On August 12th, I participated in a panel, Pilipinx Essential Workers: Colonization, Delano and Beyond, hosted by Eastwind Books of Berkeley and the Association for Asian American Studies for AAAS’s Virtual Book Fair. I was honored to be a part of this panel, which included Enrique de la Cruz, co-author of The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons; Tony Robles, poet and author of poetry collections including Cool Don’t Live Here No More; and Juanita Tamayo Lott, author of numerous publications including Common Destiny: Filipino American Generations.
The Zoom panel reflected on the Filipino-American experience and how that relates to what’s going on in our world today—the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests going on across the country and the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to reading a short excerpt from my novel, A Villge in the Fields, I talk about how the situation for farm workers today is just as dire as during the farm worker struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the gains made by the Filipino, Mexican, Arab, Black, poor White and other farm workers who struck for better wages and working conditions in the vineyards in Delano, California.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the individual yearly wages for a farm worker today is roughly between $15,000 and $17,00, which is less than the legal minimum wage. My mother, who picked table grapes in the vineyards during the summer and fall and packed oranges in the citrus packing houses in the winter and spring, made $15,000 in the 1970s. With inflation and the cost of living, no wonder farm workers can barely make ends meet.
Conditions in the fields mirror those of the 1960s and 1970s. Migrant farm workers are housed in crowded camps, sleeping head to toe in cramped bunks, using the same soap to bathe themselves, sharing kitchen utensils, and riding in crowded buses to the fields. In addition to these unacceptable working and living conditions, and with no health insurance for protection, farm workers are one of the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic.
While Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong and Filipino farm workers helped to create a long-lasting legacy in the farm labor movement, few Filipinos are currently working as farm laborers. Still, we should all advocate for farm labor basic rights such as fair wages, decent working and living conditions, and health insurance. As Itliong once proclaimed, he stood for every farm worker, no matter their race or ethnicity. We should, too.
You can watch the Zoom panel here.