‘What would we do without these people?’ A Q&A with ‘furious’ farmworker advocate Ann Lopez

Ann Lopez made farmworkers her calling 25 years ago.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When she turned from biologist to sociologist and human rights advocate 25 years ago, Ann Lopez realized how dire the situation was for humans born into a caste system that put them on a path toward what she considers to be agrarian slavery. COVID, climate change and affordability have worked against change, but that hasn’t slowed her fight for justice.

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Ann Lopez walks a mental health tightrope every day she does her job — which is every day. She figures the two glasses of chardonnay she allows herself each week are part of balancing out what her eyes and ears have no choice but to take in.

A Q&A with Ann Lopez

Few wear the fear, poverty and suffering of a community on their shoulders as Lopez, who a quarter-century ago chose migrant farmworkers as her people.

“I don’t know how you see what they go through and not do something,” she said.

It’s a community — mostly made up of undocumented migrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, who live in constant fear of deportation — that was already struggling to survive when the triple whammy of COVID-19, climate change and a fast-rising affordability crisis hit.

An estimated 80 to 90% of farmworkers in the Pajaro Valley are undocumented, so it makes it difficult to get a true handle on how many live here at any one time, Lopez said. What is known: The majority are from Indigenous groups in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, and most can afford to live only in overcrowded multifamily apartments ripe for COVID transfer.

Ann Lopez at Crystal Bay Farm in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A recent study released by the California Institute for Rural Studies concluded that farmworkers weren’t being kept any safer from COVID in the workplace.

Lopez said she watches nervously as a slow strawberry season collides with a local rental market that comes in only one tick below the nation’s most expensive, and she wonders how these people — her people — can survive.

“A lot of them are only able to get 30 hours of work right now — half of normal,” she said. “The level of poverty they’re living in is crushing.”

Lopez was studying the earth that brings us our food when she discovered the humans picking it were far more in need of attention. The trained biologist was earning her Ph.D. in agroecology and sustainable food systems at UC Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s when she made the switch to social scientist and human rights advocate, making fieldworker reform her life’s focus.

That’s what led to her own book about the brutal struggles in migrant farmworker camps, and her work delving deep into that world in turn led to the creation of the Center for Farmworker Families, a nonprofit she founded and runs.

It helps with food, clothes, diapers, rental assistance, COVID testing and any possible forms of advocacy — now largely centered around the growing concerns about childhood cancer rates that disproportionately affect rural communities.

Lopez says she has never seen a tougher situation, both for the economic stressors farmworkers face and the difficult time for raising money to help them.

A recent exception came in the form of a $50,000 private donation that the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County helped procure. It enabled the CFF — made up of five volunteer board members, including Lopez, plus three paid fieldworker staffers and a paid political organizer focused on pesticide mitigation — to help 45 families with rental assistance payments.

Eloy Ortiz is a CFF board member who brings grant-writing experience to the nonprofit. As a first-generation American, he thought he knew about the struggle of immigrants. But he said getting to see the needs of farmworkers up close is humbling. Word got out that he was helping coordinate the purchase of shoes, and suddenly his phone was blowing up.

It was overwhelming. The number of moms just looking to get their kids a pair of shoes, what that means to them. It blows you away.

“It was overwhelming,” he said. “The number of moms just looking to get their kids a pair of shoes, what that means to them. It blows you away.”

The most eye-opening way in which CFF brings awareness to the farmworkers’ plight is through private tours of a local farm. A “Farmworker Reality Tour” takes a small group — from companies, schools and other community organizations — behind the scenes. (In lieu of a tour, a real, unvarnished first-person account of farmworker life was penned by Yale student Alexandra Rocha, whose parents are Watsonville field workers, in late 2020.)

Watsonville's Alexandra Rocha-Alvarez, class of 2022 at Yale University.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While CFF helps take care of the day-to-day survival needs, Lopez also must focus on the bigger picture of how to change the narrative via state and federal legislation.

“If I ever get the time, I’m going to write the book ‘Slavery in your own backyard,’“ she said. “This is modern-day slavery. I don’t know what else to call how we treat these humans.”

Although the deportation threat has lessened in non-border regions under the Biden administration, she said, it doesn’t change the daily pressure placed on these essential workers.

“It makes me furious,” she said. “What would we do without these people?”

The book Lopez did write, “The Farmworkers’ Journey,” came out in 2007 and took readers deep into the world of fieldworker life in both Mexico and California. It argued that the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 squashed hope for those who traded their agrarian existence in Mexico for life in the U.S.

Ann Lopez's book, "The Farmworkers' Journey."

But for undocumented immigrants, who could be one misstep away from deportation, even someone like Lopez can elicit fear. She recounted how a group seeking services had found her downtown Watsonville office, peeked their heads in and then sprinted back toward the stairwell.

“They live in constant fear,” she said. “It’s no kind of life. It’s just daily survival.”

Lookout talked with Lopez at her third-floor Main Street office to learn more about her concerns for this largely invisible population that puts food on our tables yet struggles to meet its own basic needs.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lookout: The Oaxacan population is really struggling, it sounds like.

Ann Lopez: They’re the most recent arrivals, and they’re also the poorest. The biggest challenge they face is housing. They live in these horrendously crowded situations where there’s no social distancing at all. And for that reason, we’ve had a lot of COVID activity in the farmworker community. Between the poverty and the housing, they live absolutely miserable lives. And I don’t know a single Oaxacan farmworker who has papers, so they live in constant fear of deportation — I mean, serious fear.

Migrant farmworkers at work.
(Via Farmworker Justice)

We have a program called “Bridging the Digital Divide,” where we teach farmworkers how to use computers and then give them a computer to take home as their own. And we had one farmworker family come up to the class and as soon as they walked into my office, they panicked and just basically ran down the stairs to get out of the building.

Lookout: Wow. One false step is that scary of a proposition.

Lopez: The idea of having their families torn apart … I’m sorry, I get very angry talking about this. Our current industrial agricultural system would collapse without farmworkers. And no one who has worked weeks, months and years in the field should be worried about deportation. It makes me furious. What would we do without these people?

They’re undernourished, they’re overworked, they live in constant, grinding poverty, constant fear of deportation.

Lookout: As you laid out in your book a decade ago, farmworkers have never received what most Americans would consider humane treatment. But is it possible it’s gotten worse?

Lopez: Yes. They’re undernourished, they’re overworked, they live in constant, grinding poverty, constant fear of deportation. They’re the most exposed to pesticides. There’s a known carcinogen, and here in Santa Cruz County, we dump around a million pounds of this stuff on farmland every year. It’s highly volatile, and it drifts. So it goes way beyond the point of application. So these people are exposed to horrendous things. Many of them die young from the stress or the injury.

Lookout: What changes should be made to the system?

Lopez: We need a new system. There are three things that would transform farmworkers lives: (1) Comprehensive immigration reform. I’ve heard estimates in Santa Cruz County as high as 83% of farmworkers are undocumented. So there’s this whole fearful population that’s easily manipulated by the people that hire them. They have no rights. Essentially 60 to 80% of farmworker women are sexually harassed, groped, or outright raped in the field.

Farmworkers pick strawberries in 2019.
(USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Some of them have to engage in sex with a supervisor to get hired, even. So the conditions are horrendous. (2) They need a living wage. Why can’t we pay them a living wage for their work? I mean, it’s the hardest work there is physically. (3) We need laws that protect them from wage theft. The employer cannot steal their wages, which happens all the time.

Lookout: Is Cesar Chavez not turning in his grave over where things stand? Who is doing something to help people like you fight for this?

Lopez: Robert Rivas, the assemblyman from the 30th District — his grandparents were fieldworkers. He’s also the chair of the Agricultural Committee in the Assembly. There is a statewide coalition of leaders now working to protest, especially this chemical known to cause cancer. But all of these things, and what people are doing, I think are fairly superficial. I think we need a fundamental change.

I became so disturbed by the number of children of farmworkers that I met with cancer, ADHD, autism spectrum syndrome and learning disabilities that I begged my board to hire an organizer to convert this county to all-organic regenerative agriculture.

The Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture is a big part of CFF's mission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So we now have a new group called CORA, Campaign for Organic Regenerative Agriculture. And that the goal is to start a new system because the one we have is not working for anybody except for those who profit from it: the growers and agri-chemical companies.

Lookout: What percentage of our growing here is organic?

Lopez: 30%. Lakeside Organics is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the country.

Lookout: So do you see efforts to consider the humanitarian side of these decisions?

Lopez: Around Ohlone Elementary School (in Watsonville), there used to be conventional strawberry fields. And people were so upset about the drift into this school and the impact on the kids that the grower then converted to organic. So I think part of it is just putting pressure on.

Ann Lopez talks to Crystal Bay Farm owner Jeff Fiorovich.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The county agricultural commissioner, now Juan Hidalgo, has started a pilot program to publicize notices of intent when restricted-use pesticides will be sprayed in given areas. But we want all pesticides to be on the internet with when and where they’re going to be sprayed so people can protect themselves, even leave the area, if they need to.

Lookout: Is that idea receiving support?

Lopez: No, in fact, some on (the agricultural commission) have fought it tooth and nail. When I told them that there was an epidemic of children that are impacted by pesticides in Watsonville, there was pushback. I’m sorry, but it’s too many kids whose lives have been stolen. My question is, “What kind of civilized society are we to allow these children to be so damaged so early in life?” Why isn’t this considered a crisis on the par of COVID? I don’t get it.

Lookout: What are the current economics at play?

Lopez: A lot of growers have put huge swaths of land out of production, so farmworkers are making roughly half of what they have in past years, which were poverty wages. So, you know, it’s like how do they pay their rent? Then I read about Gavin Newsom talking about the budget surplus and I think, “Why don’t we have a safety net for these people?” They’re barely hanging on. I just think we have to do better.

NAFTA policies gave the growers exactly the kind of workers that they wanted, the type that won’t unionize. They can blacklist them, they can deport them any time they want. And so they have all the power. They’re all undocumented and living in fear. So all a grower has to do is blacklist them throughout the state and they’re done.

Lookout: That $50,000 donation you received, how did you use it?

Lopez: We held a “rental assistance celebration party” and gave 45 farmworker families $1,000 in rent assistance. The remaining $5,000 went for admin expenses. The last three years have been very difficult financially. And where we are right now is the worst we’ve experienced. Currently, our income doesn’t match our expenses. I’m hoping that the publicity might encourage folks to donate.

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