Know Your Food System: Indigenous Farmworkers in California

The food movement has been slow to recognise the fact that worker rights and working conditions should be a key part of any discussion about the ethics of food. Reforms to the food system need to incorporate workers and their welfare, not just better farming practices, more humane treatment of animals, and other measures focusing on food as an end product. Food is also a process, and the people involved in that process have a right to fair treatment, something they don’t have currently. The continued marginalisation of farmworkers and the focus on other issues in the food movement speaks poorly of the movement overall, and reveals some telling attitudes about labour, race, and entitlement.

In California, an interesting shift is happening among farmworkers. As has been the case historically, the vast majority in the state as well as the country are from South and Central America, most coming to El Norte seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. Many are also undocumented, leaving them without legal protections and limiting their access to any kind of safety net. They are vulnerable to exploitation in the industry and live under the constant threat of deportation, with a possible long stay in an immigrant detention facility that comes with its own share of violence and abuse.

And a growing number of these farmworkers are also indigenous. A study in California noted that 38% of incoming farmworkers spoke one of the 60 indigenous languages of Mexico. This represents a huge and fundamental shift in indigenous communities as people move away from traditional farming and other activities in their homes to relocate to California and other agricultural regions to pick crops for the United States. These crops are primarily not those traditionally grown in their home regions; California is a huge producer of spinach, avocados, strawberries, lettuce, and more, but less so of corn, for example.

The shift is the result of significant policy changes in Mexico that effectively drove people from their homelands by undercutting the prices of the crops they produced with cheap US imports. With wages and social welfare programmes shrinking in Mexico, putting increasing pressure on people to support themselves and their families, farming for subsistence became harder and harder. So, some farmers were forced to give it up altogether and become fieldhands in the United States, engaging in hours of repetitive motion in harsh working conditions to get fresh broccoli to the tables of the hungry masses in the US.

Farmwork remains an extremely dangerous occupation in the United States, especially so for migrant workers like those working through harsh weather and other obstacles in California. Whether the sun is beating down and putting people at risk of heatstroke or it’s pouring rain, farmworkers are out in the fields. They incur spinal injuries and leg pain as they bend over crops like strawberries and engage in hours of bending and straightening, lifting and pulling. They’re at risk of injuries from farm equipment, illness from unclean water, and other serious occupational health problems.

As Mexico’s farming communities are forced into the US to support themselves, the country is losing valuable cultural and agricultural resources. People who are not remaining at home and engaging in a traditional way of life because they have no hopes of surviving aren’t able to pass their skills and experience on to the next generation. Nor are they preserving the complex social, cultural, and historical traditions surrounding crops like maize and the communities that once relied on them. And as farmworkers in the US, they have few opportunities for developing more advanced careers; they’re frozen in a grind of low-paying work that still offers more hope than struggling in Mexico, but they can’t earn enough to be fully independent, or to return to Mexico and reestablish themselves in their communities.

The increase in numbers of indigenous workers also highlights other issues. Many migrants don’t speak English or Spanish, and thus don’t have access to the support network created for earlier Spanish-speaking immigrants. They also struggle with discrimination and racism from both the white community and immigrants of other backgrounds, leaving them more isolated and lacking in resources, which makes them even more vulnerable to abuse. Additionally, many have a limited understanding of the laws in the US, and thus can’t fend for themselves when it comes to advocating in their interests if employers are abusing them, failing to comply with the law, and making unreasonable demands.

Tightening along the border has also changed the way of life in communities at home, where people were once able to return periodically to perform tasks and responsibilities in their communities, and now cannot. US immigration policy, in other words, is quite literally shaping culture in regions like Oaxaca, and it’s causing radical changes in a way of life that has been stable for thousands of years. This is an issue that should be an international relations matter, not just a human rights concern and a food system priority. A nation’s policies shouldn’t be so invasive and draconian that they cause shifts in indigenous ways of life in a neighbouring country, and it is clear that this issue should be a point of concern between the US and Mexico, along with a number of other issues related to immigration, social support, and the movement of goods across the border.

Resources are starting to emerge specifically for indigenous communities and farmworker organisers are including them in their work, which is heartening to see, but it’s only the first step. Protections for all farmworkers are critically needed, with a special focus on particularly vulnerable communities and the needs that they might have. And foodies should be joining labour activists, race advocates, and their partners in fighting for those rights.