Cesar Chavez banquet celebrates Farmworkers Awareness Week, labor

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance, have nothing left for themselves,” read the quote from Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist and labor leader who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, projected onto the wall of Guilford’s Community Center.

In celebration of National Farmworker Awareness Week, Hispanos Unidos de Guilford held its sixth annual Cesar Chavez banquet on Friday, March 29. The banquet commemorated Cesar Chavez’s leadership in the farmworker movement and highlighted the current struggles of farmworkers.

“We brought this banquet to Guilford’s campus because we wanted to raise awareness about the farmworkers in North Carolina and everywhere, because not very many people know about the work that goes into farmworkers,” said sophomore Kendra Guzmán, vice president of HUG.

The banquet featured speaker Ron Garcia-Fogarty, a social justice and language-access activist, who advocates for access to various services regardless of an individual’s ability to speak, read, write or understand English. Garcia-Fogarty has worked with organizations such as Student Action with Farmworkers, the North Carolina Justice Center and the Independent Farmworkers Center. Garcia-Fogarty spoke about the dangerous conditions farmworkers often face.

“Farmworker agricultural work is actually one of the top three most dangerous occupations in the country,” said Garcia-Fogarty. “And this is due to a number of reasons. I mean you have pesticides, and I think Irving mentioned that that’s a huge health hazard. A lot of farmworkers work with machinery, so there’s a lot of issues with people who get maimed, people who get in all kinds of accidents because of the machinery they’re working with.

“In Florida, you have a lot of people climbing trees, picking the citrus fruits, so a lot of people falling from trees, breaking their arms, having a lot of other injuries like that. There’s a lot of repetitive motion injuries because people are doing kind of the same job, the same kind of motions, often with bending their back.”

Garcia-Fogarty emphasized the small wage farmworkers earn in comparison to the large amount of labor working on a farm requires.

“Minimum wage often, overwhelmingly, doesn’t apply to the farmworkers,” said Garcia-Fogarty. “Overtime is not required in most states in the United States, so if you’re working 50, 60 hours a week, you’re getting paid either at the same rate as what you’re paid in the first 40 hours, or maybe you’re not even getting paid that overtime, depending on what kind of work you’re doing.”

Garcia-Fogarty also highlighted the low minimum working age for farm work.

“Even though this is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, minimum age for working in agriculture is 12 years old,” said Garcia-Fogarty. “So my son could potentially be working, you know, doing farm labor. Whereas in most other occupations, the minimum age is 16.”

Both Garcia-Fogarty and Irving Zavaleta Jimenez, assistant director for multicultural education and Latino community coordinator, who made the opening remarks for the event, highlighted the lack of alternative job options that many farmworkers have.

“There’s also the issue, a lot of the people who work in agriculture come from Latin America and other countries in the global south,” said Garcia-Fogarty. “And people flee those countries for a number of reasons, but there’s conflict, there’s poverty, natural disasters, you know, a lot of issues that push people out of those countries, and they often end up coming here. And a lot of the people here in the U.S. don’t want to work in agriculture because it’s such a hard occupation.

“It’s so low paid that for people who are coming from another place where they have no alternatives, or the alternatives are very meager, or they’re fleeing for their lives, you know, they’re trying to find an opportunity for their kids to be educated. This is the pathway for them to potentially, for their kids, to have a better life.”

Many organizers, such as Maria Peralta Porras, sophomore and secretary of HUG, found the discussion to be meaningful.

“I’ve done HUG for two years now,” said Peralta Porras. “And before HUG, I didn’t know a lot about farmworkers in general, so this week usually means a lot of awakening, a lot of listening. Sometimes I find myself, that I’m giving my story, but this time, I feel like I can step back and listen to someone else’s story and listen to their struggles and see how I, as a person, can help and give back to the community.”

Attendees, including Early College student Annette Varghese, praised the message of the banquet.

“It was really interesting how they tied Cesar Chavez’s story into something that we can do today, and how we can actually help the farmworkers today, even in the little things that we do,” said Varghese.

Junior Kaeli Frank expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m a Spanish major, so I study stuff like this in class,” said Frank. “And so I think it’s a point of view that a lot of people in U.S. don’t see because it’s kind of hidden from the greater public.

“So it means a lot to me to be able to have this experience and to hear these stories because I know not everyone here is, and that way I can tell other people, ‘Oh, this is what I learned.’”

Guzmán shared HUG’s hopes for the impact of the banquet on the community.

“I hope that it really opens the eyes of the Guilford community into where our food comes from and to really value where our food comes from and the people who work to prepare our foods,” said Guzmán.