Rico gives Farmworker Awareness Week keynote address
Farmworker Awareness Week came to a close Tuesday night, as a keynote speech drew a large crowd of the University of Idaho community to celebrate the birth of Cesar Chavez, a remembered civil rights activist and farmworker who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.
Yasmin Garcia Rico, youth director for Student Action for Farmworkers (SAF), gave the keynote address and touched on issues farmworkers still struggle with today.
SAF is a national nonprofit organization that connects farmworkers to students so they can share experiences, with the hope of improving working conditions for farmworkers everywhere.
Farmworker issues are not about immigration, Rico said. They are about human rights and exploitation.
“The history of the U.S. is based on immigration and agriculture,” Rico said. “Since colonial times, people have been forced to work in the fields, and many groups of people have been brought to the U.S. to cover that labor.”
The first group of people who were forced to work in the fields were the Native Americans and then the African slaves and the current group being exploited is Hispanics, Rico said.
“We have so many groups that have been coming to the U.S. and that have been oppressed,” Rico said.
The reason why many Hispanics come to the U.S. for farm work is because the agricultural jobs they once had in Mexico no longer exist, Rico said. She said it is because of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which she said caused two million Mexicans to lose their agricultural jobs.
“We really don’t take the time to recognize that the United States has done a lot to make these people come,” Rico said.
She said members of her own family lost jobs due to the agreement.
“I keep a lot of memories from my childhood,” Rico said. “I remember being about 5 years old and going to the rancho with my abuelito.”
Throughout Rico’s grandfather’s life, he worked hard to save enough money to buy a ranch to provide for his family. But times became harder, and he had to sell his ranch because he could not make ends meet, she said.
“I know that it was a really hard decision for him to come to that, because this was the land that he had worked for all his life,” Rico said. “It was the land that had given him so much that had helped him make life easier for his family.”
What happened to her grandfather is still happening to people throughout Mexico, Rico said.
“I know that if he had been younger, he would have come to the United States, he would have ended up working in the fields in the United States,” Rico said. “A lot of people in the United States are in my grandfather’s situation.”
When Rico was in college, she got a job working with SAF in North Carolina. She said the experience opened her eyes to what the conditions were like in American fields.
“I knew what it was like to work in factories, to work in restaurants — places where people don’t see us,” Rico said. “But I had no idea what was happening in my own backyard.”
Farmworkers work long hours, through high temperatures, with dust and pesticides in the air. Today, farmworkers harvest 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S., Rico said.
The way to improve the working conditions isn’t by fixing the immigration system, she said, but instead fixing our agricultural system to provide additional protections for farmworkers.
“We need to make sure oppression against people who feed the world ends,” Rico said. “Farm work without that is modern-day slavery.”
The most recent case of slavery happened in 2008 in Immokalee, Florida, she said, where people were chained in the backs of box trucks and forced to pick tomatoes without being paid.
“We have a lot of problems to solve,” Rico said. “We eat every day. Let’s not forget about those who feed the world.”
Graham Perednia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org