At a Watsonville, Calif., strawberry field, a gaggle of the agriculturally curious -- a state representative's aide, an anthropologist, a food service company employee -- gathered around Ann Lopez, whose voice gained intensity as she careened through a farm worker's tale of woe: pesticide exposure, low wages, backbreaking labor.
Lopez, a Santa Cruz-based activist and academic, was leading one of the "Farmworker Reality Tours" that her nonprofit, the Center for Farmworker Families, hosts about five times a year. Lopez is on an evangelist's mission: to show and tell everyone she meets about the plight of Mexican migrants who toil in California fields.
"I think the only way it's going to change," Lopez said, "is if the public says, 'No more.' "
Farmworkers exist behind a drawn curtain. No one sees them. No one even knows where their food comes from. We buy our pre-washed organic spinach, our baby carrots, and our bell peppers (so nice in their 3 packs of yellow, red, and green!). But we never see the fields in south Texas, in the Imperial Valley, on the back roads of western Oregon and central Washington. The same could be said for workers in meat packing plants, which have also been strategically placed in isolated areas, particularly in rural Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.
Getting people to take tours of farmworkers lives could have an exploitative side to it, but drawing the curtain back on their lives is the only way to create any change.
Similarly, I fully supported Stephen Colbert's appearance before Congress last month. While some called it an embarrassment, if Colbert wasn't there, no one would have talked about farmworkers' lives at all. That's what United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez knew and why he had Colbert speak. Congressional hearings are almost totally worthless; no one's mind is going to be changed by them and they get no attention from the media. So why not turn it into a circus? It was a great publicity move, even if it took attention away from actual farmworkers and placed it on a privileged white guy.
Of course, most people taking these tours already support the plight of farmworkers. It'd be great to get conservatives on these trips. If I knew of something like this, I'd definitely schedule my classes in. Visiting these fields would be more educational than anything I could tell my students.