Thirteen farmworkers – including a teenaged girl – died in California early one morning in August when their van crashed into a truck on their way back from the fields. There are so many of these overloaded vans and trucks ferrying workers that the police have a special patrol just to stop and inspect them. According to the United Farmworkers, the vans are operated by labor contractors, for whom “abuses and exploitation of farm workers … are the rule and not the exception.”
“California has the toughest laws in the nation protecting farm workers,” said U.F.W. Vice President Tanis Ybarra. “But they are rarely enforced. Growers use labor contractors to avoid their legal and moral duties as employers. Half of the contractors are not even licensed by the state. Until heat is placed on the growers to avoid these tragedies, nothing will change.”
None of this is new, of course. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it back in 1961, after he read a report about a plane crash in Los Gatos, Mexico. The plane was flying home deported Mexican workers lured north by unscrupulous growers in the California orchards. The mode of transportation may have changed, and more of the workers are now legal immigrants, but it’s still the same story.
The crops are all in, and the peaches are rotting, The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps. You’re flying them back to the Mexican border To pay all their money to wade back again. Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita; Adiós, mis amigos Jesús y María. You won’t need a name when you ride the big airplane All they will call you will be deportee.
In their book, A Long Time Coming, Dick Meister and Ann Loftis write, “In 1962, 300 crop pickers met in a hall in Fresno, California, and listened to a young Mexican-American propose a union of farm workers. Three years later, César Chávez helped lead 50,000 pickers in their first successful strike in California history.”
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts, We died in your valleys and died on your plains, We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes, Both sides of the river – we died just the same. Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit- To fall like dry leaves, to rot on my topsoil And be called by no name except deportee?
Chris Garlock, former producer of Hightower Radio, lives in Washington, D.C., where he works for the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council.