Last year, for the first time, AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs published The Fields, an in depth annual publication on farmworker health issues. This year’s edition will focus on farmworker women’s health. We chose to write about farmworker women because in a world where farmworkers are at the very bottom of the power hierarchy, women are found even below that: they not only work tirelessly to pick the fruits and vegetables we eat, they also work and worry endlessly to improve the lives of their own families.
The frightening reach of the disturbing immigration laws in Alabama have not only put a toll on the immigration communities in Alabama, but on the entire east coast migrant stream. This stream has brought migrant farmworkers from the tomato fields in Florida all the way up to the cherry packing houses in Michigan for decades. As a result of the current immigration climate, Immokalee, Florida has become a somewhat destitute town. Mobile homes; small, square houses; and rundown shacks are boarded up and abandoned. After harvesting up North during the summer, many farmworkers were too scared to return to Florida. These changes in the law have serious consequences, not only for farmworkers, but for growers, and the entire state economy.
In preparation for this new and exciting edition of the Fields, I traveled from our national office in Washington, D.C. to Florida to interview farmworker women about health issues they confront every day. Through AFOP’s great partnerships with Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), South Florida Community College, and Immokalee Technical Center, I was able to interview over 20 women during my stay. It was an amazing opportunity that provided me with invaluable information, gleaned from the experiences of the people who harvest much of the fruits and vegetables we as American’s enjoy.
During the interview, it became all too clear that many farmworkers’ lives are so riddled with hardship that they no longer can identify adversity. At first, it was difficult to get the information I wanted about the health issues they face. I was expecting detailed stories, such as not being able to see a doctor on a regular basis, the consequences of pesticide exposure, and stories about farmworkers collapsing in the fields as a result of heat-related illness. Instead, they dodged my questions, reassuring me they are hard workers who care for their families. They said they worry about providing food for their children and thank God they have never gotten so sick they had to be taken to the hospital.
Yet it was the side conversations, the anecdotes that seemed to be apropos to what they thought I needed from them that were the most painful to hear during the interviews. One woman explained that she had to take her child to work every day, because she had no one to take care of him. The child had to learn to climb into a tree and hide from the supervisor from a very young age. The mother was scared for her child’s well-being, but she had no other place to take him. Another woman’s eye was red, swollen, and bloodshot, which I found out during the interview was a result of the pesticides that are being sprayed in the field she worked at. Yet another woman in the interview stated that even though laws in Florida prohibit it, she waited for three hours that day without pay before she was allowed to officially clock in and begin being paid for work.
The woman whose child was almost bitten by a poisonous snake when she laid him on a blanket by her side as she was picking oranges; the woman who has never gone to the doctor, ever; the woman who was harassed and tolerated sexual advances every day by her crew leader’s father- and could do nothing about it for fear of losing her job; these are the same women who when first questioned, did not seem to believe they had faced adversity.
Farmworker women might work 12 hours without a break at the packinghouse, laboring throughout the night, and then get home just in time to get their children ready for school. Most farmworkers have very limited access to transportation. They try to get rides and, if they can’t, they bike. Some even walk miles to get to work. They cook for their families and clean. They painstakingly make tortillas for lunch. Their hands are dirty and callused. They worry about their children, husbands, neighbors, and friends. They worry about their parents in Mexico whom they send money back to. They worry about their siblings. Least of all, they worry about themselves. In fact, very few people worry about them.
What to us is unimaginable hardship, to them is just another day. Violation, or unjust, or unfair, doesn’t even cross their mind: they work because they have to, no matter the condition. Some employers are better than others. Some crew leaders kinder than the next. But their main purpose, always in the front of their mind, is to work as hard as possible, pick as fast as possible, pick as much as possible, to survive, to save, to try to make their children’s lives just a little bit more tolerable, a little bit better.
To learn more about farmworker women’s health issues request a copy of The Fields: Farmworker Women, due to be published in the spring 2012, by emailing Valentina Stackl at email@example.com.