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Migrant Labor: The Face Behind the Food Economy

I work on an organic vegetable farm with migrant Mexican farmworkers in southern Pennsylvania, although I'm not sure that "migrant" is the best word for many of them. I notice many patterns that align them with demographic trends and characterizations of migrant labor, yet my personal experiences have brought the statistics and economics to life, and made me think about this group's place in our cultural values.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines a migrant as "an individual whose principal employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis, who has been so employed within the last 24 months, and who establishes for the purposes of such employment a temporary abode." The line between migrant and seasonal workers is blurry, but migrants tend to travel in a distinctly north-south pattern as the seasons change, while a seasonal worker in the north may not seek agricultural work in the winter months. Both usually involve some degree of transience.

Not one of the "gringos" at my job is entirely certain where our Mexican peers really go for the winter, but many return to the farm year after year. So yes, they migrate from season to season, but probably not far. They stay in a closeknit group, keep their culture alive partly through cuisine, rely on strong kinship bonds for survival, and eventually develop a sense of attachment or loyalty to the place, despite their isolation and general lack of assimilation.

Quiet authority

They generally rule the field. They quietly lay down the law, and we figure it out by trial and error (and the occasional scolding), in spite of our language barrier. Our labor pales in comparison to their adept speed and tirelessness. They do eventually tire, but they don't want the tedious work to end. Sixteen- or eighteen-hour days mean more money to send home to kids and relatives in Mexico, some of whom they haven't seen in years.

There is rapport across cultures, but a cautious one, with limited communication. Even with those of us who can speak Spanish, they keep their distance. The work sometimes feels even more solitary than if I were alone, surrounded by the constant soundtrack of chatter and whispers and laugher, the inflections of unknown words cycling like a broken record and coming alive in my mind with imaginings of what they might mean. All I can do is try not to screw up, to keep pace with them, try not to receive mention in that running commentary, in other words. After awhile, self-awareness starts to mount to an uncomfortable level.

I wonder about the fate of some who come only at the peak of the season and last for a few weeks until they are culled as the work level dies down again, leaving the core group who arrived in early April. What other odd jobs do they find, and how do they make resources stretch to the other side of that incomeless canyon? Many eventually find work in the city at maintenance, construction or food service, but these jobs tend to yield fewer hours or lower wages.

The migrant population is highly mysterious, elusive, and difficult to pin down. Its basic statistics are even uncertain, since the mostly undocumented workers who make a point to avoid government institutions and bureaucracy appear spottily in the census. We do know that while the vast majority are eligible for social services like food assistance programs, only the vast minority take advantage of them; many relying instead on nonprofit community groups, charitable organizations, and each other. Many of the Mexicans I work with live in a nearby small city in an overwhelmingly Hispanic part of town, frequently with several extended family members and friends to an apartment. Childcare or help with a car payment is never more than a few relatives away.

It is a population that faces almost every obstacle you could think of: lack of English proficiency, high rates of illiteracy (in any language, but especially English), extremely low education, prevalent poverty, limited reliable transportation and lack of political power, coupled with intense fear and distrust of dominant institutions. For these reasons, the migrant community is highly self-reliant and self-contained, often isolated in rural areas. Resources are pooled, mutual sacrifices constantly made.

Peculiar sparks

Yet I notice a peculiar spark in many of my coworkers. Even young women appear jaded and older than their years, weariness etched in their faces, yet life and vibrance dance alongside it. They laugh easily and gleefully, their faces cracking into beautiful smiles.

Most say they have worked since they were kids or young teenagers, usually at farm labor. The average migrant worker has a sixth-grade education. A 2004 study of Pennsylvania migrant workers published by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania notes, "It is ironic that the efforts of migrant and seasonal farm workers allow the U.S population access to high-quality and affordable foods while they may suffer from food insecurity, and may live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions."

Aside from back problems and other work-related injuries, the study finds that the most common health problems among migrants are linked to poor diet: diabetes, poor dental health, heart disease, weight problems, and hypertension.

Hector, a 62-year-old former Florida migrant worker from Puerto Rico, describes moving to Florida at age 7 and working on vegetable farms, moving up and down the east coast with the seasons by truck convoy, from the age of 9. For the first ten years he worked, he earned between five and eight dollars a day, and remembers piece-rate earnings as a vast improvement in his wages. He never belonged to a union, and to his knowledge, none existed in Immokalee, Florida during the 1950s and 60s.

His family belonged to a convoy that followed the same north-south patterns year after year, living in employer-provided housing. Because they were a family, they usually enjoyed separate living quarters, but "single men had a lot of problems," and would frequently be crammed into barns instead of apartments. This group was the most likely to fall into alcoholism and disorderly behavior as a result of racial tensions.

Back problems, snake bites

Although Hector never suffered severe work-related injuries, he remembers back problems and snake bites as extremely commonplace among his coworkers.

"My dad was a Christian, so he used to save when he worked," Hector recalls. His family never went hungry in lean months because his father was careful with money, but he watched other families around him waste scarce money on alcohol. Food handouts from churches in South Carolina helped, also. ("We used to live like kings, back then," he says.) Lower prices and costs of living made life better in the old days, to his mind. He notes that many of the migrants were used to growing their own vegetables and a lifestyle of total self-sufficiency that involved few purchases, but that this was sacrificed to the promise of better jobs in America.

Dietary acculturation is often a major obstacle for Latino farmworkers. Most say that their eating habits change drastically when they cross the border. The newly available and cheap fatty, sweet and salty American foods quickly become a staple in the diet, especially for workers who have limited time and facilities for food preparation, while the consumption of more expensive fresh produce falls off significantly.

My Mexican coworkers, many of whom live in the on-site farmhouse, were thin when they arrived in the U.S. several years ago but now worry about their weight and experiment with diet products. They drink soda with every meal, and most foods are prepared with a generous amount of salt and vegetable oil. Yet they represent an exception to the lifestyles of most migrants because the proprietor gives them money to buy food in addition to their wages (while charging them no rent or utilities), steering them toward local and organic food, and they incorporate produce from the farm and from a small garden into their meals. The mid-afternoon break at work usually features watermelon, peaches or cucumber slices sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder. Like many migrants, they make food stretch as they are used to doing in Mexico - they eat many variations on rice, beans and tortillas, working in meat, eggs and spicy sauces where possible. They eat communally, making large batches and often subsisting on leftovers. Besides authentic Mexican restaurants, fast food restaurants and all-you-can-eat buffets are favored choices for eating out.

Good food, bad food

Nutrition and health are not major factors in food choices, and many migrants lack basic education about choosing healthy food. Cason et al., authors of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study, find that price is often the deciding factor in a food purchase and that access to information about sound nutrition can dramatically alter eating patterns. Like most Americans, when confronted with the choice between an abundance of tasty but nutritionally valueless convenience foods and less accessible and more expensive whole foods, they follow their taste buds and their wallets. Unhealthy foods are often cheaper with more instantly gratifying calories, although they may be more destructive to overall health in the long term.

Yet food culture, preparation and enjoyment are cornerstones of Latino identity. Lunch at the farm is always an event, observed religiously as a sit-down, hot meal. In the name of tradition, it is the full responsibility of the women, from cooking to cleanup. Preserving cultural values through familiar flavors and the social experience of taking time to cook and eat are less a challenge for those at the farmhouse than the average migrant worker, who may live in overcrowded quarters and isolated, food-insecure areas. Many have difficulty gleaning the proper ingredients from American grocery stores to prepare familiar food, and lack of transportation might prevent them even from accessing a proper food store. Food labels and unfamiliar foods also present a problem for the English-illiterate majority, and fast-food restaurants may be an easy answer to the confusion and challenges of food preparation. Mainstream American fare seems to have a certain allure, as the bright lights, vast aisles and "everyday low prices" of Wal-Mart cast their spell over the newcomers just as they have us "natives." The abundance and ease of obtaining food shocks many migrants fresh from the Mexican countryside.

The often furtive existence of migrant communities makes obtaining proper health care an additional challenge. The vast majority of migrants lack health insurance, and since every extra penny is saved or sent home, paying out-of-pocket for insurance or medical care is generally out of the question. Publicly funded health care is perceived as out of reach for the workers, especially those who are undocumented. Clinics for illegals exist, but the basic barriers of poor assimilation persist - language barriers, inadequate transportation, cultural differences, low education levels, poverty and fear of a large and impersonal system, especially in the world of health-care providers.

Hector recalls that health benefits and welfare were readily available to him as a low-income migrant worker, but not to his illegal counterparts. "Back then, if you were a migrant and you went to the hospital, the government would take care of you." Illegals, meanwhile, tried to avoid hospitals as much as possible.

Powerless, but valuable

It is precisely this litany of struggles and vulnerabilities that makes the migrant community so valuable to the American labor force. Here is a vast pool of labor at the ready, dependent on a constantly changing tide of employment, that must willingly absorb whatever changes - wage, time, place or living conditions - are thrown at it. Migrant workers respond hair-trigger to the demands of an unpredictable agricultural economy. They go without work when bad weather strikes or crops fail. They flow willingly to areas of need and go without complaint whenever the need dies down. They absorb personal injury and health problems, travel expense and other mishaps in the process, with little ability to take legal action for damages. Basic labor laws are often not applied. In other words, those outside of farmworkers' unions dictate none of the termsof their labor. Where else in our economy do you find a work force with so little leverage and legal visibility? Powerlessness breeds on invisibility. Control exists only in the barest free-market sense - the ability to chose work at this farm or that farm down the road that pays perhaps 50 cents more an hour.

Says author Paul Roberts in his 2006 book The End of Food (Houghton Mifflin), "Would consumers ever be willing to fork over enough to make these very hard jobs respectable or desirable or safe, or, more generally, to relieve the food industry of its long-standing dependence on immigrant labor? (A dependence, it should be noted, that is far more central to the current immigration debate than are the stated concerns over security or population.)"

Does this dependence on farm labor by non-owners interfere with the emerging ideal of purely local food? Virginia grass-fed livestock farmer Joel Salatin sees migrant labor as the downfall and the opposite extreme of the Jeffersonian, diversified, intellectual peasant farmer. "We have a culture today that denigrates farmers," he says. On the subject of immigrant labor, "if a model cannot hire its neighborhood, how socially responsible is that?"

The fact is, for better or worse, we live in a global marketplace that is highly commodified and depersonalized. Capital and market signals move at the speed of light. Demand, whether for labor or resources or goods, creates a vacuum that tugs at the world itself to fill. Where there is a market for cheap migrant labor, the call will be answered, one way or another.

What would we change, and where do the externalities lie? The situation begs for improvement, and yet, this is how we feed ourselves. Each of us relies heavily on the backs of migrant labor, on a reality invisible to the vast majority. I feel lucky to have seen that world from the inside, to better understand the source of tortured perfection and loyalty that keeps our system's cogs turning impeccably. Every chili pepper makes it to market perfectly aligned in its half-pint flat, stems rigid at one end; every row-cover pulled taut and ramrod-straight; every onion planted in a perfectly-spaced grid. Such perfection and attention to detail is, after all, the status quo, the expected norm, whether at the grocery store, the farmer's market, or the wholesale distribution center.

Social responsibility is workable on the farmer's end, perhaps more so in some instances than others. As I have seen, it is possible (at least with access to a high-value, profitable urban market) to pay workers a living wage, take responsibility for their health and well-being, and adopt an attitude of caring and generosity. Workers may not always appreciate such initiatives, but they are the first step in building a more just and equitable agricultural work force.

Until we as consumers elect to make more conscientious decisions about our food purchases, however, every margin of every transaction on the supply chain will be relentlessly squeezed, especially labor, so that the constantly escalating demand for cheaper food may be met. This is the reality in a highly competitive economy, yet many farmers, my boss included, continue to step out of the woodwork and define their brand and their product by attributes other than price, including uniqueness, quality, a striving for sustainability, and respect and fairness in the workplace. As I have seen, farming needn't be, by definition, demeaning work.

Editorial assistant Genevieve Slocum brings her background in sociology and her own practical farm labor experience to her analysis of the people and economics of farming. She intends to pursue this exploration in graduate school.