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The Farmworker Caravan
Mutual Aid in California’s Migrant Worker Communities
Written by Nikola Garcia
The 400,000+ farmworkers who call California home are critical to the state’s agricultural economy, ensuring the harvest and processing of more than one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts grown in the United States. As many are undocumented, they fall outside of official NGO and governmental assistance initiatives, and often mistrust the surveillance required by agencies offering emergency assistance they might be eligible for.
Growing up in San José, California, my Latinx family stories are intertwined with histories of migrant farmwork: from the mid-century Bracero Program to the current era of mass deportations, from the United Farmworkers Union to No Human Being is Illegal. In December 2021, I was privileged to sit down and have a conversation with Darlene Tenes, founder of a grassroots initiative called the Farmworker Caravan. Since April 2020, they have been collecting donations and bringing supplies to farmworker families in Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and San Luis Obispo counties. Last month, the organization brought together volunteers and migrant workers to celebrate Christmas through organizing Posadas in migrant worker camps.
In our conversation, we discussed how this mutual aid network was able to operate at scale—despite shelter-in-place orders and supply shortages—to provide emergency assistance to indispensable members of our world. Tenes provides insight into the everyday lives of migrant farmworker communities, who are frequently made invisible due to racial discrimination, the threat of deportation, and the social barriers between the hinterland and metropolis inherent in the industrial agricultural system. Nonetheless, the Farmworker Caravan has made it possible for volunteers and migrant farming communities to share genuine human experiences through which it is possible to reimagine our food system and the relationship between city and country.
How did the Farmworker Caravan start?
During the shelter-in-place in April 2020, state assembly member Robert Rivas was doing a donation drive for farmworkers. I reached out to some friends, posted an invitation on my neighborhood Facebook group, and ended up going with four cars to deliver donations from my friends and neighbors. We drove two hours to Watsonville and saw that the donation drive was completely disorganized and there was hardly anybody there! So the next day, I made a Facebook event page to do another drive the following week. We had ninety cars signed up to go on this caravan. I'm a PR person with experience in marketing and event organizing, so I reached out to some journalist friends so we could get the news out there, which generated more interest. In 2020, we did it sporadically throughout the year. By 2022, we started doing it every month and expanded to different locations: San Juan Baptista, Salinas, Watsonville, Halfmoon Bay, etc.
For many outside of California and unfamiliar with our history of migrant labor struggle, they may not understand how farming in California is a global industry. Can you explain why you decided to focus on farmworkers as essential workers?
Salinas Valley is called “the salad bowl of the world” because all the world’s lettuce really comes from there. But while we were appreciating the essential workers of the pandemic, people were turning us down when we asked for help supporting farmworkers. At this time the government and NGOs weren’t classifying farmworkers in California as “essential workers.”
For example, I had approached KIND, a company that makes snack bars, because they had a campaign where they were giving free KIND bars to all the essential workers. And they turned me down. They said, “Oh, well, we don't mean that. We mean like health care workers.” So they emailed me back, and I'm sitting there thinking like… You read the packaging of KIND bars and they talk about how “we use the freshest fruits and nuts in our products.” And then you’re saying that farmworkers aren’t essential? They're essential to your business!
It was the California farmworkers that kept feeding the world, but they weren’t given basic supplies like masks and sanitizer, and their employers weren’t required to incorporate social distancing. So of course a lot of these people were getting sick, but kept working without getting tested because they needed to keep working to provide for their kids.
To what extent do you think that farmworkers face these issues because of their immigration status?
You don't really see families that are farmworkers for multiple generations. When you're a farmworker, you want your kid to never be a farmworker. So you always have to get that fresh flow of people that are coming over the border for farmwork. Not all foreign workers are from Mexico, but there is always going to be a constant flow of migrant workers from Mexico. To keep this industry affordable, farmworkers have to be undocumented. This is why a lot of people who say they are against undocumented immigration are actually really for it—because they're making money off of it. If we really wanted to shut down the borders, we could, but we really don't want to because people are making money off of it.
There is also a major problem with child labor. Farmwork is the one industry in the US that is legally exempt from child labor laws. Some states will allow you to work in the fields at ten years old, But again, nobody has an ID and no one has paperwork so they can really be eight or six years old. And then people are also saying, “Oh that person isn’t a minor, they’re just small because they’re indios [Indigenous].” But parents often bring them to work in the fields to teach them a lesson, warning them that “You don't ever want to do this for the rest of your life like I did.” Or their parents needed their children to work so they could survive. You sit there thinking “Does that really happen”? But then on the commute in the caravans you hear people talking about how they were kids, working with other kids, helping their parents when they were out picking.
It’s particularly grave that there are children working in the fields without guaranteed protective gear like masks when we remember that picking seasons often coincide during the California fire season.
They were making them work during the wildfires when the smoke was so bad that aircraft couldn’t operate and people didn't even want to run to their mailboxes. And the farmworkers were out there working twelve hours a day. That’s illegal, but who’s gonna complain? Because the majority of them are, again, undocumented. During the wildfires, we were trying to get people to take pictures while they were working in the smoke. Workers aren’t allowed to bring phones, so they have to sneak their phones in and take photos. With the photos, I did file some OSHA complaints. It was a pain for me, a person who's somewhat intelligent sometimes. I can't imagine what it would be like for someone when English is not their native language, if they’re nervous about their legal status, or who is not as forceful as I was.
How have the issues of the “essential worker” classification and immigration status impacted how you partner with different organizations?
We met a lot of grassroots agencies that are very entrenched in those communities, which is a big deal because they're undocumented and they don't trust everybody. We partnered strongly with Catholic Charities, because most farmworkers trust that the Catholic Church isn’t going to turn them in, so they go there rather than a government place or even a local school.
Funding for us is solely for individual things we need because we don’t qualify for a lot of funding. We're not going to track people or give donations based on government-provided lists. A lot of agencies distribute food based on lists of families and individuals, which they get from government agencies (welfare, food stamps, school lunch programs, etc.) Well, these are undocumented people who are not relying on government stuff, aren’t going to governmental places, and won’t sign their names on anything.
We also don’t qualify for community foundation money because most want you to serve your community. They won’t fund us because we're feeding people outside of our community, outside the Bay Area. We can’t get donations from a lot of these agencies they fund, like food banks, because they are often obliged to distribute in their locality.
We have partnered with groups and agencies that don’t care who gets the food, that don’t require recipients to be documented. The two largest are Hunger at Home in San Jose and Mission Food Hub in San Francisco. Mission Food Hub was created during the pandemic by Roberto Hernandez, who everyone calls the “Mayor of the Mission District” because he is the main organizer of the Mission District Carnival. They don’t require that we provide a list of names of who needs food, prove they have children in school, have children signed up for a school lunch program, etc. They give food to whoever needs food and will also go outside of their area. It has been really great that they have partnered with us.
This lack of official aid is especially concerning considering the initial weeks of the shelter-in-place order that confined most people to their homes. How did the caravans operate during these COVID-19 restrictions?
We were under strict guidelines which changed by the hour. We weren't allowed to have gatherings at that time because there was shelter-in-place, and we could face a $1000 fine if we were five miles away from our homes. No one else was on the freeway besides our ninety cars, so we printed out placards saying FARMWORKER CARAVAN that people put on their cars.
I was one of the first people to do an event with hundreds of people during the pandemic, and there's no rules or guidelines for safety protocols on the internet. So I had to think hard about how to do this safely. In the end everyone had to sign a waiver, and when they drove into the parking lot they needed to park one space apart and they had to have their masks on and wear gloves. When drivers showed up, the volunteers would put donations in the trunk and wouldn’t go inside the passenger area. It was predominantly families the first year that were coming out, but also a lot of younger people because they were more willing to come out during shelter-in-place.
How did you respond to the supply chain shortages during this period?
The supply chain shortages have impacted a lot of food distribution networks. For example, Hunger at Home bases their model on extra food and supplies from big corporations, which no longer have cafeterias or events because everyone is working at home. Other organizations get donations from hotels, but those also shut down. A lot of these groups can supplement their donations by buying food, but the cost of food has risen astronomically.
Our donation list had real basic stuff: spam, dishwashing soap, toilet paper, masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, ziplock bags, diapers, tupperware, etc. This was when no one wanted to go to the grocery store, but also the grocery stores were empty of spam and all this stuff. So we literally cleared off our own pantry shelves and threw them in the trunk. It was really difficult in the beginning, but later it got better. These girls were like “I got a cousin in Tijuana who works in a factory and he can hook us up with this stuff.” We got to keep their contacts because we asked them to go through the groups that signed up to donate those items. For the past two Christmases we have passed out stockings. Last year, I purchased 4500 Christmas stockings. But due to shortages, no one could buy stockings in bulk, even at places like Dollar Tree. So a lot of groups came together and signed up to sew Christmas stockings to donate.
It seems almost ironic that amid these supply and distribution limitations, it is entirely possible that farmworkers could get donations of the same produce that they grow.
It's so funny, because one day there were big boxes of brussels sprouts from Salinas that came all the way from a Michigan food bank. They were picked in Salinas, shipped in a truck to Michigan to be donated, and the food bank sent it right back. Talk about a carbon footprint issue! But besides that, this cycle is ironic in that this produce had to travel so far to be donated to the workers who grew it.
In December, your group organized a huge tamale event for the migrant communities including a Posada, the traditional Mexican Christmas celebration. Can you explain a bit the logistics of the organization and how you managed to prepare enough tamales for so many people?
Six hundred people came to the Posada and we made 2400 tamales for the event. We cooked half at the Moose Lodge in San José and people cooked the other half in their homes. We were fortunate that the San José Flea Market called up all their vendors and asked for donations, and they donated two hundred pounds of masa and one hundred pounds of meat. Some people gave us money to buy things like the hojas and jalapeños. When people registered to be part of the tamalada, we gave them the list of items and they signed up for what they could bring. We had new volunteers when we did the Posada, but it was a lot of the same loyal volunteers. It will probably be a lot easier next year because now we have a more accurate list of what we need. We will probably ask in advance for the donations and cook all the meat and tamales together.
What do you think has been the biggest impact of the caravan?
People involved in the donation drives are from every age group, every faith base, every ethnicity. Many folks volunteer because their parents are or were farmworkers themselves. Volunteers have expressed that they got involved because the farmworkers are right next door. It was really beautiful to see everybody come together when we've gone through such turbulent times. This era that we’re currently living through is going to go down in history as “the Trump era,” “the BLM movement,” “the Pandemic.” There's so much going on and people are so stressed out, but coming together for the Farmworker Caravan was like this moment of peace for them. They were coming together in prayer and coming together to sing songs and do good to help another human being.
When they came on the caravans they would always say that it was such a human experience. I think that is what got people so attached to the movement, as they call it now. A lot of things happen, which you would never have dreamed of happening, because people stop ignoring farmworkers and realize how essential they are. Now there is new legislation that requires employers to provide protective gear, and makes farmworkers eligible for pandemic pay, which is super unusual for undocumented workers.
When people went on the caravans, we would drive past the farmworkers in 100° weather, wearing long sleeves and long pants, dressed like it was 30° weather. I would hear people say, “God, I never knew what farmworkers’ lives were like.” These are all people who had lived their entire lives in California, but just drove past the fields without looking. And so I think that getting it out in the media and getting people more aware of everything was a big, big thing.
For more information on the Farmworker Caravan:
All photos via The Mercury News.