by Edgar Franks
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this monthly column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
I grew up in the 1980s in Texas in a family of migrant farmworkers. We spent half of the year in Texas; the other half of the year we lived in Washington State. When I was about 6 or 7, my mom settled in Skagit County, and I’ve been here pretty much ever since then. At age 10, I joined my family members at work. I grew up in the fields and stayed there for a decade and a half.
These days I spend most of my time serving as the political director for an independent farmworker union called Familias Unidas por La Justicia (FUJ). While most people associate unions with strikes, work stoppages, and picket lines, my day-to-day job at FUJ is based in quieter activities. I mostly talk one-on-one with members of the union, whom I consider to be my bosses, prioritizing my tasks based on what they need. I help with work-related problems but also rent-related or immigration-related issues. Care for our members extends past the fields and into the lives of their families.
In June, for example, we focused on getting ready for berry harvesting season — strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry — going out to sites of employment and letting workers know about their rights. When it’s safe to travel, I also represent the union across the state and country as well as around the world, coordinating initiatives with partners then reporting back to our executive committee and our workers. I enjoy my work and the people I get to work for. I’m lucky.
It wasn’t always like this. During my adolescence and young adulthood, I hated going to the fields. We’d wake up at five in the morning, spend all day picking, often while someone yelled at us to go faster. We’d end every day with sore legs, sore backs, little pay, and even less motivation to get up and do it again the next day. For me, this grew into an aversion to getting dirty. I associated being outside with that abusive and exploitative agricultural environment, with all the harm — physical and otherwise — that came with it. I knew I didn’t like the work, but I hadn’t thought deeply about how to make it better.
Then about a decade ago the Occupy Wall Street movement caught my attention. My ears perked up to the conversations about wealth disparity, extractive practices, and how systems are set up to keep certain people down while lifting a precious few up. I began thinking about not just changing jobs but changing the system. It was time for me to start thinking and working in a bigger way.
Around this time I was introduced to an organization called Community to Community Development (C2C) in Bellingham, Washington. Rosalinda Guillen was (and still is) the executive director, and she invited me to help with increasingly more complex projects. I learned more about agricultural systems and grew to understand how the hardships experienced by farmworkers aren’t related to individual choices, but rather to a whole system designed to extract from them and disenfranchise them. My own family had always been farmworkers, but I had never connected the difficulties of their individual work and circumstances to the larger system of largely unspoken rules, rules C2C and FUJ are still working to change today.
All the workers our union represents are either Mixteco or Triqui from Oaxaca and Guerrero in Mexico, Indigenous to their regions, though not to the soil they work on. Looking back into the history of agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, before Mexicans were doing the work, it was Native Americans and Filipinos and Sikh people, Chinese people, Japanese people, as well as Black people, for whom the fields hold a uniquely complicated history. All of them experienced the same abusive treatment at the hands of those who supervised them on the farms, including exploitative practices, dangerous housing, and racism. No matter who is in the field, there is a shared bond. Not to say that tensions don’t spring up amongst the farmworkers due to colorism, internalized racism, or other forms of bigotry. Solidarity is most often achieved when individuals are able to take a step back and see the larger structures holding practices in place. When we’re in the field together, it’s not me against you; instead, it’s us, together, working to protect and support each other. That’s the whole point of FUJ.
The system of industrial agriculture in the U.S. frames farmworkers as pieces of machinery, tools to be disposed of. However, most people don’t understand that farmworkers bring to the land much more than their back-breaking labor: They bring skill, care, and generational knowledge. They have a relationship to land that others don’t, much like Indigenous peoples around the globe. They do the work not just out of necessity but because they are drawn to it, drawn to growing and planting and harvesting, with an interest in preserving the soil so they can do it all over again.
Most farmworkers have a goal of returning to their homes to farm their own land, among their own people. However, after they have worked and lived in the U.S. for years, it gets complex. Rather than moving from place to place, they spend more time in one place, becoming residents instead of visitors (although others still tend to mislabel long-term farmworkers as ‘migrants’). Long-term farmworkers start families and their kids go to school, make friends, and set down roots, leading to difficult conversations within homes. Do you stay where you are out of respect for the lives of the children for whom the U.S. is the only home they’ve known, or do you go back to your original home country to honor your original dream? And further, which path allows you to do the work you value, the work you’re good at? In the U.S., if you want to work the land, you have to put up with a lot of bad things. A corporate farm run by a wealthy white owner shouldn’t be the only place where you can touch the dirt.
In recent years, FUJ has been moving toward acquiring land so our members can have their own place to garden, take their families to, and gather as a community, without harassment, abuse, or threats of violence. That’s how the farm co-op Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad was born. In doing this, we’ve paid special attention to making sure we’re not further displacing peoples Indigenous to where we are.
It’s only very recently that I myself have been able to reconnect with my early affinity for the land. I volunteer at the cooperative. Sometimes I work in the fields with the union members. I even tend my own garden. During the pandemic, I started inviting my teenage son to get his hands dirty with me. Although at first he much preferred to stay inside on his phone, he quickly became a great partner in creating our garden. This liberatory act reminds me of how my grandma used to bring me into her own garden back in Texas. I realize that’s something that our people have done forever: taking the kids out to the garden, fostering a relationship to food production not on an industrial scale but in a way that ties us to the life we tend from the seeds up. In such a setting, the place that grows our food becomes not a source of suffering but a building place, a place of community, and a place upon which to build a future. If I can help my bosses, the members of the union I now work for, achieve this, I have done the work I set out to do. Until then, my sleeves are rolled up.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article had photo captions that mistakenly referred to Cooperativa Tierra Y Libertad as “Collectiva Tierra Y Libertad.” This article was updated on 07/22/2021 with the correct name of the cooperative as well as to include the Black community’s complicated history with soil and farms in Washington State.
A previous version of this article had a link to Familias Unidas por La Justicia organization based in California. This article was updated on 08/13/2021 with the link to the Washington State-based organization.
Edgar Franks is the political director at Familias Unidas por La Justicia (FUJ), an independent farmworker union based in Bellingham, Washington, which was originally home to the Duwamish, Upper Skagit, and Coast Salish peoples. Edgar is also a photographer, and you can follow his creative work, which often celebrates the people and fields he knows best, on Instagram at @edgarfranx.
📸 Featured Image: Edgar Franks at Cooperativa Tierra Y Libertad. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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