Coronavirus

Initiative Celebrates Farmworkers as Lawmakers Call for More Support

Farmworker’s Family Dinner aims to honor farmworkers with a free meal

A sign reading "Thank you farmworkers" hangs outside of a car that was a part of Saturday's Farmworker Caravan which visited multiple fields around Watsonville and thanked the laborers. PHOTO: TONY NUNEZ

After working a long shift picking strawberries and greens, dozens of farmworkers and their families received the royal treatment thanks to a new program from El Pájaro Community Development Corporation.

Called the Farmworker’s Family Dinner, the initiative treated 38 families—roughly 230 people—to meals from El Pájaro CDC’s entrepreneurs that prepare food at the organization’s commercial kitchen incubator off Riverside Drive.

The hope, El Pájaro CDC Executive Director Carmen Herrera-Mansir said, was to give farmworkers a break from cooking dinner for one night and “honor” them with a free meal.

Herrera-Mansir said her father worked in the fields and her grandparents came to the U.S. through the Bracero Program, a part of the 1942 Mexican Farm Labor Agreement that allowed growers to import low-cost agricultural labor from south of the border.

“When we were doing this last week, it made me think back to my dad and his family…I’m pretty sure this would’ve been something very nice for the family,” Herrera-Mansir said.

The program was, too, a boost for the entrepreneurs working out of the incubator kitchen who have been devastated due to the restrictions put in place to slow the novel coronavirus. Most caterers’ summer plans have been axed, and Herrera-Mansir said they have lost at least 75% of their typical income.

Although the kitchen is hosting daily pop-up lunch and dinner for takeout, they are still struggling to make ends meet and most did not qualify for support from the more than $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Through the Farmworker’s Family Dinner program, sponsors pay caterers such as Rogue Pye and Cuevas Express Foods $50 to make and deliver the six-person meal.

Every dollar goes to the caterer.

“It helps everyone,” Herrera-Mansir said. “For me, it’s a win-win.”

El Pájaro CDC delivered meals to farmworkers at JSM Organic Farms and Sun Valley Farms during its first week. Herrera-Mansir said she hopes to deliver at least 10 meals per day Monday-Saturday and eventually expand to other farms.

To sponsor a meal, visit: bit.ly/2zqByn1. 

“I’m a big dreamer,” she said. “It all depends on the community. We’ll let the community decide how big this gets.”

The program is one of many that have rallied to support and celebrate the farmworkers who are still sprinting up and down fields during the statewide stay-at-home order as essential workers.

According to the Center for Farmworker Families (CFF), a nonprofit that advocates for that community’s rights, roughly 75% of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented. In Santa Cruz County, the CFF says, 83% of farmworkers do not have documentation, and, in turn, did not receive any help from the CARES Act.

That lack of support has put pressure on officials and organizations to find ways to aid that population.

Locally, the City of Watsonville collected thousands of diapers, baby wipes, cans of formula, masks and gloves—much of it coming through a large donation from the Watsonville Police Officer’s Association—during a week-long farmworker relief drive. 

The supplies, according to Deputy City Manager Tamara Vides, are enough for two months of distributions through CFF.

The state, too, recently endowed Monterey County with 750,000 masks specifically designated for agricultural workers. The supply, which will benefit roughly 25,000 workers over 30 days, came weeks after county officials and Assemblymember Robert Rivas called for greater protections for farmworkers.

Rivas, who represents the Pajaro Valley, Salinas and South Monterey County, said the mask delivery was “an important step in providing the necessary protection for farmworkers who do the hard work that puts food on our tables.” But, in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rivas last month also requested that the state expand testing and temporary housing for farmworkers.

Through a deal with OptumServe, the state established community testing sites in Watsonville, Salinas and Greenfield—three of 80 earmarked for rural towns and underserved communities. Rivas last week asked Newsom for an additional $25 million to expand Project Room Key, an initiative aimed at housing homeless people during Covid-19, to sick or at-risk farmworkers. That cash, Rivas said, would be enough to guarantee at least 3,000 rooms for three months, benefiting as many as 40,500 workers.

“There have already been Covid-19 outbreaks among agricultural workers in such places as South Dakota, Nebraska and Pennsylvania,” Rivas said in a press release. “A similar outbreak here in California would threaten our state’s food supply chain at a critical time.”

Covid-19 cases in Santa Cruz County have remained low, with 149 confirmed cases from more than 5,000 tests. Neighboring Monterey County, however, has performed about 1,000 fewer tests but has roughly twice the number of cases. Almost half of those cases have been in people working in agriculture, underscoring the uncertainty farmworkers are currently facing.

In response, a community group has organized a weekly show of appreciation called the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan. A long line of cars winds down Watsonville’s outskirts, stopping at a half-dozen fields to honk their horns, blare Spanish music, shower farmworkers with applause and hold signs reading “Farmworkers are essential.”

The group has received recognition from national media and inspired other caravans in Salinas, Brentwood and Gilroy, among other cities. On Cinco de Mayo, they hired mariachi band Nuevo Jalisco to serenade workers during their lunch break, and on Mother’s Day weekend they sang “Las Mañanitas” and delivered cards and gifts to the mothers performing essential labor. 

They also provide farmworkers with a bag full of informational fliers about the Census and social distancing requirements, as well as the resources available through nonprofits such as the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, the CFF and Regeneración-Pajaro Valley Climate Action.

“Our purpose was to not only thank the campesinos but to also provide some information,” said Ruby Vasquez, one of the dozen local organizers that helped start the caravan.

Many of those organizers have deep roots in the fields. Vasquez’s parents made their living as farmworkers and still sell strawberries today. Others, such as Angela Martinez, spent their summers during high school picking Pajaro Valley’s top crop to help their parents feed their family.

“It’s long hours, it’s a hard job and no one ever says ‘thank you’ when we’re out there,” said Martinez, who was born south of the border in Oaxaca and raised in Baja. “They deserve thanks, now more than ever.”

Martinez now attends CSU Monterey Bay and is earning a degree in education. She hopes to teach bilingual (English-Spanish) elementary classes while integrating her first language, Mixteco, a dialect spoken by natives from Oaxaca. 

She provides Mixteco translation for the cravan during its stops.

She said her parents and siblings worked arduous hours in the fields to put her through college. She hopes her work with the caravan can lift the spirits of those working in the fields today.

“Every time I’m out there, I think about my family,” she said. “I’m receiving an education thanks to them.”

To sign up to participate in the caravan visit the “Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan” Facebook page.

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