“As an ally, it doesn’t mean that we should be silent. It means that we need to speak up in our own communities.”
Alex Jones discusses her response to farmworker deaths in California, attending her first FLOC meeting, and the difference between being voiceless and having your voice silenced.
Alexandria Jonas: A couple of years ago in California, I think, seven people died in one season and that’s a state even where there are laws about shade and water. The issue is systemic and the reality is that this work will always be difficult and hot and there are precautions that can be taken. It’s a broad multi-layered issue but the fact that people are working, that they’re in their job and that a possible result of their job is that they are suffering from the heat, not because it’s just hot, but because you’re not able to stop when you want to stop or when you know your body needs to stop. You’re not able to get water or even if you’re able to get water you can’t get it until the end of the row. So even if you go to every row and then get water, that’s you know, if you have a crew leader or grower that allows that. That’s absolutely unjust that basic human functions that our bodies need, that people have to struggle just to be able to have those! So I think a lot of times it’s circumstances and stories like that that strike the human spirit, that really touch us because they’re shocking and they’re appalling.
But I think I learned over that first year, the very first workers’ meeting that I went to was maybe two or three months later in the western part of the state. There were probably about 35 people that came together and it was a union meeting and a training and Leticia who was the vice president of the union and the director in NC of FLOC, she and the other organizers led some activities that day and it became really clear when we were there that they were the ones facilitating the activities, but they were just the guides. And the people with the real answers and the real expertise were the workers and the people making decisions. And respect was absolutely inherent in the full process and I’m sure that plenty of people in that room had experienced similar situations in their work. It didn’t rise to the level of seriousness that their life was threatened but they were able to talk about those circumstances, they were able to talk about possible solutions and how to work together and then in the meantime, they also had fun. And people laughed together, and they got real together.
So those two experiences are really illustrative of the spectrum of this work and the farm worker movement in general. That there are, unfortunately stories that we can see every day that happen that are just, I think, that just effect us on a human level that we can relate to people and just feel really deeply concerned and touched but then on the other end of that is like the strength of the human spirit and people coming together and saying this is not right and this is why. You know, I think it’s really important, maybe in Christianity, it can be compared even to like the resurrection, like we can’t as allies and as supporters, we can’t stay in that place where we’re incapacitated by grief or by just the difficulty of what people are facing in the fields but that we have to move forward and support what changes are happening and the people that are leading those changes. You know? So that’s been a constant process as I’ve been an organizer here is coming to understand that.
Like I said, growing up in a traditional church, it’s not language that we learn every day. There are lessons, but the application of those lessons that we learn in Sunday school or you know, in religious education, they’re really different when you apply them. And especially in terms as our roles in NFWM, and being support, it’s trusting that the people who are working in the fields are really the ones that know. They’re the ones with experience every day, and they’re the ones that will lead the change, and we’re going to support that.
Alexandria Jonas: You know one thing to add to that, I think, is about voice. Just even semantics can make a big difference because a lot of times we say, “We’re speaking out for the voiceless,” and this is a perfect example of something I had said in the past. It’s a really common phrase like, “Farm workers are voiceless.” And I’ve really come to understand how wrong that is. That it’s one thing if peoples’ voices are being silenced, but no human being is voiceless. No one is. And farm workers, you know, people who are doing farm work have a voice just as much as everyone else does. They might not be able to influence the legislature by their vote, but certainly, it’s our responsibility to listen to what people say and be our own voices in our communities, too. That as an ally, it doesn’t mean that we should be silent. It means that we need to speak up in our own communities.