At first glance, when you see the announcement for a set of days titled ‘Farmworker’s Awareness Week,’ you may wonder why it’s necessary to dedicate a week to a singular occupation. The University of New Mexico, however, is emphasizing that importance with events this week and beyond from March 25 to 29. 

El Centro de la Raza, College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and other main campus organizations planned a jam-packed list of events for this week to feature such an important culture and livelihood. 

“We always try to interact with other departments and community members. Our goal is to always help bring awareness to the challenges and situations that farmworkers face. Each activity provides an opportunity for us to highlight farmworkers around the country and the importance of them and our food system as well,” El Centro de la Raza Student Success Specialist Rodolfo Becerril said. 

Among the musical performances, educational activities, movie screenings, seed planting and free produce, there was a strong focus on sharing information.

“We're having students speak about their experience being a farmworker and each organization is presenting some sort of information about Farmworkers Awareness Week. It’s educational, has activities for students and highlights the challenges that women face and like some of the injustice that's going on in the fields,” Becerril said. 

Seed planting
Students plant seeds in pots as part of farmworker's awareness week

New Mexico's agriculture industry is its third-largest, with 25,044 farms spread across the state. It’s not just composed of grown men; many of the workers who operate in this space are also UNM students.

“We wanted to make sure that we highlight our student population on campus. We're talking about Hatch. We're talking about Deming, Las Cruces. There is a big group of students coming from that area. I was actually from that area, so it made sense to start bringing awareness of what we were going through while we were working in the summers. We had to bring that information to UNM,” High School Equivalency Program Senior Student Success Specialist Brenda Ramirez said.

While plenty of students may spend their summers abroad, at internships or work-study programs, dozens of UNM students return to fields in Southern New Mexico as seasonal workers. 

“The experience shapes you a lot. I am going back home and working every summer. It’s definitely very hard, especially as a student, but also a good experience. It's just part of my life now, and it's hard seeing myself without it,” CAMP student Gisselle Martinez said. “I am very proud to share my story and share who I am with others. I'm very proud to inform people that where I work is  where produce is coming from.” 

CAMP is a massive resource for these students at UNM and beyond. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Migrant Education, CAMP provides financial, academic, social, and emotional support to children of migrant, seasonal farmworkers during their first year of college. It’s been in place since 1972.

“You’re working with individuals that you've known since you were small. It is just that tight knit community we find there, that we bring to UNM. CAMP has been a big influence on a lot of our CAMP students because it does provide that space to be able to ask those questions and create that community here,” Ramirez said. 

When it comes to awareness, however, it’s far more than just recognizing that this student population is on campus; it’s about understanding why resources like CAMP are necessary. 

Problem with pay

Farmworkers of all ages receive a pay rate that pins their livelihood below the poverty line.
According to a recent National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 21 percent of farmworkers live in poverty, with a median income between $20,000 and $24,999 annually.
 

“We would get paid like $10 an hour, not that long ago. It’s not great pay, and you're doing a lot of hard work. You're picking and get exhausted easily. It’s hard to work there because of the pay, but also our culture is so strong. We definitely see good parts of it and providing food for others and helping others,” El Centro de la Raza Student Success Leader Dannely Verduzco said. 

New Mexico’s rate of $11.50 per hour would put students like Martinez there, if they could even stay and work for the full year. With over $3 billion generated by this industry in 2022, surely there is wiggle room to pay those who perform this laborious job at least the same rate as those who work at Starbucks.

“Farm workers don't get any compensation compared to any other job. Pay is a big thing. I know some things have changed, but I used to get paid like $8 an hour. Our afternoon shifts would be from 12:30 p.m. to10 p.m. with one to no breaks in between. I have memories of things that weren’t right,” Ramirez said. 

The issue, though, is that producers and distributors, especially the large ones, can get away with paying this amount, as many of the seasonal workers like UNM students are also migrants.

“We always talk about the wonderful chile like ‘oh do you like red or green?’ right, but we don't talk about what's really going on behind that. We're in the fields or we're packaging the chile. We want to make sure that everybody's aware where our food is coming from, not just in New Mexico.” – High School Equivalency Program Senior Student Success Specialist Brenda Ramirez 

“I think it's very important to inform other students, especially with CAMP. When I get asked where I work or what I do during the summer, I mention I work at the shed or I used to work at the fields and they look at me like, ‘what in the world are you talking about?’” Martinez said. 

The number of New Mexico farms with hired farmworkers grew by 28 percent from 2002 to 2012 to just over 5,400 farms. At their current rate and previous ones, hired farmworkers are estimated to be one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States. 

“There's been some hard times and hard moments picking but there's also the beautiful side of it where it allows you to connect with your family and your culture,” Verduzco said. “I'm excited because I want more people to know about this; it's important and I think everyone should know about the CAMP program. Farmworkers play a big role in food production, and I think it's really important for all students to know that.” 

Bandana painting
Student paints 'our voices matter' on bandana for farmworkers

This includes a startling lack of workers and disability compensation, along with eligibility issues involving Medicaid and SNAP benefits. Just over half reported to NAWS that they had health insurance; beyond that, workers couldn’t access insurance, or couldn’t afford to take time off to get that medical care.

According to a recent USDA Farm Labor survey, the average number of hours worked per week in New Mexico and Arizona was 47.4 hours–that’s without protected overtime rates. 

One of the companies UNM Farmworkers Awareness Week set out to highlight for this reason is fast food chain Wendy’s. Wendy’s has received backlash for ignoring the Fair Food Act and paying farmworkers fairly for the tomatoes they pick. 

“A lot of people come to us and ask how to help because they’re not part of the movement or we're not part of the community. There's many more boycotts that are going on, to stand in solidarity with our farmworkers and how they are getting treated. That's just another big thing,” Ramirez said.

Fighting that exploitation beyond campus, is something Ramirez says CAMP strives to highlight year around.

Daunting demographics 

Martinez and Verduzco are two of many who began working in the fields long before becoming a Lobo. 

The number of farm workers under the age of 35 has been rising steadily since 2012. A recent NAWS survey found that total at 38%, meaning most farmworkers in New Mexico are actually fairly young.

“I remember working in the fields starting when I was like 10 or 11. I was in sixth grade maybe, and to this day my knees hurt and my back hurts from harvesting the onions and things like that. It does definitely take a lot out of you physically,” Martinez said. 

Worldwide, this sector has the most child workers, with an estimated 107.5 million working exempt under labor laws. In fact, with that early start, it’s pretty rare for those who grew up in the fields to transition to seasonal workers in the fields. Educators estimate only 10 percent of children in migrant/seasonal worker households nationwide graduate from high school.

The other drastic statistic that still persists in the agricultural sector is the imbalance of men and women.

“One way that we can support this is by bringing awareness, right? We don't really talk about problems women experience in the fields. It's kind of like taboo. I feel like learning this information especially coming from people that it actually affects, it affects you in one way or another,” Becerril said.

Female farmworkers, campesinas, while often completing the same work as men, have had to fight to establish their roles in seasonal farmworking.

“Women are seen as weak or that we won't be able to defend ourselves or things like that. I know that was something that I had to grow up with, you have to be aware of your surroundings, especially when you're in a field with the majority of it being men. It’s sad. It's very unfortunate that I had to grow up thinking that way,” Ramirez said. 

Even so, campesinas still make even less than the staggeringly low wages of men. One estimate calculated the yearly total made by campesinas at $5,000 less than their male counterparts.

“As I grew older, I would notice instances where in the fields women would have to have each other's back. You become a pack. You're with your mom or you're with your auntie, and if someone sees something, they’ll make sure there’s a woman next to you. It's just a way of keeping ourselves safe,” Verduzco said.

That was the goal of one of the dedicated days for Farmworker’s Awareness Week. The Women’s Resource Center (WRC) Director Áine McCarthy worked with Becerril to shed light on the accomplishments of campesinas. Latina leaders from CAMP, El Centro and the Dean of Students all spoke on what still lies ahead for these women. 

“I'm so grateful for the leadership of El Centro in uplifting Farmworkers and inviting us to partner in celebrating campesinas. Women's History Month is a great time to honor the immense, too often unseen, contributions of female farm workers to our culture and food systems,” McCarthy said. “We also know they are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. We stand in solidarity and support for all survivors and we are committed to imagining and building systems that better protect  and welcome campesinas.”

Nationwide, women now make up about 28 percent of farmworkers–hundreds of thousands of people. In New Mexico, that total at the producer level is 40 percent. New Mexico women are also pushing the total of female-owned farms up, since 2012.

A growing impact

Campesinas–from working mothers to college students–experience a multitude of unfair mistreatment from both the agricultural institution and the other fieldworkers.

On top of factoring in the added stresses of being primary caretakers, making less and not being as physically apt to handle the physical labor at hand, sexual harassment is the number one issue campesinas face.

“Unfortunately, sexual harassment is something that sometimes even the employers don't care about. I remember when I would work in the field, when I was young, there was always a big group of men and my mom always told me to not go over there or talk to them.” – El Centro de la Raza Student Success Leader Dannely Verduzco

“I remember my mom saying ‘don't leave, stay with your brother; I'll be right back, stay here,’ I never really understood the reason why because I was very young, but now it makes a lot more sense and that’s sad. I think it's definitely kind of hard to see, even though we’re doing our job it can be kind of weird and difficult to see women experience this,” Martinez said.

Recent surveys estimate female farmworkers experience sexual harassment at a rate 2 to 3 times higher than other work sectors. That combined with all other disparities, campesinas, has been compared to “converging lanes of automobile traffic.”

“There are things you don't understand when you're growing up and you're around people and think they all have the best interest in you at times, but my mom would always remind me ‘make sure you're with your uncle,’” Ramirez said. “There was always that thing of not talking to other men or wearing loose clothes to not attract attention. You don’t think about how a conversation could attack bad attention.’”

Farmworkers Awareness Week at UNM paid particular attention to this issue. Students built activities around these realities through seed planting. They also colored and dyed bandanas and t-shirts to donate to fieldworkers. 

“Especially as a woman, just being unable to really care for yourself is something that we have to struggle with. Then having to share a dirty bathroom with no toilet paper with men, and it just is like 100 degrees out. It just feels uncomfortable and you would rather hold it in than go in there, which is very tough. I remember there would be times we just wouldn't be provided with water and if you were thirsty there was a hose,” Verduzco said. 

This isn’t to say male farmworkers don’t go through the trenches in their day to day. Seasonal/migrant farmworkers, on top of little pay, long hours and few benefits, are at higher risk for cancer, diabetes, respiratory illness, depression, just to name a few.

UNM CAMP students can attest to this. Verduzco and Martinez and Ramirez all recall experiences where something as simple as a bathroom or a cup of water was a luxury.

“When you're working out in the fields in the middle of nowhere you cannot just drive to the closest gas station. You just hold it, but I know growing up as a young girl, you hate it. That’s hard to do when you’re also trying to stay hydrated. Restrooms were a big thing for us, especially young farmworkers having to experience that,” Ramirez said.

That’s not just a reality for many New Mexico farmworkers, but a routine. One survey revealed 29 percent had worked in a field with no access to drinking water, 61 percent had no place at work to wash their hands, and breaks (plus breaks in the shade) were almost non-existent. 

“The worst experience as a farm worker are the restrooms and having to share porta potties. I will not ever touch them again now, going back to the time where I would have to hold it for it not being clean or not having toilet paper. Sometimes my mom would even have me use a bush right there,” Martinez said. 

While it’s important to recognize the challenges, CAMP students don’t ask to stop their work; they just want proper attention. There are plenty of ways to support UNM’s seasonal/migrant farmworkers, as well as those beyond Albuquerque. While donations may not be possible for everyone, awareness and advocacy are critical first steps to take.

“I think that's kind of the point of Farmworkers Awareness Week. I think we're doing a great job showing other people our struggle, but it’s important to not only show our struggles, but our community and how we have survived as well as lived in peace with one another. I think that this is really important and it should be more widely spread,” Becerril said.