Saying thanks during Farmworker Awareness Week

Photo by Ellen McCarty

“Every time we sit at a table to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.”  Cesar Chavez

March 31st marks Cesar Chavez Day, which recognizes the contributions of a man who looked around, saw injustice, spoke out, organized, and resisted. The resistance of countless farmworkers resulted in the founding the United Farm Workers Union, or UFW, in 1962. Consumer boycotts and farmworkers’ organizing eventually led to better pay and safer working conditions for those who toil on the front lines of agriculture.

National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) was established by Student Action for Farmworkers, in 1999 in Durham, North Carolina. NFAW (March 24-31, 2017) is an opportunity for all of us to look around, see injustice, speak out, organize, and resist. In a time when we care deeply about what we eat, we can easily refuse to see the men, women, and children who grow our food. At the very least, we need to reflect about the individuals who feed this country.

History – “We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.”

In 1960, the famous journalist, Edward R. Murrow, helped produce a documentary called Harvest of Shame, which focused on the plight of the migrant farm worker in the US at the time. In the film, one farmer makes the chilling statement above, effectively characterizing farm labor as modern day slavery.

In the United States, we expect food to be cheap and plentiful, and it is easy to see where that expectation comes from. For hundreds of years, farmers were able to bring cheap, plentiful crops to market because they had slave labor. The tough reality—154 years after President Lincoln freed the slaves in the South—is that the expectation of cheap, plentiful food remains. That means that feeding this country today still depends on a hardworking, very low earning labor force of farmworkers. Over 70% of that labor force is comprised of immigrants, according to the 2013-2014 National Agricultural Workforce Survey (NAWS). Immigrants are often the only ones willing to do the hard work necessary to maintain that stream of cheap, plentiful food.

National context

“Work hard and you can get ahead” is core to what we think of as “The American Dream.” That dream does not reflect reality if you are a farm worker. Federal laws of the Depression era 1930s specifically excluded farmworkers from provisions that provided for overtime pay, minimum wage, unionizing rights and workplace protections. The 2013-2014 NAWS reported that farmworkers’ mean and median incomes from agricultural employment the previous year were in the range of $15,000 to $17,499. Sixteen percent of workers earned less than $10,000; only eight percent in the United States earned $30,000 or more. Thirty percent had family incomes less than the federal poverty level. Farmworkers earned an average hourly rate of $10.19 per hour. Since the 1980’s, the costs of producing food has skyrocketed, but the real costs have not been passed on to the consumer.

The reality is that farmworker labor is physically debilitating. Workers have to work very long hours, through rain, cold and heat for extremely low wages. Federal laws continue to exempt farmworkers from overtime pay — only 35% reported having health insurance and 31% report living in crowded living conditions (NAWS, 2013-2014). Here in the United States, we can’t claim that hard work will get you ahead and then systematically exclude some of the most hardworking people from basic rights and opportunities afforded to literally every other job in this country.

In recent years, the foodie movement has put more focus on where people’s food comes from and how the animals were treated and raised. Though laudable, starkly missing from this conversation, are the people involved in producing our food. Are the workers treated with dignity and respect? Are they fairly compensated for their work? It is as if the farmworkers are invisible. They are invisible because many are undocumented and have no immigration relief available to them despite their hard work—even if their employers wish to sponsor them. Fortunately, new trends in the sustainable agriculture movement consider not only where food comes from, but also the quality of life for those that grow the food we eat. A recent study indicated that raising farmworker wages to $15 hour today would cost consumers only $21.15 a year.

Today, farmworkers in California earn about $30,000 a year if they work full time — about half the overall average pay for all California workers. Most work fewer hours. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.

The South Coast perspective

The legacy of Cesar Chavez lives on in our great state of California. Farmworkers contribute significantly to California’s economy, and California is the top farming state in the US. Our minimum wage is one of the three highest in the country at $10.50 per hour, with plans for it to rise to $15 per hour by 2022. California is one of few states that provide some overtime pay for farmworkers, currently after 10 hours of work per day. There was also a law passed in 2016 that will bring that threshold down to 8 hours of work, finally beginning to level the playing field for farmworkers.

Critics of these policies argue that agriculture should have its own rules because of its seasonal nature. The person who loses the most in that scenario is the frontline farmworker. Any increased labor cost to the farmer needs to be built into the cost of food. The onus must be shared by a society that needs to be willing to pay prices that reflect the true cost of food production.

Here on the South Coast, all workers are making at least minimum wage, and some farms give raises to workers after employing them for 6 months or a year. Workers are almost all paid by the hour, avoiding “pay by piece” issues that often arise when workers are instead paid by how much they harvest. Unfortunately, even though many workers have had the same jobs for 5, 10 or 15 years, they still earn only the minimum wage. The economics of our food system are complex. It is not as easy as asking farmers to raise wages. To do so, they also need to raise their prices, meaning their buyers may find someone else to buy from, which can put the entire business at risk, including the farmworkers’ jobs.

Housing remains an enormous challenge here on the South Coast. Farmworker wages cannot keep up with the exorbitant cost of rent in the Bay Area. Unable to afford market rent, many workers and their families live in crowded conditions with little or no access to necessities such as laundry facilities or public transportation.


Puente has its roots in supporting farmworkers and we continue that work today, almost 20 years later.  Puente’s role has grown and evolved in this community, but farmworkers and their families still make up the backbone of the South Coast and hence remain at the core of our work.  Our oldest program, La Sala, still provides a hot meal and social space for farmworkers twice each week. Additionally, our bike repair program focuses on getting farmworkers reliable transportation without having to deal with the costs associated with a car.

Our hope is that our community can be one where farmworkers and their families cannot only survive, but also thrive and flourish – despite the challenges and pressures exerted upon them by antiquated federal laws.

What can I do?

At the very least, say thank you! Farm labor is probably one of the most thankless and invisible work. Find an opportunity to connect with farmworkers and farmers in your community and make it clear you appreciate their efforts. Find out more about where your food comes from and support your local farmers market. Inform yourself about the challenges faced by farmworkers by watching films like Food Chains or Harvest of Dignity. Another very simple way to support farmworkers is to donate to Puente.

On April 4 at 7pm, join us in recognizing Farmworker Awareness Week with the screening of the film The Other Side of Immigration in the multi-purpose room of Pescadero Elementary, with a discussion to follow. 

“These kids are our country.” Local Dreamers fear losses under Trump

What is freedom? To Bernardo Pereira, it’s the new way the world looks at him as a college student with legal documents, including a driver’s license. To Lorena Calvillo, it’s her future career as a civil engineer, made possible by legal documents that give her the right to work – and her college tuition to boot.

Pereira and Calvillo are “Dreamers,” first-generation students whose parents brought them over from Mexico as infants. Growing up in Pescadero, they knew they were different from some of their other young friends. No matter how hard they worked in school or how powerful their aspirations, the prospect of normalcy – a legal job with benefits, a legal driver’s license, even a legally purchased home someday – would elude them forever.

That changed when DACA came along. President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offered temporary work permits and IDs to 728,000 young people who happened to be born in other countries, but were in every other way indistinguishable from other Americans. Puente has processed up to 29 DACA permits for local youth since 2012 and renewed most of them, some for a third term. Most of the youth cohort are in college now, on their way to fulfilling the kinds of dreams that any U.S. teenager aspires to.

“It’s been really helpful to have DACA,” says Pereira. “The ID means nothing to me personally – I already know who I am – but to the world it means everything. I’m identified as someone.” Pereira, whose name was changed for this story, is a 22-year-old college student studying art and business. He was never going to enroll in college without his DACA permit.

Now on the eve of the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, DACA is facing a likely repeal. Trump himself has sent mixed messages about DACA, praising Dreamers in a recent interview while vowing to cancel all of President Obama’s executive actions, including those that would protect them and their families from deportation.

The uncertainty is the worst part, says Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera. “Young people want to know, are their employers poised to fire them right away? I honestly tell them I don’t know – but Puente will find ways to support them regardless. They can count on us.”

It will become clear just how much their lives will be upended in the months ahead. Puente has already renewed as many DACA permits as possible, and is case-managing every youth. “We have told them: if you get a letter or other information, bring it to us and we’ll figure it out together,” adds Mancera.

Puente has spent considerable staff time and resources obtaining Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition, which makes it possible to assist participants with immigration needs. Three Puente staff members and one volunteer have completed the training and received certification to file legal papers on behalf of clients who need visas, green card renewals, and DACA permits.

Lorena Calvillo applied for DACA in high school, just before enrolling in classes at San Francisco State University in fall 2013. Her permit expires in October 2018, seven months short of her expected graduation date.

“I am worried. I try not to think about it – just see what happens. If I didn’t have DACA, I don’t know what I would do. I would definitely not be able to work,” says Calvillo, who is working toward a BS in civil engineering with a concentration in construction management. It’s not a field a lot of women go into, but Calvillo has always been determined. She recently flew to Philadelphia to attend the largest women’s conference for engineers in the country.

Having a DACA permit made it possible for Calvillo to apply for financial aid though the California Dream Act, and she lives near campus thanks to a special financial gift Puente helped arrange. Losing her DACA permit would mean losing her financial aid – and her job as a restaurant hostess. That job is important to her whole family, because it helps her parents pay their bills.

But even without DACA, Calvillo would find a way to pay for it all. She hopes to find work with a company that would sponsor her on the path to citizenship, and is already applying for an internship with a top company in San Francisco.

“I think it’s a bit unfair,” she says. “The fact that here aren’t options for people like me who want to work – it’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve been here for all these years, but now were going to shut you guys out.’”

It has become clear, moving forward, that many DACA youth will need more support from Puente because they won’t have the ability to earn that extra cash.

“There are going to be some people who are going to retreat into themselves. But others have already developed a resilience. They have been a part of the world out there, and have been just like other people,” says Mancera.

They’ve earned respect and independence. You can take away a document, but DACA has already transformed these youths into fighters who know what they deserve: freedom.

I think people like Lorena are going to become advocates for other Dreamers,” says Mancera. “These kids are our country.”

To support Puente’s efforts on behalf of DACA youth, click here.

Trapped: local immigrants hope for legal relief, with Puente’s help

In the parallel universe version of their lives, the one where they are U.S. citizens instead of an undocumented couple working and raising their children, Pescadero resident Cristobal Santos is a well-paid long-distance truck driver and his wife Maria is a preschool teacher’s assistant. They’re almost middle class. They take cheerful family road trips with their three kids. They explore all the places they’ve dreamed of, like New York City and Disneyland.

In the black-and-white reality of the Santos’ lives today, Cristobal is a maintenance worker and Maria works at a flower nursery, the same jobs – long hours, minimum wage – that they have had held for a decade and the only ones they can get using invalid Social Security numbers. Their three young children are Americans, born here in the U.S., but they haven’t seen much of this country. The family, whose names have been changed, has never driven farther than Reno, Nevada.


“We might hit a checkpoint. We might not be able to come back,” says Cristobal, a round-faced, compact man with a quick laugh and a direct way of speaking.

That’s their reality, crystallized: the daily fear, alongside all of life’s other concerns, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will one day discover that the Mexican couple is working without papers, and deport one or both of them – splitting the family in two.

So they stay close to home. Watch their backs. Pay their taxes, and try to avoid contact with police and other law enforcement. Drive to school, drive to work. On weekends, they call their Mexican relatives, whom they haven’t seen in 12 years and their kids have never laid eyes on.

“My kids are like, ‘Why can’t we see our grandparents? Why don’t we know them?’ I tell them, and then they say, why don’t you have documents?’” says Maria, who wears a ponytail and speaks sadly.

They live like coiled springs. They don’t really talk about it anymore. It’s gone on for so long now that the feeling of apprehension is part of the background of their daily lives.

“It’s like a room. You have everything but you can’t leave,” says Cristobal, simply.

It looked like things might change in November 2014 when President Obama announced DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, an executive order providing temporary protection from deportation and a work permit.

It’s not a path to citizenship, but for the Santos family and 4.9 million other unlawful immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens, and who have already been living and working here for years, it would offer a form of state-sanctioned legitimacy and a huge relief from the constant fear of deportation.

“I want to live freely. And I want my social services. There’s 12 million of us here and where is that money going?” says Cristobal.

But those hopes were dashed when a Texas judge stymied the Obama order with a temporary injunction blocking both DAPA and a proposed extension of DACA.  Their lawyers have argued that the federal government does not have standing to enact such a sweeping reform. The case is now before an appeals court in New Orleans, which heard arguments in July. It is widely expected to reach the Supreme Court.

“It’s been the biggest letdown of our whole year that our government isn’t ready and we’ve been ready,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente.

For months, Puente has been poised to process DAPA applications for more than 120 estimated local residents who would be qualified to apply. Within weeks of President Obama’s DAPA announcement, Puente staff members personally reached out to each of them, distributed flyers and scheduled a community information session. Puente assembled packets to help parents collate all the legal papers, including proof of residency and work history, which would be needed to help them apply. Eighty such packets are now in circulation.

Puente has invested more than 200 staff training hours to prepare five staff members to assist participants with their DAPA applications and other immigration legal needs. Puente Deputy Executive Director Rita Mancera was the first staff member to receive legal worker accreditation, and Puente obtained Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition this summer.

The message now is about staying hopeful and prepared. “It’s taking a long time, but we keep telling people where things are,” says Mancera.

Mancera at work at Puente.

Mancera at work at Puente.

The Santos family is prepared – their packets are complete because they gathered all their papers within months of the announcement, back when they thought DAPA was imminent. But Maria Santos is no longer hopeful.

“I really believe it’s not going to happen,” she says. “For one reason or another, it’s always being postponed. It’s sad, because when we first heard about DAPA we thought it was going to change everything, and so far it’s all words and promises.”

Supporters see DAPA as a common-sense extension of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal initiative that since 2012 has awarded work permits to roughly 100,000 previously undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children).

More than 20 youth on the South Coast have received their work authorization since Puente started processing DACA applications for free in 2012, and the resulting opportunities have transformed their lives in remarkable ways.

Jack Holmgren, California Legalization Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, is troubled by the lawsuit that has halted DAPA and sabotaged what he sees as “a ray of light” for people.

Holmgren helped guide Puente staff members through the BIA training and accreditation process which his nonprofit provided.

“This is part of Puente’s immigrant integration strategy. Their goal is to see that the community as a whole gets to a better place, so immigrant and native-born alike can prosper.”

The good news, says Holmgren, is that with its BIA recognition, Puente won’t entirely have to wait around for the federal government to move forward. It can do screenings with people who want to see whether they can benefit from DAPA. Participants may even discover they are qualified to apply for a visa or may find a different path to citizenship.

“It’s that old phrase, ‘Knowledge is Power.’ Now the information that people may have something going for them will make all the difference,” says Holmgren.

Here in California, some families have earthquake disaster plans. The Santos family has a deportation-survival plan.

“We have talked about it. If I’m deported and the children are left behind here, they would be raised without a father,” says Cristobal Santos. “If one of us is deported, we’ve decided we would all go to Mexico.”


Their children would be yanked out of school and transplanted to a rural village in Mexico. “It’s another life there…. of poverty,” he adds.

Cristobal has more hope for the future than his wife.

“Obama had good intentions, but unfortunately the Republicans don’t support us. It will not happen in a year, but maybe in three years,” he says. “Now we just have to wait and hope. Not be desperate. And stay out of trouble.”