"We are essential to this nation"
Por Mariel FioriFebruary 2015
In the summer of 2014, two college interns at the Rural & Migrant Ministry – Lisa Ponce and Steven Ory – traveled from Long Island to the Finger Lakes region to collect stories from farmworkers in New York State. The final short films can be found on RMM’s WITNESS blog. They contain personal stories and sincerely call for labor equality for the people who harvest our food. Written testimonials for La Voz also emerged from these interviews. Below is the first installment.
The testimonial below comes from Antonio, a farmworker from the Hudson Valley.
Antonio arrived in the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1999 and for the past four years has been working on a farm in Dutchess County where he works on “harvesting fruits like peaches, apples, pears, plums, apricots, and blackberries. When we have time, we also help those who work with vegetables,” he explains.
A day in the life
“Right now we get in at six in the morning and leave at eight in the evening. But later on we may go until 10 o’clock at night. Depending on what needs to be harvested, the boss later sends the load to posts in different parts of the state. So you get to the grocery store after working in the field, more or less when night falls. You get to the grocery story to pack, put together the entire load, and send it to the markets. We are loading the trucks. So we leave at around nine or 10 at night. We rest during lunch. You get in between one and six in the morning, leave for lunch at noon, from noon until one. And from there you keep going until the end of the day.
Working with vegetables I feel is a bit more tiring, like sowing onions. The tractor goes with an attachment that makes the holes and behind it there are people doing nothing but dropping onions in. One per hole. The others dig and plant. This is incredibly exhausting because you spend the entire day crouched down like this. And sometimes we do this for two or three days because that particular employer covers a lot of ground. The fatigue is so great that the next day you don’t even want to get up.”
Why he came here
“Well it’s not that I chose to. It’s just that I found work here. Because if it were about choice, I would look for something better. What I don’t like about this farm now is that I see people who have been here for over 10 years and they continue to make minimum wage. There are no raises, the employer does not give raises. Everyone is making eight dollars an hour. That is the law. I worked here on a Hudson farm and that employer gave me a 50-cent raise each year for the short time I was there. But here, no. Nothing can be done.”
A day off
“Now that there isn’t much work, we go shopping and cook on Sundays. And when there is a lot of work on Sundays, we work from six in the morning until one in the afternoon, and have just a little time in the afternoon. At one you get home and everyone showers quickly. And then around two or three in the afternoon, we go to the store. You get back around five or six in the evening. You arrive home and start preparing dinner and get ready for the next day – Monday. We haul around a lot when we’re in the middle of summer, since there is a lot of work. Frankly you don’t feel rested because you walk around pressured to do this and that. You know Monday has arrived at five in the morning, you stand up and start working. There is no rest.”
“Although we get hurt on the job, we don’t use the [health care] service because it is very bad. Because this arm really hurts, I feel very injured. Sometimes it feels like it is asleep. One time I called someone so they could bring me to a clinic to be looked at and they performed something to figure out what was wrong. This person came, made me an appointment, asked me for all of my personal information and everything.”
Antonio goes on to say that at the first appointment, for which he had to pay $20, the doctor simply recommended he do a few exercises. During the second appointment, when Antonio said that he did the exercises but did not see any improvements, the doctor told him that he did not know what was wrong with him. What do I do, asks Antonio.
“So he tells me, ‘What would you like us to do for you then?’ I say, if I went to the doctor at a clinic it is because they are going to examine me to figure out what the problem is. But here, it is them asking me what to do. If I knew what I had, why would I go to the doctor? The service is the worst. So I told the doctor: I want you to run some tests, I don’t know, an X-ray, I want to know what is wrong. ‘Okay,’ he said. I remember that it was October when the doctor told me this. You know when they scheduled my next appointment? Not until March. Before I got the X-rays, I came back from the hospital and 15 or 20 days later, the bills came. So I say, why am I going to pay if they haven’t done anything for me?”
Workers’ rights that they do not have
“I don’t think it’s fair because frankly we are people who are essential to this nation. This country eats thanks to the work we do. When you sit down at your table to eat, who do you have to think of at that time? Who are the people who produce what you bring to your table? It’s the farmworkers, but instead we are the most neglected, the most vulnerable. We do not have any guarantees, the law does not protect us. Here, for example, the employer can hire us and get rid of us. For example, if I want to fight for a raise, my employer will say, ‘You want a raise? I cannot give you one. I am not obligated to do so by law. If you want to accept the salary I offer, great. If not, look for another job.’ And he fires us. And people do not do it out of fear because many need the jobs. We are here illegally. Where are you going to go if they fire you? You are not in your country. Who is going to lend you a hand? No one. So because of this fear, people don’t do it. That is why I participate in these organizations, to see if one day justice for us farmworkers can be achieved.”
“I lock myself up in my room, I lie down, put on very soft, romantic music. My mind wanders, concentrates, becomes inspired, and just like that I start writing for the entire night. I really like to write. I have one poem that I put together for my father and mother now that they passed away. It goes like this:
Night of the moon and stars
Infinite heaven of the moon and stars in March,
canvas of a night filled with a warm and intriguing freshness in the world,
mirror of my melancholy soul that always weeps in silence,
glimmers of the majestic and infinite sky,
that speaks of other galaxies, of the universe, of time.
Captivate me and give me strength with your infinite beauty,
and show me unceremoniously the reason for my sensitivity
and the reason for my always melancholy soul.
It hurts me to see tears of pain in my eyes
that fall across my cheeks under a majestic night sky
and my sad and continuous pilgrimage.
Like an innocent convict
crying in his agony and torment,
my heart and soul cry,
as in a shower of stars
under a majestic moonlit night.”
“I came to this country in 1999 and after some time, I sent for my children. At that time, I still lived with my wife. Later, however, we separated and I stayed with my children, who were in school here; one went to elementary school and the other directly to middle school. But the time came when my oldest finished high school and said to me, ‘Dad, I want to go get a college degree.’ If someone is not in the country legally, getting a loan is difficult because you don’t have a social security number. I found a way. Many people told me, my children’s teachers told me: ‘They have the potential to succeed. Please don’t make them work, we want them to stay in school.’ But no one told me, ‘You know that in such and such place, you can get help, an orientation, someone who will support them so that they can continue studying.’ So my oldest son had to go back to Mexico because he didn’t get any help here. The day he left, I felt true devastation in my soul.”
“Now, thank God, he has one year left before graduating. I feel quite proud because when he left here, he said to me: ‘Dad, I know how it is working here (because he worked with me for a year), I know that it’s hard, it’s difficult. Dad, if you support me, I promise, I assure you that I will work my hardest so that the money you invested in me does not go to waste. It will be money well invested, Dad, I promise you this.’ And thank god I have spoken to him. He scanned in his grades to me online, his grades are outstanding. His teachers have spoken wonderfully about him. ‘Please,’ they say, ‘do not leave your son behind, continue speaking to him. Make him feel like you are interested in what he is doing, encourage him.’ And that is what I do. I talk to him on the phone and we talk through video chat. We send each other texts and everything. I tell him, ‘I’m interested, son, keep moving forward, I know you can do it.’
And as for the other one, because of this Dream Act program now, his papers are being processed. He wants to study in this country. When my other son left, this opportunity did not exist. Now the younger one says to me: ‘Dad, I know that you’re helping my brother who is in Mexico, so I’m going to work here for some time. I am going to save money so that way I can help you. And it won’t be such a heavy load for you. I am going to study here and will find a way to get help too.’ And since he also has good grades and even graduated with honors, I have hope that he too will succeed. It took work and sacrifices, but I think that it’s worth it because they are responding. They are not people with bad habits nor do they surround themselves with bad company. They are people who dedicate themselves to what they need to focus on.”
[TO BE CONTINUED…]
*Translated into English by Marianna Breytman for Voices of NY, http://www.voicesofny.org/2015/03/essential-nation/
La Voz, Cultura y noticias hispanas del Valle de Hudson
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