tells me to get an education, so I won't be in the situation he's in. I don't want to do field work for the rest of my life because it is very hard work and the pay is low. But I'm happy being here because I'm going to earn money."
COACHELLA, CA - Members of the Purepecha community in the Coachella Valley gather at night to rehearse the Danza de Los Ancianos (the Dance of the Old People), preparing to perform it during a procession celebrating the Virgin de Guadalupe at Christmas. The rehearsal happens outdoors in the Chicanitas trailer camp.
TAFT, CA - Horacio Torres, a farm worker from Mexicali, tops onions late at night. Onion harvesters sometimes work at night, in order to get as many hours of work as possible, and also because of the heat during the day. Workers are not paid overtime wages for night work.
TAFT, CA - Ignacio Cruz Cruz, Marcelino Cruz Cruz, Francisca Santiago Bautista, Antonio Santiago Bautista, Teresa Santiago Gonzalez, Lourdes Cruz Santiago (baby), Jose Domingo Cruz Morales, and Antonio Cruz Morales. This extended family is part of a community of Mixtec farm workers from Oaxaca, who live in Taft.
REEDLEY, CA - Three Mexican farm workers share a small camp under the trees. They called it living "sin techo," or without a roof. Humberto comes from Zihuatanejo in Guerrero. Pedro, who wears an earring in his ear, comes from Hermosillo in Sonora. Ramiro comes from a tiny town in the Lancandon jungle of Chiapas, about halfway between Tapachula on the coast, and Palenque, the site of the Mayan ruins. None of the men has worked more than a few days in the last several months. The riteros (people with vans who give workers rides to the fields to work) won't pick them up, because they say they live with the vagabundos (vagabonds).
CHOWCHILLA, CA - Ana Lilia Avila, an immigrant from Acapulco, Guerrero, flirts with Heronimo Lopez, a Mixtec immigrant from San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, while they work picking bell peppers. She used to work in restaurants in Acapulco, but didn't make enough to live on, so she came with her family to Fresno.
STOCKTON, CA - Angela Ruiz and Claudia Diaz are two lesbian farm workers who told their stories as part of Proyecto Poderoso, a project initiated by California Rural Legal Assistance, for ending discrimination against lesbian and gay farm workers in rural California.
HOLLISTER, CA - At the Hollister Public Library Triqui women dance to traditional music from their communities in Oaxaca. Hollister is another center of Triqui people in California.
SANTA MARIA, CA - Hieronyma Hernandez reaches for strawberries as she moves down a row, filling the plastic boxes that later appear on supermarket shelves.
BURLINGTON, WA - Outside the labor camp, the children of strikers at Sakuma Farms set up their own picket line on a fence at the gate. Their sign reads Justicia Para Todos - Justice for Everyone.
David Bacon's photographs and stories seek to capture the courage of people struggling for social and economic justice in the Philippines, Mexico and the United States. The text and photos are excerpted from his 2017 book, In the Fields of the North / En Los Campos del Norte, published simultaneously by the University of California Press in the U.S. and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexico.