By Gabriela Miranda
Alejandra Alvarez regularly works 12 to 14 hours a day in the hot, pesticide filled fields in Oxnard. Last year she was pregnant with her third child, she was going to name the girl Angelica. One day, while picking strawberries she noticed blood running down her pants and rushed to the hospital.
“I suffered a miscarriage. Although I was pregnant my employers said we were in high demand and I received no breaks or assistance,” Alvarez, Oxnard resident said to VIDA Newspaper. “I was exhausting my baby, my back and my body.” This was the most heartbreaking moment in her experience as a farmworker.
Now and before the COVID-19 pandemic, women farm workers have reported difficult, unclean work conditions as well as harassment and discrimination in the fields. Monica Ramirez, president and founder of the nonprofit Justice for Migrant Women said there are approximately 3 million farmworkers in the U.S.—1 million are women. Ramirez said although farmworkers are deemed essential workers, they are denied basic and essential rights and protection.
Rain, shine, pandemic or fires, farm workers are expected to report to the fields and provide fruits and vegetables to millions of Americans. Alvarez said the responsibility of strawberry picking creates a tense, difficult work environment—especially for women.
“As women, we go onto the fields and are expected to work as hard as the men but also clean after the men,” Alvarez said. “Then, we’re expected to deal with comments about our body or personal lives from men.”
The pandemic didn’t shut down the fields although sanitary and cleaning procedures have increased. Women farm workers now bear the responsibility of keeping the work areas sanitized all while picking and cleaning fruits in the fields, Alvarez said. She said the women are not additionally compensated for cleaning and are also placed at a higher risk for the virus.
Giselle Cruz, outreach assistant at the United Farm Worker Foundation branch in Oxnard, said dozens of women farm workers have reported similar work conditions and experiences.
Cruz said women have admitted they’re pushed to clean the bathrooms and sanitize work areas while men are not. Women are also constantly denied sick, pregnancy leave and personal days off.
“There’s the power dynamic between women, men and their authority figures. In homes and with the culture of machismo, women are the ones who cook. In the fields, they’re worked for hours and still expected to clean and do the brunt work,” Cruz said to VIDA Newspaper.
Past and current issues
In the 90’s, Carolina Gallardo-Magaña worked as a farmworker in Oxnard—she experienced strenuous work conditions and sexism in the fields. When she was pregnant, she was denied breaks or less laborious work. Gallardo-Magaña said many women in the fields would hide their pregnancies to avoid penalties or being terminated at work. She dealt with sexist comments, ridicule and underpay. However, she said many including herself were wary of reporting these issues due to lack of job opportunities or their legal status.
“Nothing about that has changed since the 90’s. Women and all farmworkers are underpaid. Women are still mistreated in the fields like I was and others,” Gallardo-Magaña said.
Alvarez is a testament to Gallardo-Magana’s statement, she said women are commonly the target of sexual comments or derogatory terms from authority figures or men in the fields. After working for over 15 years, Alvarez said she’s paid less than men who just started working. She said correcting the treatment of all farmworkers starts with equal opportunity and pay for women farmworkers.
Immigration and pay are the two reasons Cruz said women farmworkers are hesitant to speak out against their employers.
For single moms, stable money is essential to the survival of their family and children. Cruz said she’s had various single mothers ask her for advice on how to balance feeding their families, working and caring for their children. While other women, who are undocumented, are weary of alerting immigration services if they file a complaint against their employers.
“Some women, due to their legal status feel they can’t find work elsewhere. They also feel like they can’t report the conditions, or they’ll be on the radar of ICE,” Cruz said.
However, the UFW Foundation in Oxnard, acts as a resource center for all farmworkers. The center offers advice, resources and aid to those in need. Cruz said women often come in for wipes, feminine products, food and baby products. If farmworkers are experiencing trouble within their work or immigration issues, UFW can refer them to organizations that can further assist the farmworkers.
“The spirit of us”
Despite the difficult work conditions, Alvarez said she is proud of her work in the fields. Farm workers are essential workers and deserve the recognition and benefits that come with that title. Alvarez likes to call herself and her co-workers the “unsung, undocumented heroes of America.”
“Without us, the fruits wouldn’t get picked. This job isn’t for everybody, but I chose to put food on your table. I should get respect and better pay for that,” Alvarez said to VIDA Newspaper.
Cruz comes from a family of farmworkers—her grandfather worked as a farmworker all of his life. He was a content man and worked hard for every dollar he earned. Cruz said he never complained and was grateful for everyday he reported to the fields. This spirit of diligent work without complaint is common in farmworkers, especially the women.
“These women who come into UFW aren’t complaining or trying to quit their job. They are proud farmworkers, they are proud to work through the storms, fires and virus,” Cruz said. “You’ll never meet anyone like them.”