“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” – César Chávez
I would assume that the world would see it cruel to desert an old man because he is no longer able to produce the means to sustain himself, or to be a productive member that keeps cogs in the industry going. It would seem too radical to think that there comes an age where all women and men deserve to rest and enjoy their lives after giving so much to society. But the reality is that it is not cruel, and such a thought is radical, because before humanity comes capital, and those that cannot produce capital have no room in this world.
I know an old man that bends down low, his hands calloused and eyes going blind. He looks at the fields he worked for decades. He’s in his late seventies and work for him is as much a reality as when he first came to this country with a dream he still has not reached. His time to rest is used for collecting cans and finding food, not enjoying his old age.
And in a number of super markets little boxes ask for pennies to send a body home to wherever, México, El Salvador, Guatemala, they are all just as far as the answer to the question- why does it have to be like this?
Because the reality is that poverty among farm workers is as real as it was when industrial farms began. Because those who came were not needed as humans only as arms and so they were called Braceros. And today they don’t even have a name and have forgotten what it was like to be more than an arm.
It is not enough, I’m afraid, to say that if they work hard enough, or if they want it bad enough, they’ll succeed because no one wants it more than those who left their homes, who crossed deserts and faced death in every step to be able to live with dignity. And I hate to speak in such a somber tone but Audrey Lorde has taught me well: “It is better to speak/ remembering / we were never meant to survive.”
Nevertheless that does not stop us from trying. There is a reason why so many farm workers risk their jobs and deportation to join a Union. There is a reason why I do the things I do. I am, after all, a privileged one who does not know the struggles of a farm worker first hand and so it is with this conviction that I join this fight. Because I do not think it’s true that things have to be this way.
I think of these things and many more as I listen to our members talk about the benefits they have by being part of a Union. By far one of the greatest benefits is the death insurance, they say. To die in peace knowing that their families will not have to wash cars or put boxes in super markets to scrape together the little money they have to burry them or send them back to their home country. To know that their death, although sad, will not be a burden on their families.
What surprises me and saddens me the most is that this death insurance provided to UFW members is a benefit. Not a right endowed to all that live in this country. I don’t know how many people in the United States have such a benefit, but I’m sure a lot don’t, and I can bet that the majority of farm workers don’t.
As we continued to talk about the benefits that workers have, one older gentleman, a UFW veteran from the huelga days speaks about retirement. He, like so many others in the Union, has a pension plan and feels blessed to not be like so many of the other workers that don’t have a UFW contract and so have no pension, their lives depended on their family if family they have.
These two things, death insurance and a pension plan, are two things so basic yet so fundamental to the lives of all of us that it’s surprising that we have to struggle so much to obtain them. Any person that has worked as hard as a farm worker, a construction worker, a teacher, or whatever, deserves to enjoy their old age in the manner in which they wish and to know that their final resting place will not come with a number of boxes scattered across super markets asking for donations.
As we move on to help more and more farm workers I imagine the struggles that lie ahead of those who join the fight for unionization. I imagine the coffins of those old men and women that ask for a large UFW flag to be placed above their coffins before they descend to their final resting place. And I think of all those that fought for a Union contract and won; but I also think of those that fought for a Union contract and lost — yet still ask for the flag to be placed on their coffins because they knew they were fighting for something so powerful: a bit of dignity, a bit of respect, a bit of security.
It is my deepest belief that a Union is of absolute necessity for farm workers. In a world that is completely against them, in a society that is beginning to rally against the 1% en masse, and in the minds of those who believe that we are all entitled to our lives if nothing else, we must move forward to ensure that all people can live as human beings.
“Joaquín Magón” is a youth reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers. He contributes blogs regularly for Coachella Unincorporated.