I’ve never known a place quite like the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. Since the 1980s they’ve served thousands of migrant farmworkers from their outpost in Dunn, North Carolina, tending to the needs of the invisible and poorly paid workforce on which our agricultural economy depends. In the summer of 2018, the Ministry went into high gear like never before, providing emergency food, clothing, and supplies following the double-punch of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. I was one of many volunteers who pitched in to help.
One evening I helped Juan Carabaña, the Ministry’s tireless outreach coordinator, load a van full of groceries before heading out to two camps. With the fall sweet potato harvest curtailed due to devastating rains, the workers there hadn’t been paid in weeks and were running low on food. The camps were two that hadn’t been visited in a while so we couldn’t be sure our printed directions were accurate. They weren’t. After wandering for more than hour to find the first camp, and another hour to find the second, this career software developer had an idea: there needs to be an app for this.
“We need a map on our phones showing us exactly where the camps are. Plus, accurate descriptions of camps, and notes from previous outreach visits. And photos would be awesome.” Lariza Garzon, the Ministry’s new Executive Director, described over coffee what she’d like to see in a farmworker outreach app. I got to work.
There are thought to be more than two thousand migrant farmworker camps in North Carolina – nobody can say for sure. Some consist of old bunkhouses tucked into the woods, some are small trailer parks, and some are old farmhouses. Some are surrounded by barbed wire fences or lack indoor plumbing. None is the kind of place you or I would want to spend the night, much less live for several months. But they are all filled with people with the same basic needs as you and me, things like food to eat and clothes to wear. And those are the kind of needs that workers and volunteers at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry cater to when they go on outreach.
My app was ready a few weeks after my coffee with Lariza. Or so I thought. The tryout was a complete disaster: the user interface was difficult to navigate, almost none of the camp information was right, and the app crashed so often it was useless. I spent that evening scribbling furiously from the passenger seat, logging our camp visits into a spiral notebook instead of the app. I had put too many features into that first version and hadn’t taken enough time for testing and debugging. The next version had just the camp map and nothing else, so on the next outreach visit it did a bit of good. Juan could at least tap a button to launch GPS directions without manually typing a street address. I still logged into my notebook, recording how many workers we met with and what we delivered to each camp, and took a few photos of each camp. The next day I transferred everything from my notebook into the app’s database, uploaded the photos, and added another user feature to the app. This process repeated itself every week. Slowly but surely, the app got better and the Ministry’s database of outreach information and photos grew.
In April I teamed up with Code the Dream, a remarkable non-profit software development organization that offers free training to people from low-income communities. One of their developers, in fact, grew up in a farmworker camp herself. Over the summer, she and her colleagues turned my prototype app into a real app, complete with security, performance, and stability features. They went with Juan and me on outreach, came up with features I hadn’t thought of, and also gave the app a name: Vamos.
As the agricultural season drew to a close, Vamos had recorded outreach visits to more than 80 camps. On the last scheduled outreach, the app was used for everything: to select camps to visit, to navigate to each, to log how many farmworkers were visited and what was provided, and to take photos. Nobody had to scribble furiously from the passenger seat or remember to file an outreach report later.
As I write this in December 2019, the camps are empty but Vamos is not. It is filled with data and photos from this year’s outreach. Next spring, when outreach workers head out to a camp, they’ll call it up on the app, tap the directions button and just start driving. With Vamos they can spend their time providing services instead of knocking on doors and wandering dirt roads looking for camps. There’s still work to be done on the app, to help make outreach even more productive, and there are many more camps to add to the database. But there is an app.
I’m a Wall Street technology manager. Two years ago I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about people whose lives are very different from mine: migrant farmworkers. These are the men, women and children who harvest most of the fresh produce you see at America’s grocery stores.
I’ll share what I learned with the caveat I am but one observer who learned much of this secondhand, from farmworker advocates, social workers and others. My Spanish isn’t good enough to converse at length with farmworkers, though I did speak with a few and visited forty or so labor camps. I’ve not spoken with a single farm owner, or grower, who hires these workers. And though I’ve read nearly all the articles and books I can get my hands on I’ve certainly not read everything. So with that out of the way, here’s what I believe to be true.
There are around a million farmworkers in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand. Most are from Mexico or Nicaragua. Desperate for work, most risked their lives crossing into the United States. Many still refer to such immigrants as “illegal” but I’m with those who prefer “undocumented.” How can a human life be against the law?
Most farmworkers are truly migrant, moving from one corner of the country to another, following the work and living in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round. These are known as seasonal farmworkers and they tend to find non-agricultural work in the winter.
Most camps I’ve been to are sad places: filthy and ill-maintained, some with outhouses and water unsafe to drink. Don’t expect to see one yourself. Most are well out of the view of any highway, hidden beyond trees or down long dirt roads.
Farmworkers are paid very little, sometimes less than minimum wage, because someone desperate for work and ever fearful of deportation is easily exploited in this way. Some are hired directly by a grower but many are hired by contratistas or nickeleros who shield growers from direct responsibility for their workers. Some of these middlemen, if stories I’ve heard are true, are unspeakably cruel.
The paltry pay, by and large, is not due to unkind growers or contractors. It’s a system thing. U.S. growers must accept crop prices dictated by massive grocery chains and fast food buyers. These oligopolists will of course point the finger of blame at you and me: consumers who will almost always prefer the tomato or hamburger with the lowest price. And they are right.
Farmworkers on H2A temporary work visas, sometimes called guest workers, earn an hourly wage set by law, ranging from $10.00 to $13.59 depending on the state. They tend to live in nicer quarters as well. Still the program has plenty of critics. Growers think it’s overly bureaucratic. And labor advocates don’t like how guest workers are forced to remain with one employer, incenting abuse.
Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard last summer as he stood in front of two visiting Members of British Parliament and a U.S. Congresswoman. He told of standing atop a mobile tobacco harvester, dizzy from nearby pesticide spray. Miscalculating his reach, his hand went under the belt and into the gear mechanism. It chopped off his fingertip like a cigar cutter. It was hours before he made it to the hospital—the grower refused to take him—where he racked up a bill he couldn’t pay. Because he was fired.
Migrant farmwork is not slavery and farmworkers are not slaves. Still, as I consider all this, I can’t help but hear echoes of slavery, especially in the South where the economic reliance on ultra-cheap labor was ingrained back when slaves really did all this work. Consider the agricultural exemptions to federal labor laws.
Did you know farmworkers are not entitled to overtime pay? That there are different child labor laws for farmworkers? Kids as young as 12, in some cases 10, can work legally in the fields, subject to heat stroke, pesticide exposure and a long list of other health and safety risks. And when school is out children can work around the clock without breaking any laws.
The exemptions have been around since 1938. That’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to include them in the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease the South. Slavery had been abolished decades earlier but practices like debt peonage and share-cropping kept farmworker wages ultralow. The South liked it that way. It still does.
My lesson in migrant farmwork makes me think of Martin Luther King’s observation about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The occupational discrimination against farmworkers in America is clearly unjust.
I know better than to expect sweeping changes any time soon. Republicans now control most state governments in the South, and both houses of Congress in Washington, and it’s usually the other party who makes things right for the working class in this country. Raising the federal minimum wage remains a pipe dream, as does immigration reform.
What to do with this knowledge? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that arc of history. I truly believe it does bend toward justice. But it is, indeed, long.
Last summer I accompanied some college students doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps. They were generally dismal places, ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night.
Except for one.
It was mid July. Hot. I’d been traveling all day with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos, interns with Student Action with Farmworkers, trying to register young workers for ESL classes. After several hours of hopscotching the South Carolina blacktop they had managed to register a grand total of one, living in a trailer with failing siding and a yard littered with garbage. This was a familiar site.
The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.
Fatigued and growing miserable in the heat, Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp where they had already registered the workers for classes, this time to conduct an interview for a documentary project.
The decision changed everything. For the first time that day they seemed genuinely excited and I soon found out why.
We rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.
Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.
While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Soon she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a setting sun now falling toward peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.
I saw things here I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of clean washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, were rocked in unison by a warm breeze coming off the orchard. One worker sat on a tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the peach trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.
The interview went off without a hitch and was followed by friendly banter inside a screened-in porch where I took in the surroundings: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurant kitchens.
Why was this camp for migrant farmworkers so nice when so many are such filthy hovels?
This was a camp for workers on H-2A guest worker visas. The government requires housing at these camps to meet certain standards. I’m told these standards are not always enforced, but here I imagine the grower was well in compliance and maybe then some (I doubt the program requires Viking stoves and volleyball nets).
The H-2A program is not without controversy. Detractors say it doesn’t address the much bigger problem of poor living and working conditions for undocumented workers (only 10% or so of migrant workers are here on H-2As) and even its proponents decry the H-2A bureaucratic complexities. I’m still learning about the program and don’t have a strong opinion.
I just wish every migrant farmworker in America could come off the fields at the end of a day to a place like this.
A version of this essay appeared on the Farmworker Advocacy Network blog on July 12, 2014
Each year, a little-known contest by a little-known agency in Washington, DC lets children of migrant farmworkers portray their lives in essays and drawings.
The annual contest by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs invites these children to submit essays and artwork for judging by a panel, with winners announced on the AFOP website and honored at the association’s annual conference. This year it was in San Diego. AFOP spokesperson Norma Flores described the experience:
“I could see the spark in their eyes as they received their awards at the conference.” As a former farmworker herself, she can relate to the importance of such recognition.
“It really does leave an impression, for them to know someone believes in them, which makes such a difference in their lives.”
It’s too bad the contest doesn’t reach more kids. Apparently only a few hundred or so of the 400 to 500 thousand migrant farmworking children even know about it.
Here’s hoping that changes.
Working in the fields is all we know, it’s all we think we’re good at, it’s what we do to survive… Falling behind in my studies is the main problem that I face every time I move from state to state… during my freshmen year I attended four high schools.
I feel as if I am going to faint but I know I can’t stop working… Sometimes I want to scream at the top of my lungs because the next day will be just the same. I hate the fact that no one thinks we can be anything but migrant workers
He’s collected a small mountain of donated toothbrushes and T-shirts but what he really needs are pants: About four thousand pair.
Father Jesus Antonio Rojas, known by all as Father Tony, runs the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina. From an airy facility about an hour south of Raleigh, he and a small staff provide a long list of services to nearly 4,000 migrant farmworkers who live in temporary labor camps off the highway, all but invisible to passersby.
Last week my daughter Greta and I helped fill 400 grocery bags with those shirts and toothbrushes, alongside visiting college students from UNC and Duke.
Father Tony knows workers who miss a day of work waiting for their only pair of pants to dry on a clothesline. And waiting for the weekend doesn’t help when you work seven days a week. He prays now for a pants donor, so he can give an extra pair to every worker.
Our bag-stuffing was guided by Lucia, Father Tony’s wife and navigator of the white van that later hauled those bags to four camps. We followed, caravan style.
“Muchachos! Muchachos!” Father Tony yelled from an open window as he rolled the van to a stop, beeping the horn. Soon he was introducing us to the workers and guiding the distribution of goods.
We couldn’t help notice the squalid conditions. Kitchens were filthy. Rows of toilets lacked stalls. At one camp, a foul-smelling dumpster sat just outside the open windows of the rooms where men have to sleep.
There are thought to be at least 100,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Nationwide there are more than a million, many living in conditions barely suitable for animals.
Father Tony doesn’t blame the farm operators, known as growers, who hire and house these men, women and, sometimes, children. He tells me how busy they are “with so many, many problems” to worry about. “They try to give workers the best they can.”
Clearly some growers try harder than others, but he’s wise in not pointing fingers at the growers. This is a system problem. Even we the people who enjoy the sweet potatoes and everything else provided by these men and women working for low pay and living in squalor share responsibility. We are part of the problem.
But we are also the solution. That’s the message I get from listening to Father Tony and watching him work, that we all have the capacity to help improve the lives of farmworkers, the poorest of America’s working poor, to whom he has devoted his life’s work.
“Farmworkers are a miracle,” Father Tony told me on an earlier visit. “A gift from God. Without them we have no life.”
I asked Father Tony what he wants most for the farmworkers—beyond a few thousand pair of sturdy pants. His answer? Recognition. Simple awareness of their existence by people like you and me.
“These are the most important people in the world,” he tells me, emphasizing words as if he can’t understand why this is obvious only to him.
“They feed us,” he continues. “And they are so near us. But people don’t know.”
Father Tony knows he can’t do much about that part of the problem. But he knows what part he can address. He knows where the camps are and what the farmworkers need, and he does an amazing job at getting it to them.
For many migrant farmworkers, things haven’t changed much since the 1970s when the legendary activist Cesar Chavez co-founded, with Dolores Huerta, the union known today as the United Farm Workers.
Today in North Carolina and surrounding states, the people working one of the most dangerous jobs in America live in squalor. They enjoy few of the legal protections everyone else takes for granted, such as the right to overtime pay. They are paid the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but only if the contractista or nickelero or other middleman between grower and worker doesn’t take a cut.
Why didn’t the Chavez-era changes help these farmworkers? Because California, where most UFW members live and work, is a very different place from North Carolina. As a right-to-work state unions are not welcome here. But that’s not stopping Baldemar Velasquez.
Like Cesar Chavez, the 67-year-old Velasquez knows first-hand what it’s like to be a farmworker. He started at age 6.
“The alternative was not eating,” Velasquez tells me, going on to describe a “conversion experience” in which he realized that his loss of childhood, and personal experience of abuse, called him to become the tireless spokesperson he is today.
He does a good job at it.
A 1989 recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Velasquez is the co-founder with his father of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. Based in Toledo Ohio, this little-known union succeeded, after years of activism, strikes, and boycotting, in bringing unionization to workers for Campbell’s, Heinz, and other major buyers of agricultural products.
“We almost doubled the wages of the workers,” Velasquez says of the their success in Ohio. “We got the kids, instead of languishing in the labor camps, into Head Start and extended the hours to 6pm instead of 3 so parents could work a full day. And we renovated 65 or 70% of the squalor in labor camps thru a public-private partnership.”
In the late 1990s FLOC expanded to North Carolina. After a five-year boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company (“Don’t spend a nickel on a Mount Olive Pickle”) they signed a contract with the company and the North Carolina Growers Association, bringing union protections to some 7,000 workers in the Tarheel state.
But these represent but a small percent of all farmworkers in the region.
Earlier this year FLOC launched a campaign to sign up 5,000 new members during the 2014 harvest season. Six nights a week teams of organizers borrowed mostly from affiliated labor organizations fan out to camps—mostly run-down trailer homes and dilapidated houses—to educate workers about the benefits of joining the union. As of a few weeks ago they had signed up just under 1,000.
The union’s biggest obstacle? Worker fear.
According to FLOC Vice President Justin Flores, the first thing most workers ask when visited by an organizer is how FLOC can ensure they won’t be fired for joining the union. According to numerous FLOC officials, farmworkers are under constant threat of retaliation if they should speak out about working conditions, squalor in the camp, or wage theft.
Flores can rattle off a long list of examples they’ve heard about: Firing. Deportation. The worst? Contractors who remind the workers they know where their wives and children live back in back in Mexico or Guatemala, then suggesting or outright vowing to make their families suffer should the farmworker not do as he’s told.
This summer’s campaign has not been easy. In addition to farmworkers stifled by fear, their employers have not exactly rolled out the welcome mat. I wrote earlier about organizer Raul Jimenez handcuffed by a sheriff. Another team of organizers was briefly detained against their will, unable to leave the grower’s property until cell phone calls to the police made the threat-mongering detainers come to their senses. And FLOC’s Oscar Sanchez took a punch to his face from a representative of the North Carolina Grower’s Association—you can watch it on YouTube.
FLOC has singled out the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for accountability, portraying them as partly responsible for the status quo. The company is one of the largest buyer of North Carolina tobacco and could use its influence among growers, FLOC believes, to bring about change.
Velasquez wants Reynolds to recognize the union, to engage the third-party Dunlop Commission (as FLOC did in Ohio) to establish rules such as how workers can raise concerns without fear of retaliation, and to provide incentives to its growers to sign contracts with the union.
Baldemar Velasquez is ready to bring his plea to American consumers, and not just tobacco users. FLOC is considering boycotts of major outlets of Reynolds tobacco products: Convenience stores Kangaroo, WaWa and 7 Eleven.
If the boycott proceeds, customers of those chains will be asked to buy their gasoline and Slurpees somewhere else.
A spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment for this story beyond what is on their website. There, the company emphasizes that it does not employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco. It describes efforts “to ensure that our suppliers have the training and resources they need to do the right thing for the people who play an important role in our supply chain.” These include efforts to assess conditions of its farmworkers and educate its growers.
Velasquez shrugs off these efforts as “diversionary” and missing the point. Farmworkers need a voice, he reiterates.
“When men and women are not recognized and don’t have a forum to make their claims, they can’t talk about health and safety or trafficking or any of these other symptoms, like child labor.”
It’s all about having a process of recognition, says Velasquez. “If you don’t have that you don’t have nothin’.”
American history may be on the side of Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC and North Carolina farmworkers. The Chavez lettuce and grape boycotts of the 1970s brought changes to the Western farmworker few could have imagined. FLOC itself can point to success in Ohio. And the 2001 boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers forced their parent company to sign on to the famously successful Fair Food Program, in which tomato buyers vow to pay “a penny a pound” more for tomatoes to benefit pickers in Florida. Even Walmart signed on, earlier this year.
With income inequality at record levels and growing media coverage of the plight of the American farmworker, the time may be right for Baldemar Velasquez to call for those boycotts to force a change.
An innovative college program opens privileged young eyes to the million undocumented laborers who toil away in an invisible America. Story and photos by Michael Durbin…
It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.
“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.
I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.
Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.
The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented migrant farmworkers in the U.S. and the issues they face: workplace hazards, inadequate housing, low wages.
Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.
Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?”
“There’s Delaney’s, in Five Points,” answers Christine Burke. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. “They have pint nights on Wednesday.”
“Delaney’s. Got it.”
At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here. He is deep-voiced, slim and fit — an avid soccer player since age four — and wears glasses on a face rarely devoid of a smile. When I ask what brought him here he doesn’t hesitate:
“For me it’s all about the language.”
Eric’s Spanish is already quite good for a non-native. He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school. But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.
Around half of the Safistas are already fluent in Spanish. It’s their native language. Unlike Eric, these Safistas come from farmworking families. Working with SAF broadens their view of farmworker issues beyond their personal experience. Their participation also allows Safistas from more privileged backgrounds to learn about the farmworker experience not only from workers the meet in the fields, but from their peers as well.
Eric Britton was born in June 1992 — the very month SAF first sent students into the fields. Every summer since, while Safistas worked in some of the poorest counties in America where farmworkers live, Eric was growing up in one of the wealthiest.
Montgomery County, Maryland, lies just outside of Washington, D.C. Its tonier parts are home to country clubs, houses with seven-digit price tags and private schools where tuition can top $30,000. Eric and his two sisters went to public school in Rockville, one of the county’s more middle-class areas. Their upbringing on a tree-canopied street was typical of the area: nice brick house, weekend movies at the Regal cinema and summer vacations to places like the Florida Keys. He took up skydiving when he turned eighteen, something he enjoys now whenever he can.
After five rainy days in Efland, the 2013 Safistas pack their cars and disperse across a multi-state triangle spanning both Carolinas and some of Virginia, an area of more than 70,000 square miles. SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).
Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.
Authorized by Congress in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the MEP provides educational services — from supplemental classes to private tutoring — to migrant children who struggle to keep up as they move from one school to another.
“I think I’ll be translating documents and helping teachers,” Eric tells his parents.
He’s right about the Columbia part. The rest is just a guess, and not a very good one.
Eric is assigned to the Lowcountry District of the South Carolina MEP. His training in a sleek office tower in Columbia is brief and loaded with jargon: His job is to ID and R (identify and register) OSYs (out of school youth) on COEs (Certificates of Enrollment) then return to camps to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). That’s about the extent of formal training.
Most of what he learns comes during ride-alongs with his supervisor, Zach Taylor. In contrast to Eric’s slim frame, Zach Taylor has the upper body of a weightlifter. With his Anglo skin and crew-cut hair, farmworkers used to mistake him for a cop. He fixed that by buying a baseball cap with Viva Mexico! on the bill. He never goes to a camp without it.
Zach is only a few years older than Eric. When he was fifteen, his father, an English teacher, moved the family from a small town in Maryland to Costa Rica, where Zach developed a fluency for Spanish and Latin American culture.
This is the first year the MEP is using SAF interns, and when Zach heard about it he had some doubts. Could they handle the long hours? The minimal supervision? Were they only here to grind a political axe or make a statement about social justice?
Zach knows as well as anyone how bad farmworkers have it, but he can’t stand so-called “toxic charity” where wealthy people give stuff away or drop in for a vacation service project. He thinks what farmworkers need most is empowerment. And that, he learned from his dad, begins with education.
Eric peers at a Google Earth map that Zach uses to record locations of farmworker camps across the state.
Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “Which ones do we hit first?” he asks.
“Dude. These have already been ID and R’d,” says Zach. “That’s how they got on the map. You gotta find new camps.”
The term “camp” is misleading. It just refers to any place a farmworker might live. Finding a camp is all about profiling, Zach explains. You look for clues at rundown houses and trailers on the side of the road: clotheslines, cars with out-of-state plates and windows covered with sheets.
“I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. “The house was right on the highway. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. There was sewage spreading onto the yard.”
Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. The mom was delighted and Eric was impressed.
“She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. We signed up three or four families, right on that one stop.”
Later they approached a house with all the right signs: clotheslines, windows blocked by droopy bed sheets and a car with Florida plates.
The first thing they noticed was the stocky man’s pale skin and sleeveless white t-shirt, followed by the face of a woman, equally irritated, yanking the door wider to see who it was.
“Sorry,” they explained in retreat. “Wrong address.”
One evening Eric is looking out of Zach’s slow-moving Hyundai at some trailer homes. Only nobody calls them trailer homes. Just trailers. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight.
Eric wonders why he and Zach are here. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. But Zach insisted they visit before calling it a night.
Just beyond the trailers is an old building made of wood, its shape vaguely familiar to Eric. They approach it on foot.
“Was this a stable?” asks Eric.
Zach bangs the door. “It still is.”
Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. But most stables keep horses in their stalls.
These contain men.
It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.
At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.
Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord. Were all three running at once it’s a safe bet this dry wooden structure would go up in flames. The only water comes from a spigot outside, at the end of a pipe in the ground, and there’s neither a bathroom nor outhouse in sight.
Eric knows they could report this place to state inspectors. He also knows they won’t. He’s heard of outreach workers forced to contend with a cruel compromise: If you report every housing violation, the grower might not let you back.
Zach introduces Eric to a farmworker with a smiling but weather-beaten face a man of sixty might sport. Eric guesses he’s probably more like forty.
On Zach’s last visit the man implored him to sign up his teenage daughter for English classes. She is very interested, he insisted, but wasn’t at the camp that day.
“¿Cómo se llama su hija?” Eric asks the cheerful man. What is your daughter’s name?
“Linda,” he answers. “Se llama Linda.” (All farmworker names have been changed for this story.)
“¿Y dónde está Linda?” asks Eric. And where is Linda?
The smile falls off the father’s face. Again the girl isn’t here and it’s not clear where she is or even if her dad knows. His daughter appears to be missing.
Where Eric grew up, a missing child would set off alarms throughout the community. Police would be called and radio stations would broadcast Amber Alerts.
Eric is pretty sure those things won’t happen here.
After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging. He might register one or two workers on a good day. And not every day is a good day.
Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while. One is a cluster of trailers alongside a wooded highway.
Gabriela came from Mexico as a young girl so she speaks English reasonably well — a relief to Eric. Even with his strong Spanish it’s less work to speak in English.
Her four young boys swarm to Eric like puppies. He gives them books, asks about school and takes them on a nature walk at the edge of the trailer cluster. It reminds him of his own childhood escapes to the woods at the end of his street in Rockville.
Escorting the boys back to the trailer, Eric sees elements of normalcy in this family. The kids and their parents look healthy, and Gabriela seems to have things under control. She even drives the kids around in a minivan just like his own mom did. In another setting, he realizes, Gabriela might be just another soccer mom.
Standing at the door of her trailer, Eric asks Gabriela about the kids’ school when she interrupts with a question of her own.
“Do you have any food?”
This is no soccer mom. Gabriela’s refrigerator is broken and the crew leader hasn’t paid her yet. Some employers cheat undocumented immigrants and withhold pay, she explains, or pay less than minimum wage. It’s happened to her.
Gabriela and her kids have only ramen noodles and cereal — without milk — for dinner. Eric fetches a USDA emergency food box, donated by the Lowcountry Food Bank, from the trunk of his car.
Carrying the heavy box of dry goods, Eric navigates all manner of debris, spills and damp clothes hanging from a clothesline strung inside the trailer. Gabriela apologizes for the mess. Eric assures her it’s fine.
Eric had thought seventy songs on his iPod would get him through the summer. But with hours each day behind the wheel, by week three he’s hitting the skip button on the opening chords of even his favorites, from Fleetwood Mac to the Cave Singers.
He turns to audio books (free of charge, courtesy of Pirate Bay) starting with Hard Times by Charles Dickens. After that, Great Expectations.
Listening to tales of economic cruelty and social injustice in nineteenth-century England, Eric cruises the Carolina blacktop like a detective, viewing every rundown trailer as a potential opportunity to register some workers, teach some English or just hand out some food.
One evening Eric pulled off the highway at the sight of several Latino men kicking a soccer ball in the orange light of sunset. He asked the guys what team they followed in Mexico (Eric knows them all) and complimented them on their technique.
They asked if he played fútbol and he responded by gesturing for the ball. Seeing the heavy boots on his feet, they expected him to catch it with his hands. He caught it on the tip of a boot, tapped it to the other boot, and dribbled it perfectly before sending it back their way.
This impressed the guys even more than his excellent Spanish. He signed up every last one.
Eric’s soccer experience came in handy more than once. His comfort talking with strangers also helped. He stopped people at roadside fruit stands and gas stations, and hung out at stores where many Latino people shopped.
Following a lead one day from a tienda owner, Eric found a large trailer park he didn’t recognize. The camp wasn’t on Zach’s Google Earth map and may have never been scouted. He put some extra COEs on his clipboard.
“Mija es una estudiante excelente,” the man at the door of his trailer beams with pride, introducing Eric to his teenage daughter. She makes very good grades but, Eric learns, they have no money for college. After high school she’ll work in los campos. The fields.
Where Eric went to high school, going to work after graduating was practically unheard of. You went to college. And for the handful of kids who did go straight to work from Richard Montgomery High, it sure wasn’t to pick vegetables.
Eric produces his clipboard and asks for their names. But the man just smiles and shakes his head. Zach told him to expect this. Someone in the family is probably undocumented, and Eric’s assurance that the information will be used only by the school system does no good.
On his way out, Eric apologizes for not being able to register the family for MEP services, but does ask the girl if she has access to a computer.
“Yes,” she answers. “At the library.”
“Google CAMP,” he tells her. “It’s the College Assistance Migrant Program.” Eric learned about the program from farmworking families, some of whom used it to get into college.
Farmworking parents Jorge and Luisa invite Eric into a front room packed with piles of clothing, secondhand toys and furniture that looks reclaimed from a dump. The arms of an overstuffed loveseat are worn down to exposed wood.
Their daughter, Rosita, is an energetic first-grader who seems as typical as any other, except for one thing: Luisa has to wave a hand in her daughter’s face to get her attention. Rosita is deaf.
Eric asks if she knows sign language but her parents don’t seem to know what he’s asking. He makes a mental note: Sign language tutor!
Eric gets to work. There is something fulfilling, bordering on selfishness, about helping someone who needs exactly what you have to give. Eric feels that buzz as he prepares a fresh COE.
Jorge and Luisa go silent. Peering at Eric’s clipboard, they too, don’t want to give their names. Moments pass. He promises the information will be used only by the schools. More moments pass and, again, Eric senses opportunity vanishing.
He wonders if everyone at this camp will refuse to give their names. This camp is a waste of time, he thinks.
Then they agree. “Está bien. Te damos los nombres.” We’ll give you our names.
He races to complete the form before they change their minds. He just needs to confirm they meet the three MEP requirements. Working in agriculture? Check. Children ages three to twenty-two? Check. Moved in the last thirty-six months?
“¿Cuánto tiempo han vivido aquí?” he asks. How long have you lived here?
“Cinco años,” says Jorge. Five years.
If this is true then they’ve lived here too long and don’t qualify.
Are you sure? Yes. You have lived here, in this same place, for five years? Yes. But didn’t you go to another place to work, even for a short time, like even for one night? Not even one, single, night? Eric feels his frustration turning to disbelief.
Driving away, Eric wonders if he should have just fudged the form. No. Zach says everyone suffers if the state does one of its routine checks. He was right not to take a chance.
He did the ID but couldn’t do the R.
One day Eric signed up an entire family — by invitation. A crew leader had called the MEP and asked to have his children registered, and the office dispatched Eric his house.
Also known as patrones or contractistas, crew leaders play a key role in the farmworking community. They are like the vassals of Medieval Europe, paying homage to their lord the grower who owns the land but wants nothing to do with supervising his peon farmworkers.
Crew leaders also allow a grower to shed virtually all responsibility for anything having to do with a farmworker. Wage complaints? Talk to the crew leader. Housing complaints? Documentation issues? Medical needs? Talk to the crew leader.
Listening to the muscular patron introduce his family, Eric sees things here he doesn’t see in other farmworker housing, things like carpeting, air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV.
Eric also notices a bedroom door ajar — with someone peeking out. It’s a girl with a low-cut shirt who looks to be in her late teens. When the girl spots Eric eyeing her, she quickly closes the door.
After Eric signs up the kids he asks if there are any other youth in the house. No, answers the crew leader, nobody else. Eric waits for the crew leader to mention the girl in the bedroom. But he doesn’t.
A few days later Eric is delivering another box of food to Gabriela. Her sister Elena is there, telling about a bossy crew leader acting strangely to her friend, a nineteen-year old girl. According to Elena, the much older crew leader is controlling her friend too much and even telling her what to wear. Eric hears Elena refer to a low-cut shirt.
Eric asks the girl’s name. “Linda,” says Elena. “Se llama Linda.”
Eric recalls the girl peeking out the bedroom at crew leader’s house, and the missing teenage daughter of the farmworker living in the stable. And now Gabriela and her sister are talking about a nineteen-year old girl and an overbearing crew leader.
Might these girls all be the same Linda? He asks the women.
“Sí por supuesto,” they answer. “Of course it’s her.” According to the women, Linda used to live in the stables but now lives at the crew leader’s house.
Eric also learns this crew leader is a coyote, smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S. for huge fees. Coyotes have been known to entice impoverished clients with the promise of a good job, convincing them they will have money to pay the coyote in no time.
Then, when the workers arrive and learn the jobs are not so good, they have to pay off their debt another way.
Eric relays all this to Zach and together they formulate a disturbing theory: Linda’s father can’t pay for the family’s crossing — the summer of 2013 is one of the rainiest anyone can remember, and farmworkers often don’t get paid when rain keeps them off the fields — so his daughter is paying off the debt in sexual servitude to the coyote.
It’s only a theory, but a plausible one.
At the beginning of summer Eric promised his girlfriend Sara he’d come back to Charleston on weekends. He enjoys the first few trips back, hanging out with Sara and enjoying burritos and tequila shots at Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, a popular hangout near campus.
But it doesn’t take long for Eric to notice a surreal disconnect between affluent Charleston and the much larger part of Lowcountry where farmworkers live.
“It’s only twenty miles from the center of Charleston to a tomato pickers’ camp on Jones Island,” says Eric. “And it’s like nobody in Charleston knows. Or cares.”
Walking past a King Street shop selling honey for $100 a jar, Eric thinks about the emergency food boxes. Seeing shoes at another store going for $700, Eric recalls opening the trunk of his car filled with donated clothes at a camp and watching women rush to pick through it.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing people with not a care in the world,” says Eric. “Even to my friends at school it was like, ‘Oh where am I going to go drinking tonight?’ And I was just talking to a family and their main concern is how to pay for food.”
Zach kept his promise to Linda’s father, on a visit back to the area, to help his daughter with English.
He called the crew leader and got the okay to meet with Linda and give her an MP3 player with self-guided English lessons. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more of her story, a story he shares with Eric.
Linda traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her dad, partly by foot but mostly on the top of a train. She called it el tren de la muerte. The death train.
When they arrived in South Carolina they took shelter in a horse stall at the stable. There, she was the only woman among fourteen men. Her father offered her as a prostitute.
Eric struggled with what to do with this new information. He recognized his limitations. Linda was nineteen, no longer a child. And maybe, he wondered, she wasn’t being kept by the crew leader so much as protected from a demon of a father. He didn’t know the full story.
He never learned full stories.
One farmworker claimed to have miscarried in the fields when a crew leader wouldn’t give her a break. Was it true? Another woman had a face covered in what appeared to be bruises but she claimed it was a birthmark. Really?
More than once he was forbidden entry to camps with flimsy excuses from growers when workers were expecting him for lessons after hours, even after showing his MEP credentials. It made him think of slavery.
As summer drew to a close Eric knew he could only do so much. He was determined to help as many people as he could, starting with someone who seemed to need it the most. But he’d have to bend some rules.
Rosita sat on the floor in her silent world, playing with her baby sister. Her parents hadn’t expected to see Eric again. But here he was handing out books and food and hygiene kits and treating them much like any qualifying family.
“Puedo buscar una escuela especial para su hija. ¿Quieren que lo haga?” “I can look for a special school for your daughter. Do you want that?”
Of course they said yes.
The Kudu coffeehouse on Vanderhorst Street, where Eric goes for free wifi on his weekends in Charleston, is across from St. Matthews Church. Eric is so used to the bells he hardly notices them booming every fifteen minutes as he Googles for schools for the deaf.
And maybe the clanging from the house of worship brings good fortune into the coffee shop, because Eric can hardly believe his luck when he finds the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and gives them a call.
The principal describes a program especially for children like Rosita — free of charge — that extends through high school. It will change her life, Eric thinks. It will change her entire family’s life, all for free. They even provide transportation.
Luisa and Jorge listen as Eric describes the school. Thankful and intrigued, they interrupt him with gracias over and over.
The school is far away, Eric explains, but the school will pick up Rosita on Sundays and return her on Thursdays. Eric reminds them everything is free of charge — lodging, meals, and a private education tailored to her needs. But the parents have stopped listening.
“No,” they interrupt. “Ella no puede asistir a esa escuela.” She cannot go to this school.
Eric repeats his pitch, emphasizing how the school is just for children like Rosita. He says they need to visit — they have to visit. He’ll drive them there and back. “¿Cuándo podemos ir?” When can we go?
They tell him again: Rosita cannot go to this school. Eric wants to tell them they are making a big mistake. But he doesn’t. He can tell the parents won’t budge.
Walking to his car, Eric realizes what he hadn’t considered: Rosita can neither hear nor read — in any language. Nobody could explain why she was being taken away from her mom, dad and baby sister. The first time she was put on that bus, Eric realized, would be not just baffling but terrifying.
Walking to his car he hears someone yelling his name. It’s the girl he told about CAMP.
“Hey, I looked up the program like you said,” she tells him. “I never heard about it but I got the application.”
Eric wishes her luck and thanks her for telling him.
“Sure, it’s cliché to say I grew a lot this summer,” Eric tells me. “But I did.”
We’re at the Kudu, talking about the summer between bell chimes from St. Matthews.
“A lot of things I used to find really fun and fulfilling, like going out and getting hammered on the weekends, I find trivial now. It’s like, why do that when there’s actually real stuff to do?”
After his last days with SAF, and a celebration on the lawn of Duke University where Safistas gathered to swap stories, eat and dance late into the night, Eric joined his family at the beach to unwind. And to jump from a plane.
Plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, Eric feels the skin on his face ripple. The rush of air is like sticking your head from a speeding car — only way more intense. And the view from high above the Outer Banks of North Carolina is stunning: Endless blue ocean on one side and vast, flat land — farmland — on the other.
There are thousands of farms down there. The last time Eric fell to earth he didn’t think about those farms and certainly not the farmworkers. Now he can’t help it.
We were lost. That’s what I concluded from the back of the minivan going up and down mountain roads in western North Carolina, past tiny homes and trailer parks that tourists rarely see.
“The note says look for an RV next to a dumpster.” Devereaux was in the passenger seat trying to help driver Maria.
“I have a hunch it’s down here.” The car leaned precariously to the left as Maria made a sharp turn from the pavement onto a steep gravel road. “Oops!”
She righted the minivan as my stomach took its own precarious turn.
I was traveling with an outreach team from Vecinos (Spanish for neighbors), an agency that provides primary and preventative healthcare to migrant farmworkers. They were following a tip that a new migrant worker had arrived in the area, hoping to sign him up for the program.
Maria’s hunch was right. They found the RV with not one but two new workers, both eager to sign up, and soon answering questions and getting their blood pressure, height and weight checked by the Vecinos team: Interns Devereaux Swaim (on a Student Action with Farmworkers fellowship) and Maria Vargas (herself a former farmworker) and staffer Wess Roberts. A handful of other workers at the camp teased their campesinos as they looked on.
As night began to fall a neighboring farmworker strolled over with his wife and daughter. Would they see him too? Sí, por supuesto. Of course.
The skies were pitch black by the time the white Vecinos van arrived. Executive Director Amy Schmidt and Nurse Practitioner Kathy Hefner had been at another camp giving exams; the van is equipped with a complete examination facility under a pop-up roof.
Amy’s eyes widened when she recognized one of the onlookers and went to say hello.
Soon this farmworker was inside the van getting a checkup and a clean bill of health, which relieved Amy and Kathy more than usual.
They hadn’t seen this man since the year before, when he arrived from Florida just days after major surgery. He needed time to recuperate, his doctors told him. But like many farmworkers he needed wages even more. I think Amy was happy just to see him alive.
These farmworkers earn around $250 a week, not near enough to afford preventive medical care. Health insurance is out of the question. Without Vecinos dropping in to offer free care and health education, I imagine many would find themselves in the ER one day, or worse.
I’m not sure vecinos is the right word for these caregivers. They seem more like ángeles to me.
Like many farmworker advocates, Melinda Wiggins can rattle off a long list of injustices faced by the people who harvest America’s food — stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, housing often unfit for human habitation, and one she finds particularly unconscionable: Many farmworkers aren’t allowed visitors in the camps where they live.
“I’ve had a grower tell me it’s just like his kids who want to have visitors,” she told me. “They need to ask him for permission. And I’m like, farmworkers are not your children! What are you saying? But the growers see their worker as a child. As property.”
Two decades of advocacy have not weakened Melinda’s incredulity, which fuels her work as Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit that sends college interns into migrant farmworker camps for a summer of healthcare, legal, and education outreach.
Last summer I followed a bunch of SAF interns — they call themselves safistas — around camps in North and South Carolina. I was so impressed it took all of a moment last week to decide to become a regular donor when Melinda put out the call. (They don’t ask for much: only $10 or more a month. Here’s where you can donate.)
Melinda was raised on her grandparents cotton farm near Phillipstown, Mississippi. Surrounded as a kid by farms and farming, it was only when she left that rural and isolated place that she saw a distressing side of agriculture.
In 1993 Melinda departed the Mississippi delta for divinity school at Duke University. There she applied for a stint with the newly formed Student Action with Farmworkers, a chance encounter that opened her eyes to the systemic injustice suffered by farmworkers. Realizing her true calling, Melinda gave up the ministry for a permanent job with SAF.
SAF is unique among organizations that help farmworkers. There is no permanent team of outreach workers. Instead, every summer they hand-pick twenty or so college students from schools across the United States. After a week of training they provide much needed services for ten weeks, then disperse for careers as varied as you can imagine.
By rebuilding their team each summer, SAF provides to the world a perennial crop of witnesses to the plight of farmworkers.
SAF has sent more than 700 college students into farmworker communities since its founding in 1992. That’s when it emerged from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which had been incubating the concept behind SAF since the 1970s, and incorporated as an independent non-profit.
Safistas do more than provide services. Most produce documentaries about their experience, a nod to their origin in the Center for Documentary Studies, which still houses SAF in a converted 19th century mansion on Duke’s campus. Some stage theatrical productions modeled after the social protest works of playwright Luis Valdez. They all can contribute to a Tumblr blog, allowing anyone to follow their work in the camps.
When Melinda joined SAF, interns were mostly Duke students from privileged backgrounds. One grew up in a farmworking family. Now that ratio has nearly flipped, with a majority of Safistas having farmworking backgrounds. Many have worked the fields themselves, like Daniel Guzman who I wrote about here a few weeks back.
Safistas from farmworker households often arrive with a sense of shame. They know what it’s like to miss school, to miss meals, and to be called out by other kids for working in the fields—harvesting potatoes is not likely to make a kid popular at school. But after ten weeks of sharing their stories with eager listeners, of indeed being honored, they can take away from SAF something far too few farmworkers are allowed: a sense of pride.
All Safistas leave with a new sense of perspective on the plight of farmworkers. “We contextualize it,” Melinda explains. “We talk about the history of agriculture, and how this is happening all over the country.”
Melinda and the other SAF leaders do more than bombard the students with how bad things are for farmworkers. The shock and outrage is inevitable. But by discovering and commiserating and brainstorming as a team, they get a collective sense that they can do something about it.
“Most people who learn about farmworker issues don’t know what to do,” Melinda tells me. “But Safistas leave here knowing something can be done. And what their role might be.”
Melinda may have given up a career in ministry when she took a job with SAF, but I don’t think she strayed too far from whatever drew her to divinity school in the first place. She runs an organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the working poor, and to opening the eyes of young people at the cusps of their careers so they might spread the word wherever they go.
That sounds plenty divine to me.
P.S. Next Saturday I’ll join the 2014 Safistas as they celebrate the end of summer at a public event at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. This should be a great event where we can watch the documentaries, enjoy great food, and meet SAF students and staff. Here’s a link to more information.
Last night, a 13-year old farmworker spoke to the panel from experience: She’s been working in the fields of North Carolina since the age of 7. Now she just wants to finish high school and go to college, but knows her parents can’t afford it.
Another farmworker held the microphone with his right hand because the index finger of his left was heavily bandaged. Last Monday, the end of that finger was cut off by a tobacco planting machine. He hasn’t worked since and doesn’t know how he’ll pay the hospital that reattached it.
Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan, members of British Parliament, are in North Carolina to see firsthand what life is like for farmworkers in the U.S. Yesterday they toured fields and labor camps, spoke with a grower, and ended the day at a forum where more than 40 farmworkers shared their stories. They were accompanied by U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Baldemar Velasquez.
FLOC invited the MPs to further the union’s campaign—so far unsuccessful—to hold R.J. Reynolds accountable for the welfare of the workers who grow their tobacco. They hope Mr. Lavery and Mr. Sheridan can pressure British American Tobacco, which owns 42 percent of R.J. Reynold’s parent company, to influence the tobacco giant. The forum was held at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh.
Mr. Lavery is a former coal miner and Mr. Sheridan has worked in a shipyard. They know what hard labor is like. Still they were unprepared for what they saw, especially in the camps where farmworkers live, as compared to the U.K.
They were blunt in their assessment. “We wouldn’t put animals in the conditions they are living and working in,” said Mr. Sheridan.
Addressing the crowd about the fear many farmworkers have of speaking out, Mr. Sheridan made a point that is maybe lost on those who live in the United States.
“This is supposed to be the land of the free,” he said. “What we’ve discovered today is the contrary. People here are terrified to speak out—and that is no way to live.”
He went on to urge the media to look beyond the growers hiring the farmworkers, many of whom are sympathetic to their workers but “are pressured by those above to deliver the cheapest product possible.”
Standing after nearly two hours of listening to workers, each of whom thanked the MPs for listening to their stories, a visibly moved Ian Lavery shook a fist in the air and repeated that theme.
“It is always those at the bottom of the ladder who are attacked, time and time again, for the profits of the few.” The crowd roared in agreement.
“Your demands are meek,” he continued. “Decent safety and housing. Decent wages, terms and conditions. These are basic human rights!”