Happy Labor Day

Every Labor Day, I try to keep in mind those that work so that I may live.  This includes everybody who performs what are generally “invisible” tasks in our daily lives, from the workers who pick up my garbage to those who make sure our house has running water.  It also includes those I think of as “producers of life.”

There are over two million people in this nation right now who work planting, growing, harvesting, and processing the food you and I consume on a daily basis.  They are overwhelmingly from Latin America, poor, and subject to gross inequities in their daily work lives.  From pay to the provision of something as simple as shade, their rights in the workplace are not only consistently violated but they are not always even assured by the “laws” of the nation within which they work.  And, in a very literal and symbolic way, they are the people whose labor assures the reproduction of the human race.  They are “producers of life.”

Today, from the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice comes this Labor Day news relating to the Department of Labor and “guestworkers,” many of whom toil in the fields and processing plants so that we can eat.  As posted on their blog, Harvesting Justice:

The Labor Department today announced new proposed rules for the nation’s agricultural guestworker program which would largely reverse the Bush Administration’s harmful changes which slashed wages and vital worker protections in the program.

The H-2A agricultural guestworker program is supposed to ensure that U.S. workers are offered decent wages and working conditions before employers are permitted to hire foreign guestworkers based on claimed labor shortages, but the Bush Administration’s changes gave agricultural employers access to cheap foreign labor with little government oversight. The new proposal would restore the guarantee that US workers will be hired before foreign workers; a protection that was weakened under the Bush regulations.

The new proposal would also restore the wage system used under the previous regulations which will overcome wage cuts that US and foreign workers experienced during 2009 due to the Bush Administration’s changes; many workers lost about $2.00 per hour under the Bush rules. H-2A workers in North Carolina, for example, earned $8.85/hr last year under the old regulations. This year under the Bush rules, they are getting only $7.25/hr. Under the wage rate calculation of the previous rules, these workers would be earning $9.34/hr this year.

You can read the full post here. You can download the Farmworker Justice statement (in MS Word) on these changes by clicking here.

Happy Labor Day.  May there come a time when the value of everyone’s work is appreciated and recognized for the role it plays in our daily lives.

Racism in the strawberry fields

Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a problem. While they’ll agree it was a “problem of the past,” the lack of formal segregation (the only kind of racism people were taught to understand) suggests to them not only have things gotten better, they’re pretty good overall.

This perspective is rooted in the post-Civil Right Era debates between the Left and the Right, a debate the latter largely won.  When Reagan seized the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” he worked from the assumption that people were unencumbered by any formal structural kinds of impediments to their own progress and, so, if they were poor, it was their fault.

The lack of recognition of racism in our present-day is ultimately linked to our lack of understanding regarding how “race” actually operates in our society.  As I suggested above, that is not surprising considering the historic contest of the last thirty years over ideology and interpretation, a struggle of public policy and accountability as much as anything else.  But our condition is also expected when you consider the complexity with which race actually does operate in our present moment.

Take strawberries.

In 2007, over the objection of 50 medical and scientific experts, the Bush Administration’s EPA approved the use of the pesticide methyl iodide.  The chemical is promoted by the strawberry industry, despite the fact it “has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.”

The letter written by the group opposing its approval in 2007 said, in part, “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”  The EPA approved it anyway.

You and I and anybody else who might ever eat a strawberry is at risk because of this chemical.  Honestly, we have been for a long time.  Strawberry production is reliant on a host of chemicals, not to mention systemic labor abuses, some of which were detailed in Eric Schlosser’s 1995 exposé of the industry.  The long and short of it is, none of us should at strawberries, for both health and moral reasons.

The most disturbing part of this, however, is the way racism is at play.  Brown bodies toil in those fields, almost without exception. Those brown bodies are not valued by government or society as embodying the same kind of human being as do white bodies.  Their cancer rates are irrelevant; their wombs are collateral damage.  Their humanity is dismissed as an appropriate risk and loss in order for us to have big, red strawberries.

The use of methyl iodide has been banned by the State of New York. The decision on whether to scrutinize its use in California is currently in the governor’s hands. In the next two weeks, Schwarzeneggar will make his decision: to be a pawn of agribusiness or to recognize the humanity of poor, brown workers.  We will see.

A tremendous h/t goes to Barry Estabrook and his coverage of this issue on Gourmet.  Their “food politics” coverage is almost without rival.


The “Border Beat” (July 8, 2009)

The “Border Beat” is back with its bi-weekly rundown of Latino-themed news and views.  The July 4th holiday and the typical summertime doldrums mean a slow time for politics, and that means immigration reform talk is, well, talk. Still, there was some noteworthy talk when Obama convened an immigration legislation meeting at the White House late last month.  We’ll see where it goes. Me, I ain’t going nowhere.

Here’s the stories you might have missed:

• “Worker heat reform falters” (Modesto Bee)
This is the “near miss” story of the week as Cal-OSHA’s standards board overruled its field safety chiefs on a set of proposed amendments to the state regulations on “heat-stress.”  For those not familiar with these regulations, they require employers to provide shade, extra breaks, and water for agricultural laborers working on hot days.  Surprisingly (or not, depending on your view of race and power in CA), these regulations arose only after the 2006 round of deaths due to heat exposure in the fields. These proposed changes would have essentially relaxed the regulations, allowing for “grape vines” to count as “shade,” among other lunacies.

• “Pioneer researcher retires” (North County Times)
I normally bypass articles coming from really small publications unless they are significant in some way. This one is significant in every way. Legendary immigration researcher Wayne Cornelius has retired. In his 40 year career, Professor Cornelius advanced the field of immigration studies with his comprehensive approach to the topic. If there is a white guy who is a card-carrying honorary Chicano, this is the guy.  Happy retirement Dr. Cornelius!

• “Immigration attorney tells immigrants, ‘Don’t be scared’ about new laws” (Deseret News)
Here’s a kicker for you: Utah’s new anti-“illegal” immigrant law went into effect last week, even though nobody with any credibility on the left or the right seems to want it.  Law officials and politicians fear it will cause a flurry of discrimination claims and be costly, since the population of “illegals” in the state is so small compared to the population of legal Latinos and Mexican Americans.  Latinos are urging people to be vigilant and know their rights.  The comments at the bottom of the story–from the rank-and-file idiot brigade–are a reminder of why it is law.

• “In Mexican Vote, Nostalgia for Past Corruption” (NY Times)
The PRI won the latest round of midterm elections in Mexico.  All corruption jokes aside, it is a move worth keeping track of for the years ahead.

• “New realities eroding border double standard” (Arizona Republic)
People who work on the border and know what they are talking about have talked about the “double standard” between the U.S. border with Canada and that with Mexico since we stopped fearing a Canadian military invasion. The everyday understanding of this phenomenon is not so widely disseminated.  Hence, the value of this piece.  While the author celebrates the “erosion” with the recent passport regulations (since both are treated equally), let’s keep in mind small steps are made even smaller when they still revolve around institutionalizing our general fear of the border and what lurks beyond it.

• “U.S. Hispanics Live Longer, Despite Socio-Economic Hurdles” (HispanicBusiness.com)
David Hayes-Bautista is making some recent press with his decade-old findings that deserve all the attention he can muster for them.  Latinos live longer than the rest of the US population.  Hayes-Bautista calls it the “Hispanic Paradox” since, demographically, Latinos would be sure bets to live shorter lives. So suck it Minutemen!


• “Pastor who opposes homosexuality may get Chicago City Council seat” (Chicago Tribune)
Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, is about to be appointed to fill a vacant seat on the City Council. Thing is, his church is famously anti-homosexual, believing it something akin to a sickness.  De Jesus is a notable activist in his district and his impending appointment is seen as an advance for representational rights for Latinos.  The paradox here is rich and important.  I think we’re going to be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future and it is a welcome encumbrance to politics on the left. Eventually, Latinos and other so-called “progressives” are going to have the reach the point where they see the contradictions inherent in a public anti-LGBT equality stance and a representing poor communities of color.  Eventually.


America Ferrera is all politica!

Just when I let my twenty-year long subscription to Glamour Magazine run out, they go and let some Chicana power sneak in their pages!

This month’s Glamour features a series of “young starlets” posing as iconic women from U.S. history.  Hayden Panattiere is Amelia Earhart.  Alexis Bledel is “Rosie the Rivetor.”  Lindsay Lohan is Madonna.  Wait a minute?  Well, it is Glamour.

In this mish-mash conflating truly historic and pioneering women with fake, commercial ones (Carrie Bradshaw?!?  Puleeeeze!), America Ferrera–my fourth favorite “America” right behind Central, South, and North–chose United Farmworker legend Dolores Huerta.  That’s right.  Dolores Huerta.


Reflecting our society’s ignorance of Chicana history, I read one blog (whose traffic I will not augment with a link) who said she looked pretty dressed as “Huelga.”  For those who don’t know, “huelga” means “strike,” which is something farmworkers in California did–for more than five years (from 1965 to 1970)–just to secure the right to form a union.

Huerta, along with Cesar Chavez, was one of the primary organizers behind the United Farmworkers, or UFW.  She is an American legend, in every sense of those words, and just about as “historic” as one can get.

Bien hecho, America!

The “Border Beat” (December 15, 2008)

Health care, the Border Patrol, murder, religion, abuse, and intrigue–it’s all here in the latest edition of The “Border Beat,” a roster of the must-read news for you Latinos and Latino-philes out in Latinolandia.

• “Hiding in Plain Sight” (NY Times Magazine)
This might be one of the most complete and humanistic stories written on undocumented immigrants in the past year.  In this profile story, a family of Mexican migrants living in New York serves as the foundation of a thorough and thoughtful description of the myriad forces shaping life and circumstance for the millions living and  studying and working within our borders.  My favorite part is a child’s description of her and her family’s status as “unlegal.”

• “Children of U.S. Farmworkers Often Uninsured” (Washington Post)
This is not a surprising article in terms of the revelation that the children of farmworkers remain among the most underserved when it comes to health care, but it is a reminder of the continuing need for more–more attention, effort, affordable health care, insurance, fair labor standards, movement, and justice.

• “Border Patrol swells to more than 18,000” (Houston Chronicle)
Bush is close to fulfilling his pledge to double the Border Patrol by the end of his presidency.  There are problems, of course, with such a rapid growth spurt (not to mention the ones relating to the “pledge” in the first place).  The Border Patrol is now most-armed federal agency, having more gun-carrying personnel than the FBI.

• “More Hispanics in USA fluent in English” (USA Today)
This is as interesting a story and are the sad comments of many of the readers.  For those who care, Latinos seem to be assimilating according to tradition in U.S. history, with respect to language–only faster.  Germans, Russians, and others held on to their native tongues in monolingual enclaves as well, don’t forget, and often for longer.

• “Jews, Latino Pentecostals together” (Post-Bulletin)
A small piece that serves as an able introduction to both the growing population of Latino Pentacostals and the strengths/weaknesses of Jewish-Protestant relations.

• “Calls for justice after Ecuadorean’s beating death” (Newsday)
Just weeks after the murder of Marcelo Lucero, another New York Latino is dead, apparenty the victim of a hate crime.