Every year migrant farm workers from Oaxaca, Mexico come to California’s central coast to work in the agriculture industry as strawberry pickers and in other roles, including weeding and harvesting. Undocumented workers with few to no legal rights represent a significant part of this labor force. These workers are vulnerable to wage theft, sexual assault and harassment and high levels of pesticide exposure, and endure six-day work weeks for the promise of wages to send home to family members and the hope of a better life.
In recent weeks, Mount Madonna School (MMS) twelfth and sixth grade students have had some eye-opening lessons and a personal glimpse into the harsh subsistence for these hard-working community members and their families, through the Farmworker Reality Tour hosted by Dr. Ann López of the Center for Farmworker Families.
“They are feeding us through their labor and we as a nation and society are violating their human rights to decent housing, fair working conditions and a dignified life,” commented MMS parent Jennifer Astone, who chaperoned students on a recent tour.
The multi-faceted tour included an unvarnished presentation from López and a talk by the owner of Crystal Bay Farms, a local organic farmer who promotes organic, regenerative farming. It included first-hand farmworker stories, including hearing from residents of the Buena Vista Migrant Center, an isolated housing complex situated behind the county jail and county dump. The students’ final stop was a dinner in Watsonville prepared by a farmworker family, who shared their own struggles with housing affordability and access.
“Dr. López shared facts with us and stories by introducing us to six farmworkers in three different settings: one was an undocumented farmworker who is now a mother of five children who crossed the border at age 14. She told us her tale of crossing the border with her 16-year-old-brother,” said Astone. “She’s been living and working here for the past 20 years and has a young son with disabilities which Dr. López believes is due to working in the fields with high pesticide exposure.” Dr. López also shared that many farmworker women are sexually assaulted in the fields when they work.
For a unit titled Exploring Agricultural Practices in the Adulting 101 class, students learn about the many ways in which food is produced, with an emphasis on sustainability, indigenous knowledge and the entire food system.
“We are examining agricultural practices through a social justice lens,” said teacher Sara Sobkoviak, who designed this essential life skills elective for high school seniors. “As part of this curriculum unit students participate in the Farmworker Reality Tour. I want students to understand who’s growing our foods, who’s helping to produce our food, and what their experience is. This is important for understanding how our food choices can make a difference for a safer and more equitable working environment. Dr. López has dedicated her life work to bringing awareness about the difficulties our farmworkers face and I am grateful for her fortitude and the sacrifices she has made to better the lives of so many.”
Participating students reflected on this eye-opening experience.
“The working conditions seemed to be brutal physically and not very rewarding financially,” commented senior Jacob Sirk-Traugh. “The instability, however, is one of the worst parts of their job. Because workers constantly have to go to different farms to be able to find work with in-season crops, there are often situations where they have to travel very far to work or are unable to find work at all. This along with the minimal pay and lack of accountability for farm owners makes their job and lifestyle very difficult. Permanent improvement of these conditions could come from political places of power, but that is very difficult due to the pushback from industrial agriculture.”
Classmate Zoey Ocampo-Sobkoviak agreed:
“The working conditions that farmworkers usually face in our area are long hours without the basic amenities and resources that are legally required for employers to provide” said Ocampo-Sobkoviak. “Since many are undocumented, they are threatened with deportation if they don’t comply with their employer’s illegal actions. In non-organic farms and even in organic farms they are at risk for illness or injury from spraying, not enough breaks, lack of access to healthcare, and extreme temperatures.
“The living conditions can sometimes be adequate and comfortable for the families (such as in the migrant camp we visited),” she continued, “but the comfort was fought for and does not come without its sacrifices: having to leave for several months, not being able to leave much, lack of transportation to school, no internet. Tenants may also be threatened with deportation and overly high rent in inadequate housing. I think we should establish housing areas for migrants that are safe spaces from ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], allow undocumented workers to live for reduced rent, and have transportation for their children to go to school. They should be permanent instead of seasonal camps. We should also invest in more access to financial aid and housing for migrants outside of migrant camps.”
The sixth grade class and teacher Hilary Alvarado attended the Farmworker Reality Tour with the twelfth graders. The tour is one of several field trips sixth graders have taken this semester as a part of an agroecology learning journey the students are participating in this school year. They are learning about how agricultural systems are ecological systems, with inputs, outputs, and species interactions. Learning about farm labor is an essential piece of learning about agriculture.
“We heard first-hand stories of farmworkers crossing the border, living in a migrant labor camp, and working in the fields,” said Alvarado. “The students learned about the injustices experienced by farmworkers and I believe they gained gratitude and appreciation for the work they do. In the aftermath of the tour, they are learning to channel any strong emotions they may feel about the subject into doing something constructive, such as learning more, volunteering, donating and buying organic produce. I’m so proud of the sixth graders for showing up for this field trip, for listening attentively and for asking great questions.”
Sixth grade students and parents reacted, as well, to the stark realities and difficulties experienced daily by migrant farmworkers.
“Learning about the pain that farmworkers have to go through to harvest food for us to eat is devastatingly sad,” commented student Giavanna Iacocca.
“I appreciate so much of what Dr. Ann López does for the migrant and farmworker community,” said parent Layna Melton. “The girls definitely took away a lot from this experience and had a lot of questions; awareness is a great start.”
“There are a lot of injustices we would never know of without things like the reality tour,” said classmate Nolan McKibbin.
“It is very sad that people have to live like this to feed us,” commented student Nyah Melton.
“I learned about how farmworkers live,” shared student Pierce Culbertson. “Now that I know, I want to make change.”
During her “reality lesson” with the MMS students, López shared a quick economics and free trade short-course by describing the effects of the 1994 passage of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on small-holder corn farmers in Mexico, who as a result were forced off of the land as the government no longer purchased their local and indigenous corn.
“As a parent of an MMS student, I was grateful for the opportunity to listen to farmworkers directly about their experience,” said Astone. “I did not know that there was a migrant housing camp literally six miles away from my home. Dr. López and her colleagues at the Center for Farmworker Families advocate for the families through direct aid, like computers for the children to learn, medical appointments for farmworkers and advocacy such as the passage of a bill that does not require them to move every six months in order to qualify for migrant housing.
“The zip code 95076 has the highest rate of pesticide exposure 95% in the county and it has a 70% Latinx population which is a clear indicator of environmental racism,” continued Astone. “Why isn’t pesticide exposure better controlled in that zip code? Why is the average life expectancy of a farmworker only 49 years old? We can do better as a society and a people to treat those who farm our lands better.”
Experiencing the Farmworker Reality Tour ignited feelings of empathy and compassion in the students, their parents and educators. Their first-hand accounts were relayed to the MMS school community, and as a result, the senior class and those involved with the student club, That’s on Period Project, inspired many students and school employees to do more.
That’s on Period Project is working to address “period poverty” and menstruation stigma. Period poverty is defined as the struggle those who have a menstrual cycle face while trying to afford menstrual products. During Mount Madonna’s recent Homecoming festivities, That’s on Period Project club members led a drive to collect packages of menstrual products. The call was answered, and more than 100 packages were donated by students, faculty, staff and school families. This past week, many of these donations were delivered to the Center for Farmworker Families. The remainder of the donated menstrual products will be delivered in the coming week to Community Solutions in Gilroy, which provides services for those facing times of crisis.
Additional support for migrant agricultural workers is underway, and on December 8, in lieu of a holiday gift exchange, MMS employees will instead gather after school to assemble holiday gift bags for the Oaxacan Community Shed. Some 300 families visit the community shed hosted by the Center for Farmworker Families in Watsonville.
“We are asking for your help to make the holidays a little more special,” said Sobkoviak. “Please visit this link to participate. We are looking for gloves, hats, small games, art supplies, small stuffed animals, small toys, books all new or gently used. We would also like to add specialty items like small lotion bottles, ChapStick, and treats if possible.”
On Friday, December 9, MMS junior and senior students will embark on a community service journey to deliver the gift bags and spend the afternoon volunteering at the community shed.
“I am thankful we got to go on the tour,” said student Rebecca Piccardo. “I am hopeful that we can all work together to create a brighter future!”
Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,
Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.