Gaining a Deep Understanding

By J. Elizabeth Smith
Photography by Pauline Lubens

The 4:30 a.m. Saturday wake-up call came too early for participants in a weekend immersion trip to the Salinas Valley in late September. After rolling out of sleeping bags, a dozen Saint Mary’s students and staff members sleepily made their way to meet the general manager of a harvesting company that counts asparagus, cauliflower, celery, fennel, leeks, lettuce, romaine hearts and spinach among its many crops.
The reasons students had for subjecting themselves to a pre-dawn van ride followed by hours of back-breaking work in “America’s Salad Bowl” were as varied as the crops. Senior Kyle Pounder, who first went on a Salinas Immersion in 2008 and was repeating the experience in 2009, has been inspired to become more involved in the issues of poverty and workers’ rights.

“The experiences have really opened my eyes to the issues of immigration. I am considering becoming a Lasallian Volunteer after I graduate,” Pounder says.

Freshman Marc Nava says he found out that his father had been a farm worker after telling his mother he signed up for the immersion, while sophomore Maria Almanza and freshman Lisa Montoya wanted to gain greater insight into their relatives’ experiences in the fields.

“My father worked in Napa for a year or so, and I would see him wake up early and do the things we are doing right now. So I wanted to feel what he went through and what the workers in the fields go through,” says Alamanza, who hopes to become a doctor.

“I heard stories from my family because they were migrant workers in the fields,” Montoya says. “I thought this would be a good experience to understand their stories.”

Working among laborers is just one facet of the Salinas Immersion, which is sponsored by the College’s Mission and Ministry Center and is now in its second year. The program introduces students, through first-hand experience and Seminar-style exploration, to the cultural, political, economic and social issues surrounding migrant farm labor and poverty in California and beyond.

To prepare for one of two weekend immersion trips, which occurred last year in late September and early October, 18 students participated in four seminars where they discussed readings from the Gospel, articles on Catholic social teaching and academic and position papers on the myriad issues surrounding not just the migrant farm worker experience but also poverty and homelessness.

The classroom work prepared students for the immersion weekend. They worked in lettuce and spinach fields alongside seasonal and migrant workers. They talked with the general manager of the harvesting company Valley Pride, the mayor of Salinas and a lawyer with California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal aid nonprofit. They also completed service projects at Dorothy’s Place, founded in the spirit of Saint Francis and Dorothy Day to serve the local poor and homeless population during the day and operate as a women’s shelter at night.

Work and Catholic Social Teaching

The Church has a long history of speaking out about the dignity of workers. In 1891, in response to the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII penned his

encyclical Rerum Novarum, on “the rights and duties of capital and labor.” It supported the right of workers to form unions, called for employers to treat workers fairly and put the dignity of work and workers’ rights at the center of Catholic social teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in Veritate encyclical on economic justice, the latest of several encyclicals in Rerum Novarum’s footsteps, calls for a “profoundly new way of understanding the human enterprise” that recognizes and respects “the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples.”

“Catholic social teaching stresses the dignity of all work,” says SMC’s Mission and Ministry’s Leo Guardado, who has organized the Salinas Immersion for the past two years. “Unfortunately, many of these workers aren’t treated with dignity — they do horrible work for very low pay.”

On each immersion weekend, nine students and two staff members crammed into the nooks and crannies of a small efficiency apartment at the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra community, whose members are the primary staff for the programs at Dorothy’s Place. In gratitude for the community’s hospitality, Saint Mary’s students worked at Dorothy’s Place, preparing and serving meals on Friday and Saturday and helping with cleaning and improvement projects in the women’s shelter, kitchen and dayroom.

Learning about Laborers

The Salinas Valley is the center for a $3.8 billion agriculture industry in Monterey County, the No. 1 vegetable-producing region in the U.S. The area supplies 80 percent of the nation’s lettuces and nearly the same percentage of artichokes.

Monterey County farms rely on some of the more than 3 million undocumented immigrants in California who work under extremely demanding conditions, including 100-degree heat and limited access to shade and water.

During their introduction to Castroville-based Valley Pride, one of two harvesting companies affiliated with Ocean Mist, the students quizzed general manager Tim Driscoll on working conditions, pay and benefits.

Valley Pride workers have access to health insurance, paid holidays and incentive bonuses for increased productivity, Driscoll said. Teams of workers are paid a piece rate on the harvest, but they receive a minimum hourly rate of $8.05 if the weather or other factors impede the day’s harvest. Driscoll described Valley Pride as “fairly extraordinary” in an industry infamous for taking advantage of its workers.

Michael Marsh, directing attorney for the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), told students that less than 25 percent of farm workers have access to employer-sponsored health insurance. Marsh noted that CRLA was formed in 1966 during President Lyndon John’s War on Poverty.

“Forty years later, here we are — as many poor people as there ever have been,” Marsh said.

Now, the most significant issues among farm workers are sexual harassment, wage theft, lack of compliance with rest and meal break requirements, health and safety concerns related to heat illness, lack of shade and rain, and issues with moving from place to place, such as education for their children, Marsh said.

Out in the Field

SMC students did not just hear about the problems farm workers face, they worked alongside teams picking romaine hearts, iceberg lettuce and spinach.

“They were really quick at cutting and bundling it,” Montoya said. “We were able to experience getting down on our hands and knees, cutting the spinach, bundling the spinach. It took us quite a while to get the hang of it. They were saying that it takes at least two months to get the hang of it, and it takes at least two years to perfect it.”

In addition to sharing the work, students were genuinely interested in the farm workers’ lives and the struggles of their day-to-day existence.

“We were having a conversation with one of the migrant workers,” Montoya said. “They were talking to us in Spanish, asking us if we were embarrassed doing this, like, trying to experience it. We told them, ‘No it’s not embarrassing. We’re trying to learn how you live your lives. We’re trying to help you. We’re trying to figure out some way to make things better for everybody.’ “