Monday - Jul 22, 2019

Aging in the fields – no alternative but to keep working – Part 1

by David Bacon

As soon as  Anastasia Flores’ children were old enough, she brought them with her to work in the fields. “Ever since 1994 I’ve always worked by myself, until my children  could also work,” she recalls. “In Washington, I picked cucumbers, and in Santa Maria here I worked picking strawberries and tomatoes. In Washington, they allowed people to take their children to work with them, and to leave them at the end of the row with the older children taking care of the younger ones.”

She didn’t think bringing her children to work was unusual. It’s the way she had grown up herself. Today she’s is in her mid 50s, getting to the age when she will no longer be able to work. Just as she once depended on the labor of the kids for her family’s survival, she will still depend on them to survive as she gets old. Without their help, she will have nothing.

Anastasia was born in San Juan Piñas in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The small town is in the heart of the Mixteca region, where people speak an indigenous language that was centuries old long before the Spaniards arrived.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, people began migrating from Oaxaca looking for work, as Mexico’s agricultural policies failed. Anastasia, like many, wound up working first in northern Mexico, in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California. “I picked tomatoes there for five years,” she remembers. “It was brutal. I would carry these huge buckets that were very heavy. We lived in a labor camp in Lazaro Cardenas [a town in the San Quintin Valley], called Campo Canelo. It was one room per family, in shacks made of aluminum.”

Before leaving San Juan Piñas she’d gotten married and  brought her first child, Teresa, with her to Baja. “I began to work there when I was 8 years old, picking tomatoes,” Teresa remembers.

Anastasia then decided to bring her family to California, because her husband had found work there in the fields. “I needed money and I couldn’t afford to raise my family in Baja California,” she remembers. “There were three kids and I couldn’t manage them. It was hard to bring the children across the border since they were so young, but compared to now, it was easier in the ‘90s. It only took us one day to cross.”

“My memories of that time are very sad because I had to work out of necessity,” Teresa says. “I started working in the United States at 14, here in Santa Maria and in Washington State. My mother couldn’t support my younger siblings alone, and I’m the eldest daughter. I couldn’t go to school because my mother had many young children to support.”

Anastasia’s son Javier, who was born in Santa Maria, shares those memories. “Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out,” he recalls. “That’s pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers, during vacations.”

The Flores family was part of a big wave of migration from Oaxaca’s indigenous towns into California fields. According to Rick Mines, a demographer who created the Indigenous Farm Worker Study, by the 2000s there were 165,000 indigenous migrants in rural California, 120,000 of them working in the fields. “At that time there were few old people coming,” he says. “And because almost everyone came after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, they didn’t qualify for the immigration amnesty and are undocumented.”

Indigenous migration changed the demographics of the farm labor workforce in many ways, he explains. “A third of farm workers in the ‘70s and ‘80s shuttled back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. every year. Most were migrants, living in more than one place in the course of a year. That has all changed. The average stay in the U.S. now is 14 years.”

Because indigenous workers are undocumented, going back and forth across an increasingly-militarized border is practically impossible. Many are stuck in the U.S. If they go back to Mexico, it’s for good. As people grow older, some return because the cost of living there is lower. “But those who go back to Oaxaca depend on their family in the U.S. to send them money,” explains Irma Luna, a Mixtec community activist in Fresno. “They come from towns that are very poor, so they don’t have any income other than what their children can send them.”

Collecting Social Security benefits is not possible, because people with no legal immigration status (an estimated 11 million people in the U.S.) can’t even apply for a Social Security card. In order to work they have to give an employer a Social Security number they’ve invented or that belongs to someone else. Payments are deducted from their paychecks, but these workers never become eligible for the benefits the contributions are supposed to provide.

The Social Security Administration estimated in 2010 that 3.1 million undocumented people were contributing about $13 billion per year to the benefit fund. Undocumented recipients, mostly people who received Social Security numbers before the system was tightened, received only $1 billion per year in payments. Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, told VICE News in 2014 that that surplus of payments versus benefits had totaled more than $100 billion over the previous decade.

Recognizing this problem, the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, part of Oaxaca’s state government, has established a fund for starting income-generating projects in communities with returning migrants, including greenhouses, craft work andcarpentry. Nevertheless, most older migrants returning home still have no support other than money sent from the U.S.

Many older indigenous farm workers don’t intend to return to Mexico. “I’ve spent almost 20 years working in the fields,” Anastasia says. “A long time. I’m 56 now. I hope I will eventually stop working in the fields, but I don’t have land or a house in Mexico, so I plan on staying here. I’m used to living in Santa Maria. I have all of my kids here, so I want to stay where they are.”