What does it mean to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the U.S. of A.? Family get-togethers, turkeys, pumpkin pies, and cornucopias come to mind. And kindergartners acting out the story of the pilgrims and the Indians with cute, not very PC costumes. As I remember the story, the European immigrants arrived in the New World unprepared for winter and were dependent upon the wealthier Native Americans for their survival.
What if we re-told the story in modern times? Here's what I imagine the story might sound like: "Pilgrims" come to the New World looking for a better life, but instead of being given corn to plant (well, in this story they pretty much gave up on planting corn after cheap, subsidized New World corn flooded the market and made it impossible to make a living on corn, which is partly why they came here in the first place), these pilgrims become laborers in the fields and orchards of the wealthier "natives." Not enough of the natives want to do that kind of work anyway. Yet ironically, in this story, the dependence goes both ways. The pilgrims, as I have been calling the immigrants who are mostly from Mexico, are obviously dependent upon the U.S. for labor and a means to support their families. Yet this time around, the "natives," the majority of people living in the U.S., are also dependent upon the immigrant population to survive. Most Americans are utterly dependent, in the most basic way, on the food harvested by the immigrant farm workers in this country.
As in the fabled first Thanksgiving, how can we acknowledge and give thanks to and for those who have supplied our food? I think that this holiday is the perfect time to acknowledge how the cranberries in that stuffing got there - the hands they passed through from bush to basket to table. Pause to reflect on the strawberry jam on the dinner rolls - do you know that farm workers bend over, rarely straightening, in table position for over 9 hours every day in the strawberry rows? I didn't, at least not before I moved to the Oxnard area, where there's huge strawberry industry and I pass farm workers doubled over daily. And, I might add, after working only about 5 hours a day in our field, I feel true respect for the workers next door.
Yet during the Thanksgiving event this past Sunday, when the inter-faith community gathered to pray with and for farm workers, I realized that acknowledgment, respect, and thanks-giving for their labor only go so far. Farmworkers in Ventura County, as in many other counties nationwide, live in over-crowded sheds, laundry rooms, and garages because the annual cost of rent for an apartment is higher than a year's salary (about $15,000, usually less). Maria, a farmworker in Oxnard who I met this Sunday, told me that she has no heat, no running water, and no electricity where she lives. How can this be?! This is where acknowledgment and respect fall short. In a mutually dependent relationship, both parties must not only value the contribution of the other, but care for their well-being. As I become more and more familiar with the issues faced by most farmworkers - inadequate housing, low wages, and lack of access to basic resources, the need for justice is painfully apparent.
At this point, the question, "What can I do?" comes to mind. First, relationship comes to mind. That's easier for me to say, I'm sure, in an area populated with farm workers. It's difficult for most, in a country where the average plateful of food travels over 1,000 miles to reach the table. Hmm, I'll have to think about that. Let me know any ideas...
Here's a possibility that came to my attention through an email last week:
Remember and honor farmworkers this Thanksgiving season by urging Stop & Shop, Giant, Publix, Ralph’s, Kroger and other Kroger-owned grocery chains (City Market, Dillons, Food 4 Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer, Fry's, Gerbes, Hilander, Jay C, King Soopers, Owen's, Pay Less, QFC, Scott's, Smith's) to address the sub-poverty wages, unjust working conditions and human rights abuses faced by farmworkers who harvest their tomatoes. See http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/2009supermarket.html for more information on writing a letter to the manager of a store near you (chances are there is one near you).