Picking berries and building power with Indigenous farmworkers

July 14, 2021 Nia Tero Season 1 Episode 9
Picking berries and building power with Indigenous farmworkers
Show Notes Transcript

A community of Indigenous Mixteco and Triqui farmworkers were displaced from their homelands and are now organizing to challenge the exploitive work conditions they face in the United States, all while finding ways to preserve their language, culture and relationship to the Earth. Marciano Sanchez (Mixteco) and his father Lorenzo Sanchez Basurto (Mixteco) tell host Jessica Ramirez about their family’s path from Southern Mexico to the berry fields of Washington State. We also hear from Edgar Franks, political director at Familias Unidas por la Justicia, about their fight for fair compensation and better working conditions. Producer and Host: Jessica Ramirez; Editor: Jenny Asarnow.
Mentioned in this episode:
Familias Unidas por la Justicia

Jessica Ramirez: [00:00:00] [00:00:00] Hi, Seedcast listeners, this is Jessica Ramirez, coming to you from Coast Salish territory. This is Seedcast. Here at Seedcast, we support the rights and traditional ways of Indigenous peoples, guardians of the land, those who have lived in relationship with their traditional territories since time immemorial. On today's episode, I have a story for you, one that holds a really special place in my heart. It's about Indigenous farmworkers fighting for dignity and respect at the workplace, here on Coast Salish territory, but specifically the homelands of the Upper Skagit, [inaudible 00:00:51], and Stillaguamish [00:01:00] peoples.

[00:01:23] [Singing].

[00:01:28] I think about the immigrant work experience a lot, specific to the population of Latinos in the United States. This probably has a lot to do with how I grew up so close to the U.S.-Mexico border. I think about the immense privilege me and my family have by the coincidence that we were born on the U.S. side, where we have far more choice, particularly when it comes to how we earn money. The [00:02:00] immigrant work experience is often one in which there are such few choices. People are forced out of the places they know, the places where their communities and cultures thrive. This is a really vulnerable place to be in.

[00:02:23] Seven years ago, I found out that just an hour north of Seattle, hundreds of Indigenous farmworkers had walked off the job. I knew that I needed to learn more so I reached out to them. I was drawn to their compassion for one another and their strength and resilience, their profound belief that they deserved better. And I believed they deserved better too, so I dedicated hundreds of hours of my time [00:03:00] to their fight for a union contract. Handing out flyers outside of grocery stores which sold the products that they were boycotting, bringing friends and strangers along to rallies and marches to support them. I told everyone about their story. The driving force were Mixteco and Triqui farmworkers, Indigenous to Southern Mexico.

[00:03:33] I thought the best way to share their story would be through the lens of one Mixteco farmworker, so we're gonna to hear from Marciano Sanchez, how he learned to integrate his own Indigenous language and his familiarity of the land in a new and uncertain place. And as such, he's become a community asset for hundreds [00:04:00] of farmworkers on the berry fields of Washington State.

[00:04:03]Marciano Sanchez: [00:04:03] [Mixteco Language 00:04:04].

[00:04:18]Jessica Ramirez: [00:04:18] Marciano is a really quiet person. His cadence in conversation is one that I'm really familiar with and recognize by working with the farmworkers over the last several years. We were on the phone and he was in an office in a very rural area, surrounded by lots of farms.

[00:04:50]Marciano Sanchez: [00:04:50] Hi, my name is Marciano Sanchez. I'm from Juxtlahuaca, Ouxaca. The [00:05:00] town where I'm from is called Tierra Colorada, or in Mixteco it's called [Neuqua 00:05:07]. The dirt is actually really colorful over there, very beautiful. And, um, we live right next to like a, not a mountain per se, but yeah, where we can just go and gather wood. I was born over there and, uh, moved here to the U.S. back in 2005 with my family.

[00:05:33]Jessica Ramirez: [00:05:33] A part of the immigrant experience is leaving your homelands, and I wanted to know the story which brought Marciano and his family to the United States.

[00:05:45]Marciano Sanche...: [00:05:45] Um, I would love to share it myself but I get really emotional about it 'cause it just brings really sad memories. I think my dad, I [00:06:00] think my dad would love to tell that story.

[00:06:03]Jessica Ramirez: [00:06:03] Marciano and I decided to ask his dad, Lorenzo if he would tell the story, and he agreed to an interview. Since Lorenzo's first language is Mixteco, Marciano kindly translated for this interview. It was a Friday evening and Lorenzo was coming home from a long day in the fields. He was pruning blueberries. He quickly joined the call and was using video. I could see the twilight sky in the background. His face has a tanned leather quality, like someone who has spent a lot of time under the sun, and he has a gentle and kind smile.

[00:06:50]Marciano Sanchez: [00:06:50] Uh, um, so I was just kind of catching him up on, um, what we talked about.

[00:06:56]Jessica Ramirez: [00:06:56] I asked Marciano to tell his dad that he could find a [00:07:00] relaxing place in the house. From what I know about farmworkers, it's a long, hard day, and I wanted to make sure that he was comfortable. Lorenzo took to the bedroom and was lying in his bed as we talked.

[00:07:34]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:07:34] [Mixteco Language 00:07:17]

[00:07:35]Marciano Sanchez: [00:07:35] Um, okay. S- so my name is Lorenzo Sanchez [Barsuto 00:07:41]. Um, I was born in Tierra Colorada. The municipal, um, is Coicoyán de las Flores. Uh, the district is Juxtlahuaca, uh, in the state of [00:08:00] Oaxaca. Uh, that's where I was born.

[00:08:04]Jessica Ramirez: [00:08:04] In Juxtlahuaca, Lorenzo worked the land with his father. It was his family's land, land that they had had for generations.

[00:08:14]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:08:14] [Mixteco Language 00:08:16]-

[00:08:25]Marciano Sanchez: [00:08:25] My dad said [Mixteco Language 00:08:26], which kinda means like a poor town. Uh, yeah, everyone, you know, they, they worked there, they eat what the land provides.

[00:08:37]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:08:37] [Mixteco Language 00:08:37]-

[00:08:46]Marciano Sanchez: [00:08:46] He really enjoyed being over th- over there working with his dad, planting, um, corn beans, uh, peanuts and [00:09:00] splitting wood, or helping out the community, uh, whether it was that someone wanted to build a house. So he would, you kn- go help out build a house and they would provide something in return to help him out. It wasn't the hardest thing ever but also wasn't easy.

[00:09:32]Jessica Ramirez: [00:09:32] This way of living, this reciprocity, it sustained their family for generations. And every year, Lorenzo would travel north for the season to make money, but he always came home and he didn't see himself leaving permanently. [00:10:00] But that all changed one year.

[00:10:07]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:10:07] [Mixteco Language 00:10:04]-

[00:10:24]Marciano Sanchez.: [00:10:24] So back in 2003, he came to the U.S. to Arizona with my older sister and brother, uh, to work. He came also in, with my uncles. Um, they all came to Arizona, started working. They were, uh, picking melons.

[00:10:52]Jessica Ramirez: [00:10:52] During this time, Marciano was a toddler and was home with his mom and Lorenzo's elderly parents.

[00:10:59]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:10:59] [00:11:00] [Mixteco Language 00:11:01]-

[00:11:09]Marciano Sanchez: [00:11:09] Um, so, um, a couple of months, uh, passed, um, when my mom called and, uh, told them that my grandparents, they were killed.

[00:11:30]Jessica Ramirez: [00:11:30] In the absence of Lorenzo and his brothers at the family home, their elderly parents were murdered.

[00:11:38]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:11:38] [Mixteco Language 00:11:44]-

[00:11:51]Marciano Sanchez.: [00:11:51] Uh, by the time he got there, they'd been buried.

[00:12:11]Jessica Ramirez: [00:12:11] [00:12:00] The fact that Lorenzo and his brothers traveled to Mexico's U.S. border year after year to work in Arizona, it really made the family vulnerable, and leaving Marciano's mom at home alone with Marciano was just too risky to continue. It forced the family to leave their home.

[00:12:36]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:12:36] [Mixteco Language 00:12:57]-

[00:13:03]Marciano Sanchez: [00:13:03] [00:13:00] Uh, yeah, h- uh, he said, uh, you know, that's kind of the story, um, that's s- kind of how things happen. And, you know, it was for that reason that, that we came here to the U.S. S- um, es- you know, if something like that never would have happened, um, we probably never would be here. Um, you know, our lives would be different. We, we would probably be s- um, living in Mexico.

[00:13:44]Jessica Ramirez: [00:13:44] But they did leave, and like so many others, they walked towards the U.S.-Mexico border.

[00:13:52]Marciano Sanchez: [00:13:52] I as well walked, and, uh, my dad always brings that up every time he tells somebody [00:14:00] about how we got here. He's like, "Yeah, he was probably four or five years old when he was walking and crossing the border." Every time he talks about it, he was like, "What were we thinking?" You know, 'cause it was a really dangerous and risky thing to do, but he's really proud that the whole family managed to cross here without any issues.

[00:14:28]Jessica Ramirez: [00:14:28] Marciano's family arrived in Arizona and they worked in the fields for a couple of years, until one day his dad told him that they were moving to Washington state. They had an aunt who lived there and she said that there were better jobs. In a very short period [00:15:00] of time, Marciano and his family were going through big life-altering changes. Marciano was so young too. I asked if he knew were Washington state was.

[00:15:13]Marciano Sanchez: [00:15:13] Uh, no [laughs]. I had no idea where it was. Uh, but I did know that it was north of Arizona [laughs] and that was it. Uh, and, uh, I had a big discussion with my friends that it was north and they were like, "No, uh, dude, it's, you're actually going south." I was like, "No, it's north."

[00:15:39]Jessica Ramirez: [00:15:39] Back in Arizona, Marciano didn't see kids working in the fields, but in Washington state, it was different.

[00:15:48]Marciano Sanche...: [00:15:48] Around 10 years old, I started going into, uh, strawberry fields. A year or two later I was introduced to blueberry. Um, so that's [00:16:00] all I knew, just going out there and working in the summer.

[00:16:06]Jessica Ramirez: [00:16:06] For many rural immigrants, working the land is what they are familiar with. It's something that they did back home. Except in the United States, the pace and expectations are very different.

[00:16:24]Marciano Sanchez: [00:16:24] Compared to in my hometown, you know, we would only need to work so that we can harvest what we needed for that day. Here, a lot of the workers were constantly, you know, be put in a situation where it didn't benefit them, um, having to like work for like really low rates. Um, whenever they're picking strawberries or blueberries, you know, we were just constantly being exploited by, by [00:17:00] growers only willing to pay us the bare minimum, and at the same time expecting us to work three times as much as we're getting paid.

[00:17:14] And that was really tiring. You know, having to wake up at 4:00 in the morning, get ready, put on your waterproof clothes so in case it rains, um, you don't get wet. And then after a week, you know, they're dirty and they have, you know, they, they just g- the clothes just get really itchy.

[00:17:41]Jessica Ramirez: [00:17:41] That itchy feeling, it's those wispy fibers you see on strawberries. Imagine working in a field with them and they're allover your body.

[00:17:53]Marciano Sanchez: [00:17:53] So you just have to deal with that. And eventually, uh, it's [00:18:00] something that you don't notice anymore.

[00:18:06]Jessica Ramirez: [00:18:06] Marciano's family worked in the Skagit County where 70% of farmworkers come from Indigenous communities. Many people don't speak English and have a very limited understanding of Spanish. but Marciano, well, by the time he was 12 years old, he was speaking Mixteco, Spanish and English. When he wasn't picking berries in the fields, he was helping people with translation work.

[00:18:37]Marciano Sanchez: [00:18:37] M- I help out, um, our community, um, with whatever it was they n- they needed. And those that knew my family knew that, you know, I can, uh, fill out paperwork, because, you know, I think I was probably 12, 13 years old when I started filling out [00:19:00] work applications for my parents. And, uh, I guess I got pretty good at it so people kinda like had an idea that I can always help them out.

[00:19:16]Jessica Ramirez: [00:19:16] In 2018, Marciano was working for a place called Gill's Berry Farm.

[00:19:23]Marciano Sanchez: [00:19:23] We were pruning blueberries at that time. Harvest just ended and the farmer, he just got mad at all of us. Um, there were around 10 workers, he just got mad at us saying that we were going slow, um, even though we were actually pruning faster than the day before.

[00:19:44]Jessica Ramirez: [00:19:44] The stakes for the workers were high because they were all living on the farm together. So not only was the grower their boss, he was also their landlord; a very common arrangement.

[00:19:59]Marciano Sanchez: [00:19:59] [00:20:00] And he threatened to fire us or that he would raise rent.

[00:20:07]Jessica Ramirez: [00:20:07] The threats from the grower had been going on for months, and with Marciano's interpretation skills, well, the workers finally figured out that they could do something about it.

[00:20:20]Marciano Sanchez: [00:20:20] I was able to interpret what he was saying and what they were saying. We knew that if we, you know, we went home and accepted the fact that he was threatening us, you know, it wasn't gonna stop. There was something that he was gonna continue to do. That day that he came and threatened us, we decided to have a strike.

[00:20:45]Jessica Ramirez: [00:20:45] At the time that Marciano and his fellow coworkers decided to go on strike, a movement had been building in the same region where they worked, one that they had witnessed and I had witnessed too.

[00:20:59]Speaker: [00:20:59] [crosstalk [00:21:00] 00:21:00], go ahead, brothers and sisters.

[00:21:13]Speaker: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma! Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Crowd: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Speaker: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Crowd: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Speaker: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Crowd: [00:21:13] Boycott Sakuma!

[00:21:13]Speaker: [00:21:13] Boycott?

[00:21:13]Crowd: [00:21:13] Sakuma.

[00:21:13]Speaker: [00:21:13] Boycott?

[00:21:13]Crowd: [00:21:13] Sakuma. [Mixteco Language 00:21:13].

[00:21:13]Jessica Ramirez: [00:21:13] In 2013, hundreds of Indigenous farmworkers left the fields in demand of better work conditions and decided to build a boycott campaign against the farm they were working for, Sakuma Brothers Farm. Edgar Franks was a farmworker advocate at the time, and he knew this experience all too well.

[00:21:35]Edgar Franks: [00:21:35] My name is Edgar Franks. I'm the political director for Familias Unidas por La Justicia. And my family were migrant farmworkers in the '80s. I think people have this idea that there's no more issues with farmworkers 'cause Cesar Chaves came and saved the day, but there's still, you know, a lot of the issues still r- remain or some have gotten worse.

[00:21:59]Jessica Ramirez: [00:21:59] [00:22:00] Edgar comes from a lineage of farmworkers. He grew up in Los Campos and recalled playing in the fields with his friends, or at least until he started to work in the fields at age 10.

[00:22:13]Edgar Franks: [00:22:13] Looking back into the history of agriculture in this area before Mexicans doing the work, it was, uh, like Native Americans and Filipinos and, uh, Sikh people, um, Chinese people, Japanese people, and all of 'em all experienced the same treatment of the bad housing, the racism, everything.

[00:22:43]Jessica Ramirez: [00:22:43] Back at Sakuma Brothers Farm, the work environment was getting more and more tense. Workers were experiencing wage theft and harassment on the job site amongst other complaints, until one day [00:23:00] a worker requested a raise per pound on the berries harvested. When his request was denied, he was fired. Hundreds of other workers were fed up and walked off the job in solidarity. It was here that the workers recognized their power in numbers and decided to form the first Indigenous-led farmworker union in Washington state.

[00:23:27]Speaker: [00:23:27] [Mixteco Language00:23:27].

[00:23:27]Jessica Ramirez: [00:23:27] Familias Unidas por La Justicia.

[00:23:30]Edgar Franks: [00:23:30] [Mixteco Language 00:23:32], seeing like the birth of a union like that often.

[00:23:38]Jessica Ramirez: [00:23:38] And with the help of their supporters, they threw a big party to celebrate.

[00:23:46]Speaker: [00:23:46] [Singing].

[00:24:07]Marciano Sanchez: [00:24:07] [00:24:00] As all this was happening, everyone else in the farmworker community knew what was going on. They saw it all over the news. Uh, I as well saw what was going on and-

[00:24:20]Speaker: [00:24:20] [Singing].

[00:24:21]Marciano Sanchez: [00:24:21] ... you know, we were all just, you know, looking at them, just seeing how they were helping change, you know, the whole system here in Washington state.

[00:24:31]Jessica Ramirez: [00:24:31] After witnessing what the workers at Sakuma Brothers Farm could do, it was no surprise that Marciano and his fellow coworkers knew they could demand for better working conditions at Gill's Berry Farm. So they went home and created a plan.

[00:24:48]Marciano Sanchez.: [00:24:48] On that first day of the strike, we all gathered at my parents' place, uh, s- and we discussed like, "What are we gonna t- do for tomorrow?" [00:25:00] And, uh, we talked about, it's like, "Well, let's get in contact with the union." If this needed to [inaudible 00:25:13], they knew that Familias Unidas por La Justicia would have their backs. They were having a big event where we just met up with them, told them what was going on and that we needed their support. On the second day, they came and supported us on the strike. Um, we came to an agreement with the grower and we went back to work.

[00:25:36]Jessica Ramirez: [00:25:36] Familias Unidas helped them secure safer work conditions, which included having the grower drop the eviction threats and provide safety equipment like glasses.

[00:25:49]Crowd: [00:25:49] [crosstalk 00:25:53]-

[00:25:57]Marciano Sanchez: [00:25:57] I stayed in contact with Ramon Torres, [00:26:00] who is the president of the union. And he would also come by, um, to where we lived maybe once a week to just check up on us. Every time he would come by, he would, uh, talk to me and we would discuss, you know, what I was interested in doing or, and if I was interested in joining the union to become an organizer.

[00:26:27]Edgar Franks: [00:26:27] The union hired him because there was a big need to communicate a lot of the contract information in a clear way so farmworkers can understand that on a daily basis. So we had a big void to fill, and Marciano speaking English, Spanish and Mixteco, uh, coming from a family that's really respected, also unique to the union, um, you know, using a lot of their cultural traditions and in the meetings and everything.

[00:26:59]Jessica Ramirez: [00:26:59] [00:27:00] Like many Indigenous peoples, this cultural relevancy and understanding of Indigenous culture means that one person represents many. And in the case of a union that represents Indigenous farmworkers, one farmworker represents almost an entire community.

[00:27:21]Edgar Franks: [00:27:21] It's like a whole family is taking part in a union, so it becomes more participatory. There's more meaning behind the decision. F- you know, the implications are bigger than just one person and one vote that there's actually a, it's gonna affect not a union, but it's gonna affect a community that's outside of the union as well.

[00:27:43]Jessica Ramirez: [00:27:43] The workers' organizing goes way beyond negotiating a work contract.

[00:27:47]Edgar Franks: [00:27:47] And now we see this union like growing and maturing and, you know, leading in a lot of ways and using the knowledge that they have to benefit their community, uh, [00:28:00] and not just themselves. You know, they're changing the way that we think of farmworkers.

[00:28:06]Jessica Ramirez: [00:28:06] Workers started a farm together, Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad. They harvest berries and plant other foods there, as well as tend to a few animals on site.

[00:28:20]Edgar Franks: [00:28:20] Your employers shouldn't be the only place where you can like touch the dirt. You wanna have it more of a spiritual and cultural connection to it because that's where we come from.

[00:28:32]Jessica Ramirez: [00:28:32] They are recreating a community, and as much as possible replicating what home is to them.

[00:28:39]Edgar Franks: [00:28:39] Our whole community has been pretty much displaced for a lot of reasons from their homelands. You know, the, and then trying to figure out a respectful way of doing it here where we're not displacing other Indigenous people or disrespecting the land. The workers, I think, are very [00:29:00] mindful of that, that this is the land of somebody else and that we must be respectful.

[00:29:07]Jessica Ramirez: [00:29:07] The farmworkers from Familias Unidas por la Justicia have had some incredible wins.

[00:29:17]Edgar Franks: [00:29:17] We have a union, um, that's, you know, really aggressive and forward-thinking and progressive, and using the contract and the organizing to open up more avenues of change for farmworkers.

[00:29:32]Jessica Ramirez: [00:29:32] They have taken the grower that they work for to court, not only changing the environment for the farm that they work at, but also every single farm for every farmworker in Washington state. I mean, huge, big strides where now they get paid for rest breaks, and even get paid for overtime. The amount of self-determination and understanding that these workers had to move [00:30:00] through in order to transform the system that was not benefiting them is really powerful to witness

[00:30:09]Marciano Sanchez: [00:30:09] Throughout the years, they've been learning to s- to peak up more and more, and a big part of that had to do with, um, Familias Unidas' existing.

[00:30:26]Jessica Ramirez: [00:30:26] Back at Lorenzo's house, it was getting late, and I could hear that dinner was being prepared for him. So we decided to wrap up our call, but before I could let him go, I asked Marciano to ask his dad one more question. Their family had come such a long way, and their son, no longer working in the fields as a farmworker, but instead working for Washington state's first independent farmworker union led by Indigenous farmworkers, I was [00:31:00] curious what he thought about Marciano's work with the union.

[00:31:03]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:31:03] [Mixteco Language 00:31:05]-

[00:31:06]Marciano Sanchez: [00:31:06] He thins that, you know, I'm doing what I can-

[00:31:11]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:31:11] [Mixteco Language 00:31:13]-

[00:31:13]Marciano Sanchez: [00:31:13] ... to support, um, our community, uh, our Mixteco community.

[00:31:21]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:31:21] [Mixteco Language 00:31:25]-

[00:31:28]Marciano Sanche...: [00:31:28] Here, when he sees us growing up, you know, we've somehow managed to, uh, maintain our language.

[00:31:37]Lorenzo Sanchez...: [00:31:37] [Mixteco Language 00:31:40]-

[00:31:45]Marciano Sanchez.: [00:31:45] He also appreciates that I'm doing something like this, um, with Familias Unidas. He always wanted me to do what I believed in. Yeah, he said [00:32:00] that I'm doing the best that I can and that's all that he could ever hope for.

[00:32:11]Jessica Ramirez: [00:32:11] Sending so many blessings and thanks to our guests, Lorenzo Sanchez Barsuto, Marciano Sanchez, and Edgar Franks, and to Familias Unidas por la Justicia who fight for better work conditions every single day, not only for themselves, but for every farmworker out there.

[00:32:54] For more information about the union and how you can support them, visit them on their Facebook [00:33:00] page at Familias Unidas, and check out our show notes for more information.

[00:33:07] Nia Tero is a Seattle based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship of all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for humans and other species for generations to come. To learn more about this podcast and our work at Nia Tero, please visit our website, and follow Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

[00:33:57] You can also reach us on email, [00:34:00] [email protected] That's all for now. Thanks for listening. This episode was produced by me, Jessica Ramirez, and edited by Jenny Asarnow. The Mixteco and Spanish translation support was by Marciano Sanchez. Our executive producer is Tracy rector, our producer, Philippe Contreras, our consulting producer is Julie Keck, our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson, social media manager, Hannah Penteleo, theme song by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez. We look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.

[00:34:44] [Singing]. [00:35:00]