AGING IN THE FIELDS - Part One
NO ALTERNATIVE BUT TO KEEP WORKING
As soon as Anastasia Flores’ children were old enough, she brought them with her to work in the fields. “Ever since 1994 I’ve always worked by myself, until my children could also work,” she recalls. “In Washington, I picked cucumbers, and in Santa Maria here I worked picking strawberries and tomatoes. In Washington, they allowed people to take their children to work with them, and to leave them at the end of the row with the older children taking care of the younger ones.”
She didn’t think bringing her children to work was unusual. It’s the way she had grown up herself. Today she’s is in her mid 50s, getting to the age when she will no longer be able to work. Just as she once depended on the labor of the kids for her family’s survival, she will still depend on them to survive as she gets old. Without their help, she will have nothing.
Anastasia was born in San Juan Piñas in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The small town is in the heart of the Mixteca region, where people speak an indigenous language that was centuries old long before the Spaniards arrived.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, people began migrating from Oaxaca looking for work, as Mexico’s agricultural policies failed. Anastasia, like many, wound up working first in northern Mexico, in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California.
Before leaving San Juan Piñas she’d gotten married and brought her first child, Teresa, with her to Baja. “I began to work there when I was 8 years old, picking tomatoes,” Teresa remembers.
“My memories of that time are very sad because I had to work out of necessity,” Teresa says. “I started working in the United States at 14, here in Santa Maria and in Washington State. My mother couldn’t support my younger siblings alone, and I’m the eldest daughter. I couldn’t go to school because my mother had many young children to support.”
Anastasia’s son Javier, who was born in Santa Maria, shares those memories. “Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out,” he recalls. “That’s pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers, during vacations.”
Indigenous migration changed the demographics of the farm labor workforce in many ways. Most were migrants, living in more than one place in the course of a year. That has all changed. The average stay in the U.S. now is 14 years.”
As people grow older, some return because the cost of living there is lower. But those who go back to Oaxaca depend on their family in the U.S. to send them money.
Collecting Social Security benefits is not possible, because people with no legal immigration status (an estimated 11 million people in the U.S.) can’t even apply for a Social Security card. In order to work they have to give an employer a Social Security number they’ve invented or that belongs to someone else. Payments are deducted from their paychecks, but these workers never become eligible for the benefits the contributions are supposed to provide.
The Social Security Administration estimated in 2010 that 3.1 million undocumented people were contributing about $13 billion per year to the benefit fund. Undocumented recipients, mostly people who received Social Security numbers before the system was tightened, received only $1 billion per year in payments. Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, told VICE News in 2014 that that surplus of payments versus benefits had totaled more than $100 billion over the previous decade.
Today Anastasia’s children have problems of their own, beyond supporting their mother. Teresa can’t work. “My body can’t handle it anymore,” she explains. “It got more difficult as time went by, because picking strawberries is very painful on your hands and feet. I kept going because I had to work for my family. But then I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was just twenty-two years old.
“Our immigration laws, especially, are creating a desperate situation for indigenous farm workers,” says Leoncio Vasquez, director of the Binational Center for Oaxacan Indigenous Development, a community organization among Oaxacan migrants in California. “They contributed to Social Security, but they can’t get the benefits. If they go to Mexico, they can’t come back. They have to work, because there’s no alternative.”
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