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Chronicling the Struggles of Migrant Agricultural Workers, in Words and Pictures

The brutality of low wages affects us all as a society.

Thermal, California. Maria Rios thins unripe dates, wearing a bandanna so she doesn't breathe the dust. She works on a metal platform, lifted into the date palm by a cherry picker. (Photo: Copyright of David Bacon)

Truthout interviewed David Bacon, author of In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte, about how amplifying the voices of migrant agricultural workers can help in the struggle for social justice.

Mark Karlin: Before we launch into the book, can you tell us a little about your background and how you arrived at being an indefatigable chronicler and photographer of Mexican agricultural workers in the United States, immigrants, and those who work to create unions and just pay in Mexico?

David Bacon. (Photo: University of California Press)David Bacon. (Photo: University of California Press)David Bacon: I was a union organizer for 25 years, including for the United Farm Workers. It was the union and the workers in it who taught me everything from Spanish to what life is like for farm workers and rural people. Later I worked with other unions where immigrant workers were most of the workforce. I was increasingly interested in why people chose to come to the US, which led to an interest in Mexico and its politics and labor movement. Almost 30 years ago, I began working as a photographer and writer, documenting originally what I’d been seeing and hearing as an organizer. I became an immigrant rights activist as a result of these experiences, and the work in this book is intended to help people understand the reality of life for migrant workers.

Do you think most people in the United States know about the fields of the north and the people who work them? Can you define the term?

I used the term “fields of the north” because if you’re looking at those fields from Mexico, which is where most workers are coming from, here in the US we are the “north.” The title has its origin in an exhibition of my photographs of California farm workers organized by the College of the Northern Border and the Tijuana Cultural Center. They put these photographs up on the border wall itself. The idea is that our two countries are connected by the flow of people who do the work in the fields of the US … we can cooperate to document that flow so that people on both sides of the border can see and understand it, and work for the improvement of the lives of farm workers.

What is the connection between the working conditions of these workers and food on the table of consumers in the US?

Everything we eat is the product of the work of the people who produce it. Since they feed us, we should acknowledge that labor and look at the conditions of the people doing the work. When the conditions for farm workers improve we benefit as consumers. If we ban the use of cancer-causing pesticides, for instance, farm workers won’t suffer from exposure to them, and the residues won’t contaminate the food that we eat. If families working in the fields have decent wages, they can live in better housing and participate more in the civic life of our communities. Our communities will benefit from this.

What is the range of living conditions for those from Mexico who pick crops in the US?

In the years when the United Farm Workers was at the peak of its strength, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, workers’ wages were 2-3 times the minimum wage. Today, the minimum wage, or close to it, is what’s normal, and thousands of workers are paid illegal wages below that. The cost of low wages is brutal. People live under trees, in cars, packed into garages and in single rooms, because they don’t have the money to pay high rents. The education of children suffers as a result, although we have migrant education programs that do a heroic job to help them. The book also shows the vibrant cultural life of immigrant communities — the dance festivals, the music, the lives of families and children.

Your photography complements your writing to give a strong sense of the dignity of your subjects. It is hard not to feel the humanity of the people whose stories you tell and capture in photos. Why did you choose to let the workers tell their own stories in most of the book?

This book looks at farm workers as active people, not just the victims of poverty or bad conditions. It’s important, therefore, to hear their voices. They describe their lives and personal histories. They also talk about their own ideas and proposals for winning better conditions. The book concludes with photographs and a personal account of the strike in Washington State, which led to the organization of a new farm workers union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The photographs in the book were taken, and the interviews that produced the narratives, as a cooperative project between myself as a writer and photographer, and organizations in the migrant community, including California Rural Legal Assistance, the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales and Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

What do you hope that readers of your photojournalism book take away with them?

I hope this book gives readers a better understanding of what life is like for people working in the fields, and therefore, a greater appreciation for those who produce the fruits and vegetables we all eat. It is a book that advocates for social justice, so I hope readers will gain a better idea of how farm workers participate in the larger social justice movements of the US and Mexico.

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