Yesterday's March for Farmworker Justice in and around Woodburn will have to go down as a smashing success!!!! The crowds increased as the day went on and as workers came off the fields...
We gathered in a park in Woodburn at 9am....singing some powerful songs as we waited for the bus from Eugene to arrive...some of which were songs written specifically about the plight of farmworkers in our Willamette Valley.
It was good to see familiar faces from last year's week long March, and immediately I was glad that I had made the effort to be there. (I ended up driving up by myself, and did not see anybody else from the Corvallis area there). I had come very close to staying home and hanging comfortably in my gardens...
Organizers and Activists - on the right bus
We went out to 3 fields in the morning....First to (?Oberson's?) where they were picking berries...(?marion?)....We had six feet along the shoulder of the road in which we could be legally....so as not to step on PRIVATE property, or be run down on the road itself..... we were two buses loaded to capacity and beyond, as well as a handful of pickups and autos carrying our puppets and "stage" and the signs and bullhorns. Peg Morton was just back from the SOA trials, in which Oregon's own 18 year old Chani had received both a standing ovation from the courtroom crowd for her passionate speech about her work for justice, as well as a 6 month sentence in jail..... and she gave us a first hand account of the proceedings.
Other conversations on the bus included a graduate study being done with woemn in Guatemala by a student at UofO, the latest Pastors For Peace caravan through Eugene, and planning and organizing for when Violeta, my Zapotec friend comes in October..... Another friend had just returned from 2 weeks in Bolivia... I find It is so refreshing and stimulating to be surrounded by activists!!!
PCUN organizers greeted the workers in the fields over the bullhorns and invited them to come to the Park at 3pm to join our March through Woodburn and told them of the free dinner we were serving afterwards. The energy was really high and we stood along the side of the road, maybe 100 people including all adult ages, from teenagers to those with heads of white hair and the eyes and experience of many previous Protests.... I heard conversations of folks, for example, who remembered voting for Roosevelt, etc. I am always proud and cognizant of the elderly at these events, and hope that some of you will remind ME in 20 years, when I am in my late 70's, to get up out of my recliner and hit the streets with a voice made more powerful than ever before, by my years and experience!
The workers were right in front of us, and while they replied to my "Buenos Dias" when we first arrived, did not look up thereafter, but picked and scrambled here and there through the thorny bushes. We were told that they had started work at 6am, that Oberson refuses to pay for flats that are brought to the scales that weigh MORE than 36 pounds, and that they get 15cents per pound.....please remember THAT when you buy berries this week..... This is an attempt by the grower to keep the bottom berries from getting crushed, but is a rip off for the workers..... A PCUN organizer talking with a picker discovered that 3 brothers who had come together had worked almost 4 hours for $10 each, total....
We went on to Kramer's field where they were picking yellow summer squash....bent over midway into the field. Here they work as a crew, and the catch is that the vegetables are taken to the central Buyer where they are separated and graded and then the grower is paid accordingly.... All this is done away from the workers so they simply have to trust the word of the grower that what they are paid is fair.
At this field the workers responded to us by waving their hats in the air, and joining us in some of the shouted demands. They also definitely looked up and paid attention to the drama we put on with our giant puppets, Adelita (whom many of you will remember!) and a new one "Jefe" (The Boss). It was really energizing to have that responsive interaction with the workers.
The final field, the workers were way in the background and it was difficult to communicate with them....but we could see where they were working, and how far they had to walk to go to the port-a-potties. They get no breaks, just 1/2 hour for lunch unpaid. It was very very hot and dusty....at one field the owners son (who looked to be VERY young....9? 10yrs?) peeled his tractor RIGHT in front of us kicking up dirt and dust and little stones....he was the representative of the Boss out there in the field, collecting the picked flats of berries and transporting them to a waiting truck.... I thought about the effect of a very young, very blond boy, being "top dog", and in a position of authority and power, as he drove his big noisy and hefty tractor in and among all these Latino men.... This young lad's display of power and anger at us, was the only visible sign of hostility I saw all day.
The buses took us back to the Park in Woodburn for lunch, and a scattering of workers joined us at this point, as well as many new activists. We ate, lay back and closed our eyes and tried to make sense of all that we had seen, as an attorney from PCUN spoke in Spanish and English about the struggle to achieve collective bargaining rights for the workers. The March last year is being perceived as a powerful tool in this struggle, and I am sure yesterday's event will also.
Later, we marched 2 1/2 miles through Woodburn..... people came out of their houses and waved or joined us, or just stared in disbelief or giggled! By this time a busload of workers, and many others had joined our ranks. I tried walking with Latinos....one woman was there from Guanjuato with her 4 year old son who walked the whole way! She had paid $3500. in January 01, (mind you BEFOE 9/11) to a "coyote" to get her across the Border...she now lives with her husband and works in the cannery. A PCUN worker had handed her an invitation to the March, and so she had come. Later she asked me if I could help her get legal residence here.....(such beseeching eyes, and again, I thought of the desperation it must take to ask a total stranger for such help....)
I also walked a long time with a man who was born in 1955, making him only 47......he looked very old and worn, "spent" and tired. I learned of how he was sent back 3 times at the Border, trying to come here to earn money to send to his family in Mexico. The final time he "made it".....but at quite a price. He was in the mountains 3 1/2 days, without food or water. Think about it....3 1/2 days, having to drink his own urine to stay alive. Now, 4 years later, he still suffers medically from that experience, having pain and problems with his kidneys. He was a very kind, softspoken, generous man. He had a tree at his house that he wants to give to me. I met his wife and she gave me their address so I can come visit them sometime. I thought about how the average life span of farmworkers is 48 years......
I also thought about the responsibility we each carry as human beings....that reaching out and befriending someone who is desperate throws into play all the oppression of our society and system, and frankly it is not easy to walk away from that thought.
Another young man...early 20's????...won the position of having the biggest, saddest eyes.... he was sitting alone. I went over and introduced myself, and after a moment's hesitation, he warmed up and told me his story.... He had recently arrived (4 mo) to Woodburn, had no family here, was basically all alone. He came to Woodburn because a brother had been here, but he had left "bored and tired" of the work here, and had gone back to Mexico or to another state.....he wasn't sure. Can you imagine? Not knowing where your family is....being all alone in a place where you do not know the language or the rules of the culture? We got interrupted by a sudden, brief downpour and I ran for the cover of a tree, but his eyes and story personify the murderous effect of the migration on families for me.
There was food.....GOOD food!: Beans, rice, salad and tamales....for 400 people. It was a feast in the Park, very jovial and kids running everywhere. Eric N of PCUN was honored and bid a respectful and fond farewell as he leaves PCUN to go to Washington and join the UFW struggle in the apple orchards there. Larry, from PCUN, held up the 5th collective bargaining contract PCUN has signed with a grower.....an organic corn grower in Scio has come on board, wanting the union label to be on his corn which is all going to IGA.... Much celebratory applause for that!
Well, I have taken the time to share these experiences as I really wished more of you had been able to join me. It was a rich and rewarding experience. As I drove home to Lewisburg, I thought about what cross cultural experiences are available to us if we will only cross those cultural Borders in our own State and neigborhoods.