Students Examine Migrant Labor Issues through Hands-on Experience

Junior Jessica O'Gorman (center) working in the fields as part of Mission and Ministry's Salinas Immersion experience.As Saint Mary's began turning its attention to final exams, 19 students from Mission and Ministry's Salinas Immersions gathered in the Chapel on Nov. 23 for a different sort of review session.

After the 9 p.m. Mass, this group shared stories from their weekends working in the fields and homeless shelters among migrant laborers in Salinas, the Central California town that serves as a hub of industrial-scale lettuce and strawberry farming. Six students traveled to Salinas in early October, with 13 more students making the trip in mid-November.

"In terms of human injustice happening in migrant labor, it's an eye-opener to go down there," said sophomore Phil Hartmeyer.

Agriculture is a multibillion-dollar business in California, and Monterey County farms surrounding Salinas rely on some of the more than 3 million undocumented immigrants in the state. Most come from Mexico and Central America, and many work under extremely demanding conditions on California's farms, including 100-degree temperatures and limited access to shade and water.

The Saint Mary's group had a chance to experience the fields under more manageable conditions, gleaning fennel left over after the main harvest.

"We worked for about two or three hours - those guys are out there eight hours a day," said freshman Brian Shaw. "It's amazing how good these workers are at harvesting and how efficient they are."

Before traveling to Salinas, students read up on immigration issues and held a series of seminars. They evaluated NAFTA and U.S. immigration law from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, human rights and economics.

Erica Arroyo-Ramirez (center) and other members of the November Salinas immersion glean fennel."Catholic social teaching stresses the dignity of all work," said Mission and Ministry's Leo Guardado, who organized the Salinas immersion experience. "Unfortunately, many of these workers aren't treated with dignity - they do horrible work for very low pay."

Students also had a chance to see how many immigrants live in the shadows of society in places like Soledad Street, a tougher neighborhood in Salinas' downtown. On Soledad Street, students stayed overnight at Dorothy's Place homeless shelter and worked in the kitchen.

"It was great to meet these individuals rather than see them as a nameless face along the road," Shaw said. "There are people on Soledad Street who deal drugs or are prostitutes or pimps, but there are also people who there for legitimate reasons - they just don't have a home."

Building on the success of the Salinas experience, Mission and Ministry has already planned other immersions for 2009, including a trip to the Arizona–Mexico border and a return to Salinas. Hartmeyer and Shaw have already signed on for trips and are recruiting their classmates.

"You can't have this opportunity on campus at Saint Mary's - you have to throw yourself into it," Hartmeyer said.

--John Grennan

Office of College Communications

Photos courtesy of Mission and Ministry. View more Salinas photos from the October immersion or November immersion.

Students interested in participating in an immersion experience can contact Leo Guardado at (925) 631-4672.