Ramón Del Castillo, PhD
It’s springtime, a time when the seeds of the crops grown in the vegetable and fruit fields that nourish our bodies will be planted and cultivated for future consumption by an exploited group of farmworkers. During harvest time, those crops will be picked by another group of exploited group of laborers in American society—farmworkers. As we celebrate César Estrada Chávez’ birthday and the legacy of social justice and nonviolent struggle he left us, we should not abandon farmworkers whose labor bring food to our tables. We must put into perspective the current pandemic that American society is grappling with, namely COVID-19, and its incipient effect on farmworkers who are at the whims of insensitive governmental policies and the greed of wealthy landowners.
Farmworkers are first responders. Their factories are the land whose soil needs to be tilled and cared for. They have no choice but to enter their work domains whatever risks are present. They are an essential part of América’s workforce—continuing to struggle for equal union representation, fair wages, and collective bargaining rights, decent working conditions and now must also contend with the deathly effects of COVID-19. National and state labor policy pundits have an obligation to provide protection for farmworkers—whether documented or undocumented—while simultaneously protecting the American public from undue harm as well.
First and foremost, many farmworkers need protection from the threats of ICE and Homeland Security border patrols that protect international borders. They have purposely caused hate against immigrants, many of which are farmworkers, through continuous attacks on this vulnerable population—resulting in fear of deportation. Southwestern states have prisons and detention centers that are full of immigrants who have been harassed and deprived of human rights. There are also statewide and local borders from state to state that are gearing up to protect their borders during this pandemic. And although they are the guardians of the gates, policies should be in place that prohibit harassment and intimidation against defenseless farmworkers.
Farmworker children need to be protected from inhumane policies—violating their fundamental rights—placed in cages on the US/Mexican border. They may never see their families again. The latest data from the Council of Foreign Relations, states that, “a record-setting 76,020 unaccompanied minors at or near the U.S. México Border during the 2019 fiscal year, was an increase of 52% over 2018.” Many of these children are never tracked and become cannon fodder for that god awful migrant stream. For several years, farmworker children were students in my university classrooms—humble, respectful, hardworking, young people whose parents had cared for mother earth for decades. One only has to use imagination to see how many children had been deprived of an education and followed the footsteps of their parents and elders—locked in the barracas of big agricultural industries.
A half a century later, following the historic battles fought by UFW founders, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta and their many followers, one can easily surmise that conditions for farmworkers have not changed. The Union founded at a time when migrant farmworkers had been abandoned by law, has sent an open letter to agricultural employers and organizations urging them to take “proactive steps to ensure the safety of farmworkers, protect buyers and safeguard consumers.” Many farmworkers live in, “shared grower-provided communal housing camps or cheap motels.” They need protection from the exposure to the deadly virus that has engulfed the American way of life.
Farmworkers in the fields need protective masks, access to soap, water, and gloves that protect them from catching and spreading this deadly virus. Many lack health insurance and access to hospitals should they contract the virus—many are ineligible for essential benefits that would keep them at home if they become ill. Political morality dictates that one should guide their conduct by reason—that is, include all those who will be affected by the actions of one person—in this case the President of the United States—at a broader level, a group of policy makers at the national and state levels. The COVID-19 pandemic has become a moral issue that should be in the forefront to guide ethical and legal considerations. Offering some sort of protective insurance should be mandated for the protection of all Americans. It is incumbent upon President Trump in his use of the Defense Production Act to include farmworker’s basic needs to protect themselves. His production quotas should include basic necessities used by farmworkers to protect themselves and the public from this horrific plague.
As César Chávez so eloquently stated in one of his speeches regarding the many boycotts that the United Farms Workers initiated, “It is never about the grapes and the lettuce, it is about the people.” Let us not abandon farmworkers whose relationship with la tierra remains a significant strategy in the War against an invisible enemy called COVID-19.
Farmworkers are part of that essential work force that needs to tend to mother earth in order to produce the food we need to nourish our bodies and provide a healing substance called food during this contentious war.
I urge Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock Denver’s City Council, and the Colorado State Legislature, that have direct or indirect relations to farmworkers—to shape and enact humane policies that protect those people who put food on our tables and often do not have access to food to feed their own families.
Watch a video discussion by Dr. Ramón Del Castillo, which also features his poem honoring the late César Chávez here.
Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist. © 3-31-2020 Ramón Del Castillo.
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