Organizing for Immigrant Justice and Food Systems Change in Massachusetts

An interview with Gabriella della Croce, Pioneer Valley Workers Center

How is immigration policy linked to agriculture and food policy?

Our capacity for growing food in this country has always relied on cheap labor or free labor. Colonists tried to force Native Americans to work for them, then relied on slaves, and after that, poor immigrants from Europe. Now predominantly we see other waves of immigrants including many people from Latin America working in the fields. So really, our ability to grow food in this country is entirely on the shoulders of undocumented laborers. They're paid terrible wages for the work that they do, growing the food that we all need to survive. To me, between that historical context and the current political climate, I think it's impossible to separate the issues. And it's very unfortunate that they're very often are seen as separate movements. They don't have enough connections and cross pollination happening in between them.

What are your biggest fears in this moment and what opportunities do you see, politically or organizationally?

I’ve got a long list of fears but I don’t like to focus on them. Off the cuff, I'll speak personally first and start with a simple one: one of the most frustrating things to me is the lack of sustained movement building and political consciousness. It was exciting for us as an organization, in the wake of the Trump election, to see hundreds of people coming to us and knocking on our door and calling the phones--they were ringing off the hook. People who'd never gotten involved in social activism before or change making of any kind suddenly felt like, "Oh crap! I gotta do something now." People woke up. Since then, we have seen a lot of sustained interest which has been heartening. All kinds of people are volunteering, although volunteering really isn't the right word because it implies service provision, as opposed to people seeing it as a part of their duty to better the world that we all share and the planet that we all rely on.

But there are always movement moments, with dips and peaks. I think this is a movement moment in which there's been a real shift in consciousness.  People are getting excited about wanting to do things differently in this country--politically, economically, and culturally...wanting to address racism and xenophobia.  But I fear that this is dying away and fading. We need people to sustain that level of passion and urgency, to keep their eyes open. At the same time, we shouldn’t live like our lives must be centered around long emergencies. 

All that is a personal fear that I think about. But our immigrant members are facing violent and dangerous threats daily. Many of them have had family members taken away from them and live in tremendous fear of deportation, of their bosses retaliating against them, of losing their job, of all kinds of state violence. These are huge fears that we share alongside them, even as I personally don’t have to live with those kinds of fears threatening me or my family. Just last week I was driving with some members who walked across the state as part of our drivers license campaign (to demand drivers licenses for all in the state of Massachusetts), and ironically, on the way back from this march, one undocumented family was driving and they got pulled over by the police. That was a terrifying moment. I was behind them on the highway by about twenty minutes and the police were maybe going to impound the car, maybe going to take the kids. It was very frightening, but those are things that are normal and expected and just kind of woven into the daily experience of many of our members. 

I see tremendous opportunities for building a very different kind of economy. A big opportunity we have right now at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center is the opportunity to start a worker run farm. It’s a really incredible project that is just starting to get off the ground and we have been bursting at the seams to go public with it for many months, but we haven't had the actual lease signed and it's just on the verge of happening. We have been working all winter, all fall, with seven of our most active worker members who have become real leaders in our committees. They are primarily farmworkers coming from agricultural backgrounds, growing food in rural areas in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Mexico. We've been doing a lot of cooperative economic education with them and learning about different kinds of models: different ways of organizing our labor and the resources that we do or don't share or divide, as the case may be. And now they're starting a worker co-op farm this season. I just got off a phone call an hour ago with someone who's agreed to come track the plow for us with their tractors; we don't have any of that equipment. 

This is a really, really exciting opportunity.  I feel like I'm breathing, sleeping, dreaming this farm all the time.  It's been wonderful to see how much it's already given those members and our community more broadly, not just those seven members who are involved.  Already, just the possibility has created so much hope and excitement around not just fighting back against bosses with bad labor conditions, but also creating our own alternative economic institutions.

Is there a specific policy that the Pioneer Valley Workers Center is driving or endorsing?

The big legislative issue that we're working on right now is the driver’s licenses for all campaign. This winter, for the first time ever, our two worker committees, which are geographically close but in different areas, both voted unanimously to have us focus a whole lot of energy and resources on this driver’s license for all campaign. We're working on that in coalition with a number of other groups across the state of Massachusetts. We're pushing for reforms at the state level to make it possible for everyone to be able to drive without fear and to have a right to that kind of ID card, which is a passport to so many privileges.

Are there specific ways the NESAWG network could plug into or support that work?

This interview is great and I really appreciate you reaching out to us. I think it's really important for us to be sharing what our hopes and goals and aspirations are with each other so that we can magnify them and the messages around them. In terms of food and agriculture, I think the question you first asked was a really important one, making that connection between the good food movement and the immigrants rights movement. I am a former food service worker myself. I waitressed for a number of years in New York restaurants, and I also care very deeply about environmental issues. I studied Environmental Science--but I struggle with and have been very frustrated with the elitism that exists in both the environmental movement and the good food movement. I think its great that there is interest in many things that I love and care about: artisanal food production, local food, and local farms, but what about the people who are doing the bulk of the work our in the fields? It's not usually the owners or managers, so much as it is the workers. That's a reality that's been not just absent, but erased and marginalized by a lot of important celebrity-level figures in the good food movement. When I say this, I think of some of my former bosses in fancy farm-to-table restaurants.

In your opinion what are the most effective ways that we - and we as in the good food movement or NESAWG - can support immigrant rights in the food system?

I think starting this conversation is a step.  Beyond that, I'd encourage people in their daily lives to think about working people.  Who is cooking the dinner that we buy when we go out to a restaurant? Who's making this sandwiches at the café we frequent?  Who's growing the food out in the fields that gives us our beautiful abundant displays at local farmers markets? And what kinds of conditions do they face? It’s important to let producers, farm owners, restaurant owners, business owners know that this is something that we as consumers, we as citizens, and we as human beings, really care about. It is an important part of putting our money where our mouths are, not just in terms of, again, what kind of food do we want to be eating and how it looks and tastes, and how it was grown in terms of environmental issues, but also in terms of labor issues.  I think we can do that concretely by asking questions when we make purchases, or when we're out in our communities or doing our work.

For instance, in our Northampton Worker Committee, a number of our members are El Salvadorian, and a number have temporary protective status--TPS. And back when the news came out regarding TPS status, they were-- rightly so-- pretty upset, and fearful of what that would mean for their lives because they would go from having some kind of legal status to having no legal status at all.

Is there anything else that you want the larger agricultural community to know about immigrants, immigration, or immigrant advocacy?

This is such a great question, and it's a question I've asked a lot of our members because we're doing an oral history project where we're documenting their experiences working on farms. And so I can speak directly to what they've told me. They've said, “We want people to see us and we want them to know that the food they're eating comes from our hard labor.”  I've had members say to me, “They have no idea. I wish people understood what goes into these strawberries.” People talk a lot in particular about strawberries and how back breaking that work is-- being crouched down, getting screamed at for drinking water, working under conditions in which they're forced to operate at the velocity of a machine, rather than a human being. And the work that goes into growing us really good, hand-picked, fresh strawberries is done on their backs. It is done with a lot of pain and suffering and dehydration and sexual abuse. So when I've asked the question you just asked me to our members, many of them have said just that. “I wish people knew, because if they knew I think they'd be moved to action.”

That action, I'll add, can happen in a lot of different ways.  A lot of farm owners are accustomed to a very hierarchical system, and are accustomed to the work being backbreaking because they themselves are really hard pressed and operate on thin margins and are also struggling to make it, especially in small scale farms. I think it's important to acknowledge the complexity of that. But at the end of the day they, as employers, and they as people who own the means of production, who own the farms and the land and employ immigrants, need to just think about what they're demanding of their workers and what the costs of that work is.

Anything else? 

Just to go out on a hopeful note, I’d like to add that in this collection of oral histories, one of the questions I ask is about how working on farms has impacted their relationship to the land and their relationship to food themselves. I've been amazed and touched that people who work seventy, eighty hours a week, under really terrible conditions... that they come home and have a little vegetable garden, out the fire escape or in their yards.  Many of them come from agricultural traditions themselves, and were farmers of some kind back in their home countries. They bring a lot of wisdom and knowledge and skills, and a real love of the land. When I first started asking that question, to be honest, I was a little nervous that I might be romanticizing the situation myself even just by asking that question. I thought, “What does it even mean for me to ask that question of people working under conditions like this?” But I've been really moved and amazed by how many of them have talked about this, often in really poetic terms...their love of the land and their love of growing food. They’ve painted pictures for me about what it's like to wake up at dawn and go out to the fields and hold the cabbage in their hand and look at the sun rising or to do these things that I think it's hard to talk about because they get commercialized and romanticized and farming's really, really hard work. Yet they have this real commitment and dedication and knowledge of what it takes to grow food, and a tremendous pride in what they're able to accomplish with what they produce.

A number of them said to me, “I want my children to know what I go through. I want them to have a sense of the work that I do. I want them to know that their parents were farmworkers. I don't want them to work in the fields like me, but I want to bring them out, maybe when they're older, when they're teenagers, I want them to come out with me at some point and I want them to see what goes into growing food.  And I want them to understand what I've gone through, what I go through, as a farm worker.” One of them said to me recently, “I want to teach them a love for mother earth. I want my son --he lives in the city, he's going to grow up with a very different life than I did, growing up in rural El Salvador-- but I want him to know that love for the earth.”

All photos courtesy of Pioneer Valley Workers Center.