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Fields of Hunger: The Lives of the Fresno Farmworkers

Fields of Hunger

Lives of the Fresno Farmworkers

Revolutionary Worker #1213, September 21, 2003, posted at
pictures: special to the RW/OR

At the supermarket, plump strawberries glisten in clear plastic boxes neatly stacked one on top of the other. The fragrance of ripening honeydew melons fills the aisles. White and cream-colored flakes of skin wrap around the warm aroma of garlic.

Everything looks clean and ready to eat, under brightly lit fluorescent lights. There are no remaining traces of Jose, Felix, Sara, Mauricio, Martina, or any of the thousands of farmworkers that planted, tended, nurtured, and labored under the oppressive sun to pick the fruits and vegetables that fill produce sections around the country.

The origins of the food we eat, washed and sanitized away before we can stop and think about it.

* * *

Some of the most productive and fertile agricultural land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley of California. After reading a report and learning that people living in this part of California suffer from the highest rates of "food insecurity" and hunger in the state, we asked ourselves: How is it possible that people living in a "breadbasket" are hungry?

We wanted to go there to listen and learn from the stories of the women and men who are responsible for aisles and aisles full of fruits and vegetables. So we got a van, packed it with cameras, tape recorders, notebooks and young revolutionary journalists and photographers and drove towards Fresno. Our trip took us to a field of garlic as large as a football stadium, to cotton fields with long green stalks that reached past our waists, to a farm full of ripe melons and to a day labor corner where people arrived before dawn to wait and see if anybody would offer them work. Under the same hot bright sun as the workers we tried to capture a glimpse into their lives--inside and outside of the fields.

Picking out fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, one never thinks about where they come from. There is no idea of the kind of labor that goes into picking crops. To be truthful, some of us were close to believing that the fruits and vegetables grew right there in the store, ready for us to buy. But we soon learned the truth.

* * *

Imagine waking up as early as 3 a.m. to go to work. Imagine spending eight hours or more bending your back picking fruits and vegetables under the unbearable heat of the sun. You have just joined one of the thousands of migrant farmworkers in California who help feed most of the country. On any given day hundreds of fruits and vegetables pass through your palms and fingers.

Imagine after all this hard work, going home and not having enough to put on the dinner table. Now you are among the 2.2 million adults in California that suffer from what hunger studies call "food insecurity," and you don't know when your next meal will come. Ironic since you live in the agriculturally rich counties of the San Joaquin Valley--often referred to as the "breadbasket" of California.

* * *

A Day Under the Sun

"People around here wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning. When I worked in the Imperial Valley I had to wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning otherwise I wouldn't find work. The situation is tough because of work but also because you go to sleep late, it really tires you out. Work is tough when you have to be hunched over to pick tomatoes or chilis. Working while hunching over is difficult. But work where you're on your knees is the toughest."

Luis, 59-year-old farmworker

"Right now the people working in the melons work 11 hours in the heat. The other day the ambulance came because a young man got a heatstroke working in the fields. He got sick from the heat and from walking a lot, and also the melons' odor is strong."

Jaime, a worker from Mexico who has been here for 30 years

Fieldwork is intense. It's especially downpressing during the summer season under the merciless heat of the sun -- a recent heat wave had taken temperatures to well over 100 degrees. Boots, gloves, two shirts, and sometimes a sweater cover the farmworkers even on the hottest days. They pile on layers of clothes to completely cover their bodies and protect their skin from the burn of the sun, to prevent accidentally cutting themselves with their sharp tools and to provide a thin barrier from the chemicals and pesticides.

We arrived at the garlic fields and saw hundreds of people down on the dirt. They were on their knees picking garlic. After picking up a bulb they removed the top and bottom portions with a sharp scissors before adding them to a bucket. We noticed a yellow card stuck in the hat or shirt pocket of each of the workers. When their buckets were filled, they got up and walked towards a large box where they dumped their bulbs of garlic and then got their yellow cards punched.

At our next stop, looking at the workers in a huge cotton field was like looking at people in a sea of green. The fields seemed like they went on forever, and the workers went row by row removing weeds with their machetes. It is only through skill that they were able to tell the difference between plant and weed, which look somewhat similar. And it is only through endurance that they are able to go down a muddy row and come out the other side.

In the melon fields we saw an amazing display of teamwork. A tractor pulled on a large contraption filled with boxes and workers. The workers walking alongside had to keep up with the moving tractor as they cut melons off their vines and dropped them on a small ramp. The melons then rolled down to other workers who packed them, while another set of workers quickly made more boxes. It was well-coordinated work and we could tell that if just one worker decided to work out of sync it could disrupt the whole system.

In all the fields we visited, there were about an equal number of women and men in the fields working side by side. Most of them were undocumented and came from the states of southern Mexico like Oaxaca and Michoacán. Some of the farmworkers we interviewed had just arrived and had to work right away to send money to their families back home. Others had been in the U.S. for decades and had work permits but had to struggle equally hard to support their families living here. During their lunch break, the workers in the melon fields stopped to talk to us. And in the other fields, workers also interrupted their routines to share with us the reality of their everyday lives.

The Paycheck

"Look, for a full bucket they pay us $1.50. In the market, four heads of garlic cost you $2. Here they pay you per bucket, not per hour. They punch your card for each bucket. Sometimes you don't make enough for the minimum wage. Like right now we have to pay bills. If we don't work, how are we going to get paid? We work because we have to. We work all day and sometimes we make less than $30 for a six-hour day."

A migrant worker from Oaxaca who had recently been laid off for speaking out against poor working conditions

Food insecurity and hunger affects not only the unemployed and homeless, but it also affects working people. It's not surprising since the wages for many farmworkers have not significantly increased in the past decade--while according to many farmworkers who have lived in the Fresno area for years, the cost of living is significantly higher now than it was 10 years ago.

One worker said that when he first came to this country in 1986, he was paid $1.00 for a bucket of garlic. Now, more than a decade later, the price has gone up only 20 cents.

"Even though they have raised our salaries in the time that I have been here, the cost of things has also risen -- the cost of living, the food, the electricity, the rent, all of that," he said.

In many fields, workers are paid per box, sack or bucket they fill with tomatoes, onions, strawberries, grapes, melons, artichokes, garlic and many other fruits and vegetables. In the garlic fields, the average rate for a full bucket of garlic heads is $1.20. Filling up a bucket, selecting the best crop--not too small or damaged--can take a long time. Depending on their age, weather and experience, many workers don't average more than 3 to 5 buckets an hour. The result is that most farmworkers don't even earn minimum wage for a day of hard labor. One thing that was clear is that a hard week of working in the fields never guarantees you will know where or when you will have your next meal.

Pirates and Obstacles

"Work in the fields is currently very slow. People need to eat and many times have to wait until we're paid. But we have to keep working. They have to borrow money from relatives or friends, only then can you make it.

"For example, a month ago I worked 15 days picking chili and only until now did I receive the pay. Where I am currently employed, I am owed four days and they tell me that I won't be paid until next week. When I get the check it will be for food or for what we owe and you're back at square one again."

"It's not just me that tells you these things. Many people will agree with what I say. I have seen these things for myself. We are harassed. They steal from us. They don't pay us on time. That really hurts me. There are many people around here that don't even have enough for a piece of bread."


From the time a person decides to leave their small pueblo in the countryside or the shantytowns and cities of Mexico and other Latin American countries to find work in El Norte they are faced with countless obstacles and challenges. There's risk of death all along the border from dehydration, la migra predators or racist ranchers and vigilantes. If you're "lucky" to make it across the border you must find work immediately--whether in the fields picking crops or the sweatshops in the cities. Not only must people try and make enough to survive day by day, but many also have the responsibility of sending money to their families back home.

Mauricio, who was 11 when he came to Fresno, has worked the fields for decades and now lives on the streets. He told us, "I got here from Mexicali, walking through the hills. I came by way of Arizona, working to get money to hop on the bus, until I got to Fresno. I knew no one here. I had no family here, nothing. When I got here I slept in the fields risking being bitten by a snake. I was scared, but had to get over it because there was a family to support in Mexico."

A man we met named Felix, who has been working in the Fresno fields for 33 years, told us that finding work has become more difficult. Part of the reason is that machines are increasingly picking crops like cotton and tomatoes. Other workers whose skill and labor is required to remove the weeds from crops are finding themselves replaced by chemicals that disintegrate the weeds. "I've been here since 1970, picking beets, alfalfa, tomato and cotton. Now they use chemicals. Now they're laying off workers. They put medicine on the weeds and they don't need our labor," said Felix.

The day after walking among the workers in the fields we woke up before dawn to go to a corner where people arrive very early hoping to get picked up for work. About 50 workers stood outside the local liquor store that had yet to open. We met a man who had been coming to work in the fields since 1959 and he told us that people start arriving at that particular corner as early as 3 a.m. He told us that a man in a truck had pulled up earlier and offered him and a friend jobs in the tomato field, but that it just wasn't worth it. "For tomato they are paying 40 cents. What do you win? You have to pick about 200 bunches just to make some money. Then they charge you $6 for the ride. It's a robbery," he said.

Most farmworkers don't own cars and depend on transportation from the raiteros , or day haulers. The raiteros charge the workers for a ride to the fields and the price is usually outrageous-- from $4 to $6--but the farmworkers have no other choice. Also, since the majority of the people out on the fields are undocumented, the contractors often cheat workers out of their pay.

One man explained, "That's what we have here in Fresno, a lot of pirates, including the drivers, who just screw the people."

During the winter season it gets even tougher for farmworkers to survive because there is not much work in the fields.

"We don't always have work. In the months of February and March there's nothing. We don't work until April. We got papers, so we get unemployment. But those that don't, have to save up their money for that season, otherwise they can't make it," a worker from Oaxaca told us.

When the jobs in the fields run thin some people turn to doing odd jobs and services. Others end up on skid row. The worker from Oaxaca, whose wife and children also work the fields, told us that during hard times in order to provide for the family he has to work making furniture. Other farmworkers we spoke to leave Fresno and follow the harvest, traveling to other states to find work. And unless you have documents or can find a job--as a carpenter, landscaper or construction worker or in the service industry-- elsewhere in Fresno you may end up living on skid row or sleeping at the Mission.

Hard Times and Setbacks

"There are those that ask themselves why things are the way they are, they say: `He's been here for 40 years, why isn't he a millionaire already?' But look, when winter comes, where's the work? We have to find new ways of subsistence during the season. Many people, with many setbacks. Iif they don't find work or other things they are looking for, they are given drugs, and people get hooked. And people get sick. The suffering is so great and we're always struggling. This is not a game."

Mauricio, a homeless man who has been in the U.S. for over 50 years

According to the Department of Food and Agriculture the "Golden State" rakes in about $26 billion in profits from the fruits of the labor of the estimated 800,000 farmworkers in California. Yet it's not unusual for a farmworker who has spent most of his or her life working in the fields to have nothing to show for it. We spoke with a number of them near the Mission.

The Mission is run by a religious organization. It has two buildings, one which holds a prayer hall and dining hall, and a smaller building across the street where people are allowed to sleep. A kitchen supervisor at the Mission told us that increasingly there's been a jump in the number of working families coming in for food and sometimes looking for shelter. There is a significant homeless population in the immediate area--largely made up of both Blacks and whites. There are also many farmworkers, mostly undocumented, who often go there for a meal because they have no money or work in the fields or to sleep because they can't afford to rent a room and have no place to call home. That day there were many people hanging out on the street around the Mission. Some seemed to walk around just to keep moving. Others had grabbed a piece of concrete to lay down near their few belongings. Some stood near the Mission waiting for them to serve the next meal. Others sat in the shade where they kept silent while others shared cigarettes and traded stories.

We approached a group of farmworkers and among them was Mauricio. He's lived in the U.S. for over five decades and has worked in the fields most of his life. Today he is homeless. He quickly let his feelings be known: "This country is fucked up. I have 53 years working in this country. Now my legs don't allow me to keep working. People don't have enough money because they get ripped off by contractors. The contractor steals everything. The only one that wins is the contractor. One doesn't gain anything."

We learned that because rent is so expensive many farmworkers live together. There are sometimes as many as six or seven people in a room. Mauricio told us, "Rent is high and there's not enough money. There are places that are falling apart and are rented for $300 or $400--where are people supposed to get that kind of money? And on top of that, pay electricity and water."

Some people can't afford rent and others prefer to send the little money they earn to family in Mexico--so they sleep down at the Mission. A few people we spoke to said that they preferred to sleep in the streets because they thought that sleeping at the Mission was too dehumanizing.

The Problem of Hunger

" More than 2.24 million low-income adults in California cannot always afford to put food on the table... This is a sad reality in a state that has the largest agricultural economy in the United States and produces an abundance of high-quality fruits and vegetables for much of the nation."

Opening sentences to the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) released in November 2002
by the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California, Los Angeles

The team of researchers who released the CHIS study are among a growing number of progressive people and organizations that have come to recognize the serious problem of hunger in California. The problem, however, is even more widespread than the study indicates, as some of its authors have pointed out.

The CHIS study was conducted by surveying a random sampling of 55,428 households. But it doesn't include the children of low-income adult families as well as the unemployed, the homeless and others that do not have telephones. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle , George Manalo- LeClair, one of the co-authors of the study, said that of the 2.24 million low-income adults suffering from food insecurity, "about half of those adults--or 1.1 million--lived in households with children." He went on to cite a separate study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which "estimated that more than two million children in California may be food insecure."

In an interview with the Fresno Bee in the winter of 2002, Sandy Beals, a director at a food bank in Tulare County, said: "The problem is pretty overwhelming. Every time we do a food distribution, there's a huge line of people who come hours and hours and hours before they know the doors are going to open because they're afraid we're going to run out. That is not a good sign for a society." She made the point that due to the nature of the agricultural economy more and more farmworkers get their meals at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters in the area. "When there's work in the fields, our numbers go down. But in bad weather, and this time of the year, we see huge lines for food."

The researchers of the report also say that because applying for food stamps-- which means missing work to stand in line and get fingerprinted -- it makes it difficult for documented farmworkers and their families and other low income residents to receive aid. Manalo-LeClair told the Visalia Times-Delta , "Imagine asking your employer to have five hours off to go get food stamps."

The hunger suffered by the millions identified in the study is a tremendous outrage. Both the researchers of the study and volunteers at soup kitchens and homeless shelters are genuinely concerned by the increasing number of new faces that show up every day looking for a meal. People at these places care and try to do something to help. They propose different solutions and reforms. But the reality is that the problem is one this system can't resolve.

No Solution within the System

"Think about world hunger. The back-breaking labor of hundreds of millions of workers, peasants, and farmers produces enough food to adequately feed every single person on the planet. Yet nearly one billion people don't have enough to eat, and many more struggle desperately to stay a step ahead of hunger."

Opening indictment of capitalism from the Draft Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA

Our two days in Fresno showed us that this system is not about the well-being of the farmworkers and others struggling to stay a step ahead of hunger.

We asked the workers we interviewed what they thought. Their response was to recount one by one in vivid detail and with piercing anger the endless injustices being done to them. Many told us of getting ripped off by the contractors. Verbal abuse by the foreman. Not getting provided with proper tools and getting charged for equipment. Having to use dirty bathrooms in the fields. Having to pay a chunk of money to the raiteros for rides. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Day after day of aching muscles and bruised and cut-up knees. Sleeping in the shelter because the landlord raised the rent for an apartment that was falling apart. Enduring mind-numbing heat for hours and at the end of the day ending up with less than minimum wage. And on and on.

All this is true. The farmworkers could see how at every turn they get robbed and cheated and that as a result many end up suffering from food insecurity and hunger among other degradations. But there is something bigger at play here.

The worker from Oaxaca gave us an example that really captures something very profound about how things work. He said that the price for four heads of garlic at the supermarket is $2 and at the same time they get paid $1.50 for a filling up a big bucket. This is what Karl Marx called "capitalism's dirty little secret."

The Draft Programme of the RCP,USA explains what happens in this capitalist world: "Thousands of people work together to produce something. But this labor is organized to serve the accumulation of capital; wealth that is socially produced is seized and controlled by private serve new rounds of profit-making." The back-breaking labor of the farmworkers produces half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. Yet many of them are going hungry and struggling to survive. It is clear that these farmworkers, or agricultural proletarians, "are trapped in a vicious circle: they have to work in order to live, but the more they work, the more wealth they create, the more it is stolen and turned into power over them." And so we see that farmworkers and "the people who actually work the land and factories have no material security."

Cruel Choices

"If you get hurt on the job you can't say anything because they don't hire you, and even though you're hurt you have to keep working. It's been days that I haven't been able to get out of bed, not even to go to the bathroom or walk, because I injured my back. I took some pills my friends gave me for my bones. I couldn't go to the doctor because I can't afford it. I don't qualify for free medicine, because the medicine is too expensive. And even if I qualify for Medical Aid--who has the time to wait days when all the time I could be working. I control the pain a little with aspirin or Tylenol."


Every day in Fresno, people are making choices. They are debating whether they should rent an apartment or sleep at the Mission. They are wondering if they should buy groceries or pay the rent. They are deciding whether to go to the doctor for medical treatment or go to work to pay the bills.

At the day-labor corner we met a man who has had to make many of these kind of choices. He said he arrived in Fresno, after working the fields in Arizona, feeling sick. Before looking for work he went to a clinic. Because he was living on the street and didn't have a permanent address, it was hard to get medical attention. The doctor told him that because of his diabetes he would have to go on a special diet. But the worker knew he would not be able to follow this diet: "The doctor says I need to go on a diet and I agree with him. But I can't get the adequate food I need at the Mission. I'm hungry, so I have to eat whatever it is they give me."

No person should have to make the choice of taking Tylenol for an injury that requires medical attention in order to go to work. No woman should have to rub alcohol on her bloody and bruised knees as part of her daily routine. And no person with diabetes should have their life-span cut short because they can't afford adequate food or medical attention for their condition. But the people that grow the food we eat, who spend their lifetime making someone else rich, have to make these kinds of choices every day.

The Machine vs. a Different World

"The machine never gets tired. In the melons, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and chilis, the machine goes flying all day! And the poor worker goes following it, as they say, with his tongue out because he's tired."

A worker's summation of working with tractors and other machines

"Upon coming to power, the proletariat will promote the development of a rational agriculture that provides ample, healthful, and secure food supplies; that encourages environmentally and biologically sound farming practices; and that provides security of livelihood for those engaged in agricultural production."

From the Draft Programme of the RCP on transforming agriculture

When we left Fresno we were reminded of an image in the cotton fields. The workers had invited us to follow them down the muddy aisles of the immense ocean of green. There were times during our walking and stumbling on this long and seemingly endless stretch of land that the workers would disappear amidst the cotton. As the workers got further from us they would submerge and blend in with the color of the landscape. To the naked eye the field was empty, devoid of the workers laboring to cut the weeds from the chest-high cotton stalks. At times they would come into focus only to be consumed and out of focus once again. As the workers made their way back carrying bundles of weeds, it became strikingly clear the important role they play in society.

What stands out the most from our trip to Fresno is the way that people persevere and choose to struggle and survive no matter what this system throws at them. From the cities to the rural areas, surviving in the belly of the beast in spite of its "pirates and obstacles" is one thing we know we have in common. And these various stories and experiences are also a force that could bring us together to create a different world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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