November 2 marks the Mexican holiday known as Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” when families traditionally gather to honor those who have gone before. On November 1, members of the North Carolina Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) hosted a press conference followed by an evening social event in downtown Raleigh at the restaurant Dos Taquitos Centro to recognize the fallen farmworkers and farmworker children in the tradition of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. The day’s activities were centered on raising awareness about the continued exploitation of farmworkers who live and work in hazardous conditions, which has led to maiming and, in the worst cases, death.
Representatives from religious, health, and non-profit organizations came together to call upon regulating agencies to increase protections for workers and commit to preventing future tragedies by increasing enforcement.
“Farmworker deaths generally happen because of heat stroke or machinery,” said Emily Drakage, regional coordinator for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ Children in the Fields Campaign. “There are also a lot of serious injuries. People lose arms and legs.”
The group noted that about three quarters of North Carolina’s seasonal and migrant farmworkers are of Mexican descent. The “Day of the Dead” holiday is widely celebrated in Mexico and was chosen for the symbolic importance of calling for “No Mas Muertes” (No More Deaths) as expressed by a sign next to the altar. The evening began with a buffet style dinner of traditional Mexican food and dancing. After dinner, the upstairs area of the restaurant was opened up to the public where following tradition, FAN, NC FIELD, and Dos Taquitos Centro had constructed an altar paying tribute to the deceased with candles, decorative skulls, marigolds, photos of living and dead farmworkers, and information about farmworkers.
Everyone gathered around the altar to celebrate, mourn, and bring dignity to those farmworkers who died while toiling in the fields. In general, farmworkers are not seen as individuals, nor is much thought given to who they are aside from the work they do. This event gave them a face and a name, acknowledging they were more than just farmworkers. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters whose deaths should not be in vain. This was the sentiment of the program that followed as a former North Carolina Department of Labor investigator opened the ceremony by recounting his first field investigation, which was also the first fatality he investigated. A worker was trying to clear tobacco clogging a mechanical harvester on a Columbus County farm when he was pulled into the machinery. The former investigator turned farmworker advocate, full of emotion, told the audience he would never let go of that experience because it was a senseless death, which could have been prevented, and the need for greater protections remains.
The evening continued as two youth council members, Ingrid and Jose, read the obituaries of two fallen farmworkers, and culminated with a personal account from a third youth council member named Mildred. She shared that she began working in the fields at age 12. She recalled being sprayed by pesticides and described how her family was fired after she spoke up about being sexually harassed in the fields at the age of 14.
“We have dreams of going to college, of being somebody, and we will. All we want is to be treated fairly and respected,” Mildred told the audience, mostly comprised of farmworker advocates and the North Carolina Department of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. The audience was moved to tears as they bowed their heads in silence for a prayer for the farmworkers and all the agencies, governmental and non-governmental, involved in the fight.