By Patricia Patterson, Policy Advocacy Intern
Just twenty minutes outside of Raleigh, North Carolina is a white house with blue shutters, blue doors. The exterior of the house is composed of an eroding material that seems to eat at itself from the inside out. I have lived in this house for over fourteen years. I have watched the house grow older and rustier and become more of a cardboard box than a home. As a child, I would walk through a field behind my house. Most of the time, this field was barren, a seemingly deserted terrain, with symmetrical rows of mounds of dirt. I used to trudge carefully in between the rows, leaving footprints in my wake. When I would wander too far, I would retrace my footprints back to my cardboard house. It never occurred to me that this may have been a commercial field where I was unwelcome, that my curiosity had a name—trespassing.
“¡No vayas tan lejos!” (Don’t go so far!) my mother would scold.
It wasn’t until much later that I started to notice my surrounding area, the many acres of tobacco and corn and sweet potatoes and crops I couldn’t recognize from a car window. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what I was looking at or the greater implications. Even as I watched a truck of migrant farmworkers pass by from a school bus window at 5 a.m. one morning in middle school, I still didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I recently accompanied a group—consisting of representatives from Toxic Free NC and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services—to visit and meet local migrant workers that it finally sunk in—these workers put their lives in danger every day to complete their work. This is real.
The farmworkers we met gave us a warm welcome. One worker stopped mowing the lawn when he saw us approaching and only resumed after we left. They offered us peaches and plums and apologized for not having refreshments available for us. When we attempted to assure them that we were grateful for their hospitality and not to worry, one man continued to insist that he should have gone to the grocery store prior to our visit. They were eager to share their stories with us. When asked about what they perceive as the most dangerous aspect of their job, a 50-year-old worker mentioned his fear of potential pesticide exposure.
“Con los pesticidas, uno tiene que tener cuidado con el trabajo porque muchos plantas llevan pesticidas,” he said. “Y tienes que tener cuidado con el calor. Usar más camisas con manga larga, paño, guantes… Ahorita que esta un calorón feo—nombre—tiene que tomar mucha agua y tener cuidado al tomar su paso.”
“One has to be careful when handling pesticides while working because many plants have pesticides,” he said. “And one has to be careful with the heat. Use more long sleeves, washcloths, and gloves…. Now when there’s a terrible heat—no way—you need to drink a lot of water and watch your step.”
When asked about their work, they all replied with a version of, “It’s rough.” To my astonishment, none of the workers dwelled on negative aspects of working in the fields. They recognized that their work is difficult, especially working in the heat, but they were not resentful or indignant in regards to their situation. Despite acknowledging the danger of fieldwork, they stated that several other jobs are just as difficult and hazardous. Many worked other arduous jobs prior to fieldwork—roofing, warehouse work, slaughterhouse work, packaging, factory work, and many others. To them, it was just work, work that no one else would complete due to the laborious conditions. Many workers declared their pride in the work they do in the fields.
One 48-year-old woman discussed the obstacles she had to overcome in order to work in a new country. She maintained that her motivation to work was always to provide food and housing for her children. As of today, she has worked in agriculture for twenty years.
“Para mí era muy difícil [ser trabajadora agrícola] porque yo nunca he trabajado así en la labor,” she said. “En México yo había trabajado solo de ama de casa. El trabajo sí es muy pesado para uno, más cuando una trae familia. Tiene uno que dar los niños a cuidar… Para ellos [mis niños] era un poco difícil. Era difícil porque como yo no conocía y no tenía nadie que los cuidara, yo tenía que cargar con ellos al trabajo. Y pues, por eso los complicaba mucho. No les gustaba. Ellos querían regresar pero era difícil.”
“For me, it was very difficult [being a farmworker] because I had never worked this way before,” she said. “In Mexico, I had only been a house wife. The work is very difficult for one, even more difficult when one brings their family. You have to give the kids to someone that will take care of them… I didn’t know anyone, so I had to bring the kids to work with me. They hated it. They complained about wanting to go home, but I had no one to leave them with, no one I knew who would babysit them.”
The woman explained that the language barrier was another obstacle she had to overcome. At first, she could only use eye contact and body language as a means to understand her employers. Many American employers were considerate and sympathetic to her situation, trying their best to use creative alternatives in communication until she learned the language. Other employers, however, grew angry and frustrated when she couldn’t understand them.
“Más que nada hay que tener más cuidado para la gente que trabajan en el campo porque es muy difícil,” she said. “Muy pesado. A veces tienen que trabajar—yo he visto cómo trabajan bajo la lluvia y en calorones tan fuertes… Yo llegue a trabajar cuando a veces estaban tirando veneno y uno lo traen así trabajando. Tirando veneno y otras atrás de la máquina cortando tabaco.”
“More than anything, one has to be more mindful of the people who work in the fields because it is very difficult work,” she said. “Very laborious. Sometimes they have to work—I have seen how they work in heavy rain and in unbearable heat… I arrive to work sometimes when they are applying poison, and they still have them [farmworkers] work. Spilling poison and another behind the machinery, cutting tobacco.”
What some workers suggested when asked what could be done to implement positive change in the system was increased visits to work sites. They explained that visiting workers more often would likely create a greater understanding between groups of people, especially in terms of workers and employers. Some discussed the importance of education, wishing that their children or grandchildren or younger people they know would recognize the difficulty of fieldwork and decide to continue their studies. Through education, they hoped that the youth might have the opportunity to seek a better life.
When I went home that night, I thought about the migrant farmworkers. I thought about the 52-year-old man who never gets to go home, who sends money to his family in Mexico and calls them every week. I thought about what it must feel like to never be able to see your family. I thought about the 70-year-old man who works just as much as the others, despite his bad back. When was the last time he has seen a doctor? I thought about the 50-year-old man who works before sunrise to after sunset every day and still has the will power to mow the lawn after his workday. I thought about the 48-year-old woman who lifts heavy boxes every day despite her small frame, who comes home late to feed her children and her grandchildren. Worst of all, I thought about wandering the field behind my house as a child and never realizing that workers like the ones I met might have been in my backyard all along.