THESE THINGS CAN CHANGE
By David Bacon
In 2013, Rosario Ventura and her husband Isidro Silva were strikers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Wash. In the course of three months over 250 workers walked out of the fields several times, as their anger grew over the wages and the conditions in the labor camp where they lived.
Every year the company hires 7-800 people to pick strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. During World War Two the Sakumas were interned because of their Japanese ancestry, and would have lost their land, as many Japanese farmers did, had it not been held in trust for them by another local rancher until the war ended. Today the business has grown far beyond its immigrant roots, and is one of the largest berry growers in Washington, where berries are big business. It has annual sales of $6.1 million, and big corporate customers like Haagen Dazs ice cream
By contrast, Sakuma workers have very few resources. Some are local workers, but over half are migrants from California, like Ventura and her family. Both the local workers and the California migrants are immigrants, coming from indigenous towns in Oaxaca and southern Mexico where people speak languages like Mixteco and Triqui. While all farm workers in the U.S. are poorly paid, these new indigenous arrivals are at the bottom. One recent study in California found that tens of thousands of indigenous farm workers received less than minimum wage.
The U.S. government provides visas that allow them to work only for this employer, and only for a set period of time, less than a year. Afterwards, they must return to their home country. If they’re fired or lose their job before the contract is over, they must leave right away. Growers must apply for the program each year. On hearing about the application, the striking workers felt that the company was trying to find a new workforce to replace them.
“The H-2A program limits what’s possible for all workers,” says Rosalinda Guillén, director of Community2Community. A decade ago there were hardly any H-2A workers in Washington State. In 2013, the USDoL certified applications for 6,251 workers, a number that had doubled just since 2011.
ROSARIO VENTURA, IN HER OWN WORDS
I came from Oaxaca in 2001, from San Martín Itunyoso. It is a Triqui town, and that’s what I grew up speaking. My mother and father were farmers, and worked on the land that belongs to the town. It was just enough to grow what we ate, but sometimes there was nothing to eat, and no money to buy food.
There wasn’t much work in Oaxaca, so my parents would go to Sinaloa [in northern Mexico]. I began to go with them when I was young, I don’t remember how old I was. It costs a lot of money to go to school and my parents had no way to get it. In Mexico you have to buy a uniform for every grade. You have to buy the pencils, notebooks, things the children need. My brothers went to school, though. I was the only one that didn’t go, because I was a girl.
When I told my dad I wanted to come to the U.S. he tried to convince me not to leave. When you leave, it is forever-that is what he said, because we never return. You won’t even call, he said. And it did turn out that way. Now I don’t talk with him because I know if I do, it will bring him sadness. He’ll ask, when are you coming back? What can I say?
Thank God we all crossed and were OK. But now that I’m here I’m always afraid because I don’t have papers. I can never relax or be at ease.
When I crossed the border I came alone, and then found my brothers, who were already here in Madera. They took me to Washington State to work at Sakuma Farms. I met Isidro when I was working, and we got married in 2003. He speaks Mixteco and I speak Triqui, but that did not matter to us. In those times I hardly spoke Spanish, but now I know a little more.
They always try to make us afraid to speak up. If you ask for another five cents they fire you. They threatened to remove us from the camp because of the strikes, and said they’d fire us. They are always threatening us. They fired Ramón also [the leader of the strike and union] because he talked back to them. But thank God he had the courage to talk.
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