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Agribusiness vs. the Worker: The Business and the Bond of Food

by Ade Bethune

We have a beautiful garden here at Casa Juan Diego. It is always a highlight of our visitor tours. We grow fruits, vegetables and herbs, the soil is cultivated with organic ingredients, we capture rainwater for irrigation, we have an ever-growing bee colony, we compost, and everything that is planted in the ground produces something beautiful that we consume and share with the poor. It is a constant reminder that we are all connected to each other and to the earth.

It is hard to express how much love is poured into that garden by Kent, our master gardener and all the other volunteers that keep it producing year round, and how this love sustains us even more than the food itself. Our guests, many of them from rural areas of Latin America and Africa, spend much time there, as it reminds them of the way their homes used to be.  All this love, care and effort put into the cultivation of the food we eat says something about our shared humanity. Our garden sends the message that we care about each other, nurture each other, and take care of one another through the production of one of the most important resources in the world, our food.

In this country, such personal connection to the land is basically a thing of the past. Giant agribusiness corporations have driven the family farm almost to extinction. Laws and regulations in Latin America used to provide protection to their family farms, but, particularly in Mexico, “free trade” agreements have done to them the same thing agribusiness has done to us. I have reported on this before: http://cjd.org/2008/06/01/nafta-key-to-immigration-problems-in-the-united-states/ or search “NAFTA key to immigration problems”, which tells the story of two young women, Yolanda and Marta, about their backbreaking work in an asparagus field, and the relationship of their plight to “free trade.” Let’s just say that agribusiness has taken over farming in Mexico, and the contrast with our garden here at Casa Juan Diego could not be more stark.

The conditions of farm work in Mexico continue to deteriorate. In 2010, two years after my experience with Yolanda and Marta, I was traveling with a graduate student of mine from a small farming village in central Mexico back to the city when the car we were riding in broke down. Our driver, a young man with his sister and a baby in tow, knew a family member in a nearby agribusiness asparagus field who would lend us his truck. This sounded great to me; I was exhausted from staying in a community without running water and electricity and desperately wanted to reach our destination. The field was guarded and it took some time to talk our way in. We weren’t supposed to be there; outsiders were not allowed for reasons I did not understand at the time.

by Ade Bethune

As we drove around at our top speed of about five miles an hour trying to find his relative, our driver, who had experience in fields like these, explained what was involved in harvesting the excellent asparagus that would be shipped by truck to the U.S.:  the crippling stoop work for a dollar an hour, the dangerous working con-ditions, the use of child labor, the withholding of wages for any excuse. As we watched those workers, mainly women, toiling in the fields, my student, who had said almost nothing during my conversation with our driver, summed up our discussion. “It looks like slavery.”

A recent series of articles by Richard Marosi of the Los Angeles Times (http://graphics.latimes.com/product-of-mexico-camps/) tells the same tale as our driver. Based on 18 months of research, Marosi relates just what goes on in Mexico in the fields that supply the grocery chains and restaurants in the United States with our fruits and vegetables (half of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico). He describes a system in which exploited workers live in rat-infested and dangerous housing, and are forced to buy their own food and supplies at a company store, on credit, since the companies routinely violate Mexican law by withholding wages. It is a system so stacked against the workers that they may actually leave the camp at the end of the picking season with nothing, if they are allowed to leave at all (sometimes they are prevented by force from leaving until the company store is paid back). Maybe slavery is too strong a term, but not by much.

I hope you will look up “Product of Mexico” and read Marosi’s articles, not only because the plight of Mexican farm workers is important in itself, but also because it helps us understand one reason why migrants undertake the extremely difficult and dangerous journey to come here from Mexico and Central America without documents. This is the kind of work they can find in their own country, if they can find any at all. They must pray to God on the long journey here that there is something less exploitive, something more affirming of their human dignity on our side of the border fence.

You may be familiar with the iconic photo of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker move-ment, being arrested with the United Farm Workers while she was in her 70’s. Bob Fitch’s photo of Dorothy is a powerful photo.  She looks completely unafraid.  Dorothy spent her life shining a light on the exploitation of workers.  She is famous for her belief that a revolution of the heart is the only way to create a better world, and that this revolution happens when we purposely put ourselves in solidarity and community with the poor and exploited.

So what can you and I do about the exploitation of farm workers?  How can we put ourselves in solidarity? Perhaps our little garden at Casa Juan Diego can point to one possibility. We can, to the extent possible, in community, grow as much of our own food as possible. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was fond of saying “eat what you raise and raise what you eat.” Peter was advocating Catholic Worker farms, what he called “agronomic universities.” While it is admittedly easier to grow your own food on a farm than in a city, a community garden is not dependent on the size of the plot. It can be done, anywhere, by people working together. Google “community garden” for lots of ideas, and come visit our garden for inspiration.

 

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, June-August 2015.