12 May 2015

San Quintín's farms

“It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them.  On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”  -Douglas Adams

I've been remiss in updating this website.  I've been working a lot on humanitarian stories -- the biggest one that's been catching my attention has been the San Quintín's farm laborers' strike. 

San Quintín, the first time I went there, was a quiet little town. I went with an old boyfriend who wanted to take me deep sea fishing. I remember very little about it except that I had drinks with an old guy at a hotel bar who was the saltiest of dogs, and that I bragged to anybody who would listen that I was immune to seasickness, and then got violently ill from it, for the first time in my life, about ten minutes after I stepped on the fishing boat.

I also remember that they caught a huge tuna fish and clubbed it to death on the deck as I retched feebly over the side.  Barbarians, I thought through the nausea. Disgusting animals.  But I ate it later anyway.

But that was all I really remembered about it: surf, salty dogs, bumpy roads, quiet.  Nice people.  The town didn't really pop up on my radar for years.  I knew it was still around, and that it was surrounded by strawberry fields at the end of a drive so beautiful that it could almost be mistaken for one of Alaska's
highways, but then I started hearing about mistreatment of the jornaleros, the farm laborers, who worked as pickers.

I went again and suddenly I saw what had been there all along behind the filter of my own ignorance: maltreatment, exploitation, backbreaking physical labor cheapened by an absolute lack of oversight.  The valley is a huge producer of tomatoes and strawberries in particular, an enormously profitable industry, yet the people who pick them are paid less than $10 a day, with no paid days off.

The mobilization of San Quintín's workers has now ballooned into a major issue, a rare opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see the real, human costs of fruits and vegetables.  When I went to San Quintín again, I didn't see it as peaceful or sleepy, I saw it as quietly roiling and getting ready to explode with long-deferred anger and frustration.

"It's slavery," one of the striking workers told me over a tire they were burning for warmth, "and it's been going on for generations."  A crowd gathered and they nodded, adding things here and there.  Child labor is
rampant, as is sexual abuse of women and children.  Most of them had been working since they were 11 or 12.  They wanted to go to school, to make better lives for themselves and their children, to have some hope and a way out, but they couldn't afford to.

"We want to go pick in the US," one man said to me. "We heard you can make a good living there - eight, nine hundred dollars a month."  He makes less than $300 a month right now.

Most of these workers are Triqui, indigenous people from south Mexico.One of the things the strike has helped reveal is Mexico's deplorable treatment of its indigenous communities, not that the rest of North America is any better, and how ugly organic produce can look when seen through the lens of human rights.

At any rate, here's my latest for Al Jazeera, with photos from the excellent José Pedro Martínez.