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Aging Migrant Workers Face Perilous Future in Salinas

Posted: Feb 20, 2012

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” – César Chávez

SALINAS, Calif. -- I know an old man who bends down low, his hands calloused and eyes going blind. He spent years in the sun looking at the fields where he worked for decades. He’s in his late seventies, and work for him is as much a necessity now as it was when he first came to this country with a dream he still has not reached. The time he has left now is used not for rest, not for enjoying old age, but for collecting cans and finding food.

Inside the supermarkets where he sifts through garbage bins, little boxes ask customers for pennies to help send a body home for burial, to wherever home may be -- México, El Salvador, Guatemala – places that are all just as far away as the answer to the question: Why does it have to be like this?

Because the reality is that poverty, among farm workers, is as real as it was when industrial farms began. Because those who came to work were not needed as humans, only as arms, and so they were called Braceros. The only difference is that today, they don’t even have a name, and have forgotten what it was like to be more than an arm.

I would like to believe we live in a world that thinks it cruel to desert an old man just because he is no longer physically capable of producing the means to sustain his life. And I would like to believe it is not too radical to think that there comes an age when all women and men deserve to rest and enjoy their lives after giving so much to society. But the reality is this: Capital is valued above humanity, and those that cannot produce capital have no room in this world.

It is not enough, I’m afraid, to say that if they work hard enough, or if they want it bad enough, they’ll succeed because no one wants it more than those who left their homes, those who crossed deserts and faced death at every step to be able to live with dignity.

I hate to speak in such a somber tone, but Audrey Lorde has taught me well: “It is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.”

Nevertheless, that does not stop us from trying. There is a reason why so many farm workers risk their jobs and deportation to join a labor union, just as there is a reason why I choose to organize them. Because we do not think it’s true that things have to be this way.

I think of these things and many more as I listen to our members talk about the benefits they receive by being part of a Union. By far, one of the greatest benefits is the death insurance, they say. To die in peace, knowing that their families will not have to wash cars or put boxes in super markets to scrape together the little money they have to bury them or send them back to their home country. To know that death, although sad, will not be a burden on their families.

What surprises me and saddens me the most is that this death insurance provided to UFW members is a benefit, and not a right endowed to all who live in this country. I don’t know how many people in the United States have such a benefit, but I’m sure a lot don’t, and I can bet that the majority of farm workers don’t.

As we continued to talk about the benefits that workers have, one older gentleman, a UFW veteran from the huelga (strike) days, speaks about retirement. He, like so many others in the Union, has a pension plan and feels blessed to not be like so many of the other workers that don’t have a UFW contract and so have no pension, their lives dependent on their family, if they are lucky enough to have one.

These two things, death insurance and a pension plan, are so basic yet so fundamental to the lives of us all that it’s surprising we should even have to struggle so much to obtain them. Any person who has worked as hard as a farm worker, a construction worker, a teacher or whatever, deserves to enjoy their old age in any manner they wish, and to know that their final resting place will not depend on the contents of boxes scattered across super markets asking for donations.

As we move on to help more and more farm workers, I imagine the struggles that lie ahead for those who join the fight for unionization. I imagine the coffins of those old men and women who ask for a large UFW flag to be placed above their coffins before they descend into their final resting place. And I think of all those that fought for a Union contract and won; but I also think of those that fought for a Union contract and lost — yet still ask for the flag to be placed on their coffins because they knew they were fighting for something so powerful: A bit of dignity, a bit of respect, a bit of security.

It is my deepest belief that a Union is of absolute necessity for farm workers. In a world that is completely against them, in a society that is beginning to rally against the 1% en masse, and in the minds of those who believe that we are all entitled to our lives if nothing else, we must move forward to ensure that all people can live as human beings.

“Joaquín Magón” is a youth reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers. He contributes blogs regularly for Coachella Unincorporated.

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