English 111, Section 33
February 2, 2000
The Hidden People
Hispanic migrant farm workers often seem to be one of the forgotten minorities in our society. News of the way they lived and the hardships they endured came into light during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Over the past 30 years, the living and working conditions of these people have improved somewhat, but not greatly. For the Hispanic migrant farm workers, change has come slowly.
John F. Bauman wrote of the plight of the migrant workers in his article "Forgotten Americans: The Migrant and Indian Poor," which appeared in the June 1973 edition of Current History. In it, Bauman stated that in a 1966 study, approximately 766,000 migrant farm workers were found to be flowing through various parts of the country. This group, actually compromised of a number of different minorities, was found to be spread out primarily in southern California, the Midwest, and the Eastern Seaboard. The regions with the highest concentrations of Hispanic workers included California, Colorado, and Michigan (265). For example, Bauman writes of Hispanic migrants who would leave the Rio Grande Valley to work the fields of Texas. This group would travel as far as Michigan, often times moving three to four times a year in search of new harvests (265).
The conditions that the migrants faced were one of the major concerns. Bauman described a typical shelter as being a "one-room tar-papered shanty" and that the shelter was often nothing better than "a duck shed or a partitioned old barn" (266). Communal bathrooms and kitchens were common. Gambling, violence, and alcoholism were common in the camps as well. Children workers also suffered from long workdays – many times at or exceeding 10 hours per day – and disease. These diseases, such as rickets and scurvy, were proof that the migrants’ healthcare was often times quite poor (Bauman 266).
Wages were also a big problem. Higher wages could have helped migrants achieve better housing conditions, but most wages were at or below minimum wage. As Bauman stated, the average migrant family in 1963-1973 earned between $900 and $2,300 a year, whereas the poverty line in March of 1971 was at approximately $3,034 per year (266). Given this data, it is evident that Hispanic migrant workers were not doing as well as they could. Some attempts to raise their earnings had been made, however. New York enacted a state law granting migrant workers minimum wage (Bauman 266), and workers that were part of the United Farm Workers labor union would receive $1.85 per hour versus $1.40 per hour ("Boycott Report" 21). If a migrant farm worker worked for a farm that was cooperating with the UFW, he or she would earn a guaranteed $2.08 per hour. In 1972, however, only fifteen percent of farms had participated in the UFW wage agreement ("Boycott Report" 21).
The Hispanic migrant workers’ plight is still felt today. The majority of changes that have occurred in the past 30 years have been in housing conditions and wages. As Bob Simmons writes in his article, "Harvest of Shame ’99," out of the approximately 150,000 migrant farm workers that will have worked in fruit fields in Washington in November 1999, around 37,700 will have slept outdoors in the grass, without running water or cooking appliances (Simmons). "At six o’clock they had to leave the orchard and go into the sagebrush to sleep," cherry farmer Les Dorsing said (Simmons). Also, the hundreds that camp alongside the Columbia River drink and bathe in it, for lack of other water, claims Simmons. Another article, written by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times, reports on the life of a modern-day migrant worker. The article begins by describing a working camp - Camp Somerset - in Westover, Maryland. This former concentration camp, Greenhouse tells us, has been refurbished into living quarters for some 700 migrant workers (Greenhouse A11). Greenhouse describes their typical room as ". . . a 10- by 11 –foot square, [having] two beds, a cast-iron hot plate, two beat-up fans, [and] an aging green Hotpoint refrigerator" (A11). The wages of the migrants that stay at Camp Somerset can fluctuate, as they are paid according to the volume of produce picked, not hours worked. This can be good and can be bad – as the author says, there are days in which there may little or no harvesting at all (Greenhouse A11). Counteractive measures to this, Greenhouse claims, have been implemented in certain areas already. Darren Butler, president of the Somerset County Growers Association, said that tomato growers have made sure to pay their workers minimum wage in times where harvests would pay them less. (A11).
Steven Greenhouse, in interviewing some of the workers themselves, shows us that many workers are content with Camp Somerset, its conditions, and the wages they earn. Alfonso Ortega, a 20-year old migrant worker from Mexico, stated " . . . We’re trying to make a better future. I’m very thankful for the two years here because I’ve been able to earn money and take care of my [family]" (Greenhouse A11). Another migrant worker, Alberto Lara, said, "Look, the camp is good. It’s free. We’re only here a short time. And there are a lot of nice people" (Greenhouse A11). However, for 48-year old Orbelio Martinez, things are different at Camp Somerset. "It’s bad here – the bed, the stove, the water . . .," he stated (Greenhouse A11). Jumaro Zarate, a 50-year old worker, wasn’t pleased either. "We just want to be treated like Americans," Zarate said (Greenhouse A11).
In contrasting these two time periods, it is evident that some changes have taken place in the lives of Hispanic migrant workers. Their pay has increased – thirty years later, migrant workers are finally receiving guaranteed minimum wage in some states. Their quality of life has increased as well. No longer is it the indisputable norm to see migrant workers subjected to sleeping in the fields with no running water at their disposal – many migrant workers now live in camps with, at the least, showers and sheltered places to cook and sleep. The problem, however, is far from over. The fact still remains that there are Hispanic migrant workers experiencing life far below the poverty line. Some workers continue to sleep in the fields and bathe in rivers. Much more could have, and should have, happened in the past thirty years than really did.
Reasons for the lack of change are not well defined, and are not necessarily limited to the majority restricting the minority. The general populace of our country did not seem concerned by their hardships – and thus did not act as much as they could have. One possible reason for this might have been the consensus that Hispanic migrants were in reality illegal aliens, and thus were not entitled to the benefits an American citizen had. The migrant workers themselves could be to blame as well, for it seems as though they simply accepted their fate and didn’t take the time to press for changes. For many Hispanics that came from Mexico, the migrant worker’s life was one that was better than their past ones in Mexico as well, so the idea of pressing for higher wages and better living conditions might have seemed outrageous to them. Despite the lack of great social advancements in the lives of Hispanic migrant farm workers over the past 30 years, changes are being made. The workers may not have the recognition at this time that the African Americans did during their push for civil rights, but given time, they too will have a better life.
Bauman, John F. "Forgotten Americans: The Migrant and Indian Poor." Current History June
1973 : 264-267.
"Boycott Report." New Yorker 2 Sep. 1972 : 20-21.
Greenhouse, Steven. "At Camp for Migrants, the Living Isn’t Easy." The New York Times 9
Aug. 1999 : A11.
Simmons, Bob. "Harvest of Shame ’99." Mother Jones (Nov. 1999) : 15 pars., 20 Jan. 2000