This is the first in a series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the average U.S. citizen, their mind far from the source of their food, realities of agricultural life would be rough to comprehend. Yet, those of a migrant farmworker mother during a pandemic may just take the cake.
Most of us, despite respective COVID-19 hurdles, can at least get through our day without wondering if our 9-year old has remembered to feed their newborn sibling, or how our oldest daughter will fare stepping out of high school and into the fields.
Many mothers have spent this holiday season in quarantine at home, carving pumpkins and making sugar cookies or latkes with their little ones. Meanwhile, not so many miles away, other mothers harvest those pumpkins, sugar canes and potatoes as their children bring them water.
An estimated 900,000 women fill the workforce of U.S. farm laborers planting, picking and packing our food. They are mothers, grandmothers, young girls.
If a mother is lucky, fellow pickers keep an eye on the toddler she brings to work, while her own hands are busy with the crop. To focus, she cannot think about lurking threats of chemicals, snakes and machinery gravitating toward her child’s wandering, unchecked curiosity. If she is lucky, she can keep her job, keep living in this country, keep from contracting the virus despite the work conditions inviting it. Doing all you can with all you have, that’s a lot of luck to find room for.
Girls never do catch a break.
As the trove of stories coming out in recent years has reminded us, women and girls are disproportionately subjected to obstacles their male counterparts remain immune to. In agriculture it is no different, often worse, and rarely mentioned. In being so sparsely documented or investigated, the issues are of course exacerbated.
Exceedingly vulnerable within a system barring them from economic relief packages, proper labor protections and acceptable health and safety standards, migrant women in the fields are frequently subjected to sexual assault on the job. That harassment is often an open secret left unreported, under threat of wage theft, job loss, eviction, deportation or their lives.
Now, that same fear keeps many from reporting symptoms or seeking treatment for COVID-19. This is a particular shame, as advocacy groups fight for the eligibility of these essential workers as early vaccine recipients alongside frontline medical staffs. Coupled with the general distrust of authorities many migrants and immigrants carry, farmworker mothers cannot risk being separated from their children. Very rational fears of leaving their sons and daughters in the hands of strangers also makes undocumented migrant women wary of taking advantage of childcare - if available to them at all.
“If they show up in a news story, they are losing their jobs.”
Of the migrant reporting that is out there, nearly all feature nameless or nicknamed witnesses. They shoulder urgent, first-hand stories that need telling, but fear retaliation. Under those same threats mentioned, workers are warned against speaking up about insufficient PPE and told to hide diagnoses.
Even without the looming threat of virus, these women are regularly exposed to pesticides which can carry such dire consequences as miscarriage and child deformity. These, too, often remain hushed issues.
Now, former farmworkers are returning to the fields in advocacy, ready to break the cycle.
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the first national farmworker women’s organization in the U.S., fights for women facing exploitation, pesticide exposure, lockdowns that worsen living conditions, and setbacks in wages amid the pandemic.
The Bandana Project, among other initiatives, “provides a visible demonstration of support for farmworker women and a commitment to eradicating sexual violence”. According to the UN, COVID-19 has only exacerbated gender violence, and activists urge that it is more important than ever to address the issue.
Forward-facing, if faceless.
“The farmer may never learn the names, nor see the full faces of the women who come to work in their fields.” - Gary Nabhan, Civil Eats
Those who remember to turn to stories of resilience amidst the doom and gloom may want to pay special attention to these migrant mothers. Farmworkers, chiefly las mujeres imparables (unstoppable women) among them, are a resourceful and buoyant force, and power through their hardships with or without outside help.
For their part, farmworker mothers in some regions are building informal networks of support among fellow laborers to help share the burden of childcare.
“It is a surreal [sight] to see hundreds, if not thousands, of young women—in many cases, girls—arriving at the field’s edge, covered head to toe, wearing their own bandanas and scarves—and walking from buses into the glare of the sun to pick crops.”
But it’s a sight we should all bear in mind as we bag our groceries, set our tables, feed our children and warmly welcome the holidays at the end of this tumultuous year.
Bec Sloane is a visual arts professional and educator pivoting into the agroecological sphere. Through research, collaboration and content creation, she is building bridges to foster fruitful communications between the general public and those working in the agricultural and environmental sectors.
Cover photo credit: David Bacon