The call came early on Labor Day. Prisciliano Salvador, 92 years of age, had passed away overnight in his birthplace, the Zapotec community of Yatzachi el Bajo, Oaxaca, Mexico. My uncle was a peasant farmer in his younger years, and a farm laborer in the United States from 1944 until he retired and returned to Oaxaca. He is one of the many reasons I’m consumed with my work to improve the food system so that none of us have to rely on the exploitation of others to eat each day.
As we’re prone to say on such occasions, both for ourselves and our commiserating friends, Uncle Prisciliano’s passing was not unexpected, least of all by himself. He had been living his last few years on a small ranch in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, under the care of his daughter—my cousin, Digna Salvador. But on the morning prior to his dying Prisciliano asked to be taken to Yatzachi, actually saying that he wanted to “return to his origins.” We all had an inkling what this meant. Almost exactly a year prior, Prisciliano’s older brother Ezequiel Salvador, had done pretty much the same (in his case escaping an old folks home in Los Angeles—that’s another story—and making his way to Yatzachi, where he died less than 24 hours after arriving.)
This is not the place to explain this strong “homing instinct” in my family. Suffice it to say that Prisciliano was one of 6 siblings who grew up in his very poor, agricultural, indigenous community and that they were part of a generation that left, pretty much wholesale, during the 1940s. Never to return. Until the end it seems.
The few people who know the depths of abuse and exploitation that farmworkers in the United States endure must ask themselves what things are like back home for them, that this is better. The reasons my compulsively hard-working and ambitious relatives were ejected from their ancestral home have to do with racism (in Mexico, being indigenous simply means being at the bottom of a crushing social hierarchy), global war, and industrialization. As an economist might coldly put it, the demand for farm labor in the United States was greater than domestic supply during the war years (WW II). And Mexico intentionally “disinvested” in the rural economy to drive migration and fuel industrialization. This led to a 1942 agreement between the United States and Mexico to import “(working) arms,” the famous Bracero Program. And so uncle Prisciliano and hundreds of thousands of other predominantly rural and indigenous people of his generation trudged all over the United States as the menial agricultural labor force. This set the pattern for decades of subsequent migration and exploitation. In Prisciliano’s case this took him initially to Calexico, in California’s Imperial Valley, and eventually to Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, where he worked in vegetable picking and packing. Some of the most back-breaking work there is.
The sense among this generation of laborers was that they were forfeiting their lives to ensure that their children wouldn’t have to know poverty. My father, Ricardo (junior to Prisciliano by 7 years), describes some of their desperate economic straits as they grew up—fatherless and distributed among their mom and several aunts. When Ricardo told his elder brother Prisciliano that he yearned to go to school and to learn to read, uncle Prisciliano could only weep and say he didn’t know how he could help the young Ricardo do that. This simple right and expectation of most people these days was beyond their reach and comprehension. To the end, uncle Prisciliano spoke only minimal Spanish, much preferring the comfort of his native Zapotec. Eventually, uncle Prisciliano’s decades of toiling in California’s farm fields, and of swallowing the bitter indignities of being on the bottom social rung in the U. S. (the latter often worse than the former) built a decent home for his family in Oaxaca City. How much more could he have accomplished for himself and his family if he hadn’t had to fight racism, wage theft and exploitation?
I recently ran into a fellow Oaxacan while on the set of a short Labor Day video I did with my friend and colleague Mark Bittman. Natalia Méndez is of a much younger generation, from a different part of Oaxaca, but also indigenous (Mixtec), and in her I recognized the same spirit of hard work and entrepreneurship that I’ve known in my family. Yet, she describes the common denominator among the generations of farm laborers to this day: that they are as good as invisible and exploited. The conceit that many of us hold about the “modern” food system is that it is a technological marvel, yet without farm laborers this system would not work. An essential feature of this system is that our official polices sanction exploitation. We don’t pay farm workers livable wages, we exempt their employers from providing the workplace protections we expect for ourselves in our places of work, and we allow all manner of loopholes in labor laws to allow such egregious things as child labor. Then, we proudly trumpet how—as a result of such exploitation—our “modern” food system provides the “most affordable” food in the world. At another time I’ll delve into how even this claim is false, but what is true is that none of us pays a fair price for our food, particularly for those items that rely on the irreplaceable value of farm labor (fruits, vegetables, dairy.)
When I was a graduate student I was involved in as much activism and advocacy around these issues as I could fit. This led to my often being asked to translate for, or host and introduce, prominent labor leaders who visited our campus. One such example was the case of hosting and introducing the farm labor organizer César Chávez in 1988. (A side story is that in their haste to provide the finest hospitality for their guest, the fine folks of the Committee on Lectures at Iowa State University had a fruit basket waiting in César’s hotel room, featuring—yes—a bunch of plump grapes flamboyantly atop. For the man who had been the leader of California’s famous grape boycott of the 1970s. This was a brushfire I had to quickly handle without offending either César or the well-meaning and incomprehending hosts.) Mr. Chávez was a pragmatic man. After he had delivered his lecture (to an overflow crowd), and graciously endured what I’m sure was my overwrought introduction, he asked me what I was doing in graduate school. I babbled something. What I most remember was his curt response: “I don’t know what that’s going to do for any of us. You should come right now and work with me.” I’ve often wondered.
As a student I was driven by what I now understand was a completely erroneous analysis. I thought that technical knowledge was limiting the success of poor, rural farmers. It was too late by the time I realized that social inequity was the root cause of the issues I wanted to fight, and I finished my studies in a very technical area. But I was highly motivated by the social factor. At the front of the notebook where in the wee hours of the night I placed my carefully typed summary of the day’s note-taking, I had a page I had scanned from a coffee-table book I chanced upon at a friend’s house. I dwelled on this page for a few moments at the end of each day. It bore the picture of a young Mexican indigenous woman, and it quoted a couple of Texan farmers. One compared his laborers to animals. These farmers stated without compunction: “If they take away our Mexicans, it will knock the socks off us.” And: “We will always need someone to do the menial work.”
I’ve kept that.
It fired me up for coursework then. It fires me up for fundamental food policy reform today. Uncle Prisciliano’s passing only adds tinder to that fire.