Mari Mejia '11 Champions Farm Workers' rights

By Shasta Webb

It’s easy to purchase fruits and vegetables without thinking about the labor that goes into the produce. It’s easy to ignore, intentionally or unintentionally, the difficult working situations for many migrant farmers in the US who provide us with grapes, apple, tomatoes, strawberries et cetera. Latin American Studies major Marichel Mejia ’11 is working to remind us all to think about our purchases and to realize the hard work and often times immense struggles that goes farm work. A long-time advocate for the rights of migrant farm workers, Mejia finally got the opportunity to realize her dream this summer in Central California. She completed an internship with the United Farm Workers union that allowed her to work side by side with migrant farm workers from Latin America, listening to their stories and educating them about union organizing. The Mac Weekly interviewed Mejia to find out more. The Mac Weekly: Tell me a little bit about what you did this summer.

Mari Mejia: This summer I interned with the United Farm Workers of America and I was involved with their major organizing campaign with Guimarra Vineyards, the nation’s largest table grape grower. I worked under the national vice president of the UFW, Armando Elenes. We worked ten-hour days six days a week and we did a variety of things. We conducted house visits with the farm workers on a regular basis. We had workers meetings once every week and a couple of times throughout the summer we “took access” in the fields of major grape growing companies in the area. For those who don’t know, “taking access” basically means that during the workers’ lunch breaks the union has the right to enter the fields and basically inform workers about their rights to organize, what a union is, and the process of contract negotiation. But more than anything it’s our time to empower the farm workers and help them take the first steps toward improving their lives, beginning at the work place.

TMW: How did you originally become interested in farm worker issues?

MM: About seven or eight years ago, I read an article in the National Geographic called ‘Twenty-First Century Slaves’ and in the article it talked about the trafficking of women, indentured servitude, child labor as well as the trafficking of Latin American workers across the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the highlighted stories in this article talked about the trafficking of humans into the U.S.A. to work for the citrus and vegetable industries in Florida; these people were living in slave-like working conditions being abused, robbed of their wages, and in some cases beaten by their bosses. But, while this article talked about depressing topics, it also talked about the ability of the powerless to organize and fight for their rights as humans and as laborers. This is where the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers (CIW) comes in. It’s a farm worker organization that organized farm workers as well as students and activist groups and launched a nation-wide boycott that resulted in wage increases and improved working conditions for farm workers.
This beautiful story really intrigued me. And then I came to Macalester and I got my good old Latin American Studies education where I learned about neo-liberalism, the marginalization of indigenous populations and US foreign policy within Latin America. In other words I had a lot of things that interested me, and a lot of things to be mad about. But for some reason, I was still interested in the struggle of migrant farm workers in the United States. So sophomore year I wrote a paper about the UFW and the CIW and my passion was just sparked and I decided “You know what? When I graduate I want to pursue a career working with farm workers.” So this summer I decided I wanted to get an internship with a farm worker organization. I contacted the UFW and I applied for an IGC Live It! Grant and the rest is history.

TMW: Where did the internship take you this summer? What did you see on site?

MM: This summer I spent my time in Bakersfield and Delano, California from June 10 to August 18.

Even though I already knew it,I truly found out that farm workers in this country are some of the most invisible and powerless members of our society. And when I say powerless, I mean marginalized because when they organize they have power. This summer I talked with probably over 150 farm workers and they told me the stories of how they spent 10 or 11 hours every day working in the hot sun. They told me the story of how the pesticide that gets sprayed on the grape vines hurts their hands. I heard the stories of how they feel like they can’t go get water or take a five-minute rest break because their supervisor is giving them so much pressure to meet production quotas. They also tell me how their wages, quite frankly, aren’t enough to support their families. But they also say “Si se puede” which means “Yes we can.” They say, “Yes we can have health benefits. Yes we can have grievance procedures. Yes we can have livable wages. Yes we can improve the lives of ourselves and our families.”

TMW: Can you tell me more about the people you worked with in California?

MM: When I was out there, I was the odd one out. I’m a college student from the Midwest and practically all of the organizers they had out there with the Guimarra campaign were farm workers themselves who came from companies that already have union contracts. A lot of them have lived through the experience of working in poor conditions and going through the process of organizing and representing themselves as a union and winning union contracts. The organizers can relate to the other farm workers. They want other farm workers to have the same rights and benefits that they do. And not only do you see transformations at the workplace, but you also see transformations in the individual as a result of organizing into a union. One of our strongest organizers this summer told me that he used to be really shy and really timid and didn’t have a lot of confidence, but now he is sure of himself, he is well-spoken, and he has a commanding presence when he speaks about the power of organizing.

Those are some of the most beautiful transformations that take place.

TMW: You clearly had the opportunity and motivation to truly act on your passions about farm workers. But what can a college student in the Midwest do from here?

MM: The last thing I want to do is victimize farm workers. They don’t want people to pity them. They are social agents in their own right with the power to create change, and in some places they’ve done it. What can a college student do? Buy union label products. We all eat fruits; we all eat vegetables. When we go to the grocery store all we see are the fruits and vegetables. We don’t see the hard-working human being who picked those fruits and vegetables. Step one is to be a conscious consumer. Go to the UFW website ( to find out about which labels to buy and which labels to avoid. You can also sign up to receive UFW email action alerts. And finally you can contact me! I’m collaborating with some student orgs and we’re going to be hitting up some grocery stores, raising awareness on campus, and organizing to get UFW President Arturo S Rodriguez to come speak at Mac. So if anyone is interested, please email me at [email protected]

TMW: How would describe the summer experience as a whole?

MM: This was a life changing experience because it changed who I am as a person. Out there I gave my 110 percent every single day because I knew that the organizers and farm workers were giving their 110 percentevery day. When you’re working ten-hour days six days a week as an organizer, it’s a sacrifice because you can’t spend time with your family. You’re putting your wife, your husband, and your kids aside in order to pursue social justice. Likewise, the workers are putting in ten hour days, six days a week, tolerating disrespect, heat, and pesticides so that they can support their families. But the most powerful aspect of the ex
perience for me was the consciousness raising that took place each time we did a house visit, each time we entered the fields, and each time we had a workers meeting. This truly was grassroots empowerment of the people. When I was out there I met friends who became like family to me, but more than that I met heroes.