During Eunice Gonzalez’s sophomore year at UCLA, it dawned on her that her immigrant parents drove her to be the first in their family to graduate college. Fast forward to graduation day this past May, and she decided to pay tribute to her mom and dad by taking portraits with them in the fields where they tirelessly picked strawberries for over 20 years.
“At first when I told my parents about the photo shoot they were a bit unsure and confused about it, but I needed them to know this wasn’t my graduation, it was ours,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez and her family lived in California and followed the field work wherever it paid enough to support a family of five — she has two older sisters who were born in Mexico. The family picked strawberries because it was one of the most financially rewarding jobs in the field, but it is also one of the most rigorous.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be a farmworker. I was about 12-years-old when I began going to work with them and started 'ponchando' — keeping record of how many boxes workers have completed to ensure they’re compensated for the boxes they picked,” Gonzalez said. “For a few years I did that but when I got a little older I started picking strawberries. I could only do six boxes a day while my mother did nearly eighty boxes.”
Picking strawberries in the field is more exhausting and strenuous than most can imagine. Gonzalez says her parents would wake up at 5 a.m. to make "lonche" for a 12-hour work day. Then after the long days of backbreaking work picking strawberries under the harsh sun — nicknamed la fruta del diablo because there’s no other way to do it — they would be riddled with anxiety, hoping that they picked enough to make as much money as possible for the family.
Twenty-two-year-old Gonzalez used this experience as motivation to major in Chicana/o sStudies and minor in both gender and labor and workplace studies — all on a full ride from the University of California, Los Angeles. She was born in raised in Santa Maria, California and raised in a small barrio referred to as “La Tijuanita” because of the surplus of immigrants in the neighborhood. Regardless of the negative stereotypes, Gonzalez says La Tijuanita raised her to be a warrior. She’s studying abroad in Spain this summer but plans to come back to her community and work in advocacy.
Gonzalez and her family represent just a tiny portion of the Mexicans who pick fruits and vegetables in the United States. Migrant workers and Mexican-Americans make up 79 percent of the total farmworker population, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Working in the fields is incredibly difficult, yet farmworkers are still excluded from nearly all of the major federal labor laws that were passed in the 1930s, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The FLSA has never been amended to provide overtime for farmworkers and 12 is still the minimum age for farmwork, not 16 like other jobs. Numerous documentaries have been made to highlight the lack of child labor laws but nothing has changed.
There hasn’t been a concrete answer to why farmworkers weren’t included in the FLSA, but over the years labor organizations like the United Farm Workers — founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta — have made some headway successfully fighting for fair wages, lunch breaks, and access to clean facilities. Still, California is the only state where farmworkers have the right to organize.
Ever since Senator Robert Kennedy broke bread with Cesar Chavez during the last day of his fast against violence in 1968, his powerful family has been advocating for the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act. This bill, proposed out of New York state, would grant farmworkers collective bargaining rights, workers' compensation, disability insurance, unemployment benefits, time-and-a-half pay for work past an eight-hour day, and a right to one day of rest each week. Yet over 40 years later, it still hasn't been passed and not much has changed for the majority of these farmworkers.
Nevertheless, after years of working for others and against all odds Gonzalez’s parents were able to build their own small business in the strawberry fields by renting land and harvesting their own strawberries.
“I have no idea how they started their own little business because they only speak Spanish, but they did it without a business degree ni nada and they have continued to work hard to accomplish their American dream,” Gonzalez said of her parents who immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Santa Maria in 1993, just two months before she was born.
Contrary to what Donald Trump might believe about Mexican immigrants, most come here to work. In addition to providing the majority of the farmworker labor force, the Pew Research Center has noted that immigrants, especially Mexicans, also make up a large portion of those in service occupations, such as maids, cooks, groundskeepers, and construction workers. In other words, immigrants are a large and vitally important part of the labor force.
“The only thing Mexico sends to this country are people who are willing to fight for a better life with jobs that seldom are given recognition and acknowledgement,” Gonzalez declares.
Gonzalez took what Trump said personally and hopes his immigration rhetoric dies out because it’s not only wrong but minimizes the contributions Mexican farmworkers have made to the United States.
“I understand all immigrants struggle, but there is something about this labor that deserves so much more respect. I see these field workers, who are often undocumented and Oaxaqueños, grasping at the root of their fresas with the hope of finding their American dream,” Gonzalez said. “Farmworkers are the creators of this land — without them, nothing would be sweet anymore.”