There’s a beautiful stretch of road in Oregon that ambles you towards the coast. Looking out your car window, your eyes are greeted with peaceful farmlands, rows of green leafy vegetables, grape vines, berry vines and Mexican farmworkers. Your first thoughts are likely further from the truth than you realize. Perhaps you think that the owners of these farms invite workers up here, house them, feed them, and even medicate them. You are partly right. Or perhaps you, like many people in the United States, shake your fist and curse these workers for “taking your jobs” “milking the system and living off of welfare”. Guess what, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
There is much I don’t know about the plight of Mexican farmworkers in this fair country of ours. Like, for example, if you drive through some of those beautiful farms in Washington County, take a side road past the farms to where there is no view of the main highway, you’ll come across rows and rows of shanties. Lean-tos. Housing fit for garden tools or trash, not human beings. Maybe you see a lovely old barn and imagine horses and cows gently dozing while nibbling on hay. Chickens roaming freely, scratching at the dirt and pecking for bugs. Imagine something closer to this: 200 plus men crammed in a small barn sleeping on board-thin, stained mattresses wondering where their next meal is coming from or missing their family so deeply they stifle their tears so as not to appear weak to the other workers. Does that sound like slave labor to you? It does to me.
Here’s something I didn’t know: The reason why there has been such a large influx of undocumented workers over the past 17 years is directly due to the United States signing of NAFTA. This “fair trade” agreement caused more than two million Mexican farmers to close their farms. Why? Because NAFTA allows wealthy countries (like ours) to sell foods for well below what it cost to produce them. The United States started exporting corn at 30% below its cost of production to Mexico. Show me a small farmer that can compete with that.
-“Before the free trade agreement the harvest was well paid, especially for corn and beans. But then, free trade arrived and prices went down from there. A kilo of corn now costs a peso, and what’s a peso worth? Nothing…less than a quarter.” Farmworker, North Carolina
Here’s another thing I didn’t know, because agriculture is one of the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs in the U.S, the farming industry can’t recruit American citizens to fill jobs. Rather than improve conditions, agriculture recruits laborers desperate for work from abroad.
The folks that cross our borders do it for work. They pay taxes and social security (of which they can’t collect on); they are not eligible for welfare, food stamps or healthcare. In fact, most ill farmworkers are given a choice when ill, see a doctor and lose your job, or work sick. And sick they are. Poor living conditions, pesticide use, physical abuse, rape, you name it.
What’s sad is that these farmworkers do have a voice. There are many farmworker rights advocate groups in the states representing these people and doing there best to speak for them and bring attention to their situation. But ask a farmworker what it’s like? They may tell you, especially if you speak Spanish, but it rarely moves beyond that. The fear of being beat, losing their job, being sent back to Mexico, or worse, jail, keeps these folks silent. It’s as if all the work Cesar Chavez did in the 60’s and 70’s has all but disappeared.
But there are folks out there doing what they can to help improve the condition of the farmworker. Bienestar (means well-being) is one of those groups. The focus of Bienestar is to help build affordable, and livable housing for farmworkers and impoverished individuals and families. They help educate them, and empower them through job training, ESL programs, and youth programs. Part of what Bienestar does is create successful citizens who contribute to our communities. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
I approached Bienestar several months ago because I not only wanted to learn about the state of farmworkers in our country, but I felt the need to document it as a photographer and as a writer, with the intention of not only sharing, but, perhaps idealistically, of helping to create a measure of tolerance. I want you to look into the eyes of Esmeralda and maybe see a reflection of yourself. Another woman trying to make ends meet. Or perhaps you’ll see your great-great grandmother in her eyes, who traveled here under horrid conditions in the bowels of a ship to live in the unlivable tenement housing of New York in the 1800’s. Who, despite all of her hardships, still holds on to the American Dream.
Can you imagine that?
 Farmworkers and Immigration PDF, Bienestar