Students take to the fields during spring break

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By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

10 April 2001 | Sophomore Mayra Alvarez — whose family runs a small market in San Diego — knows more than most about farm produce.

Her father, who once picked crops, now trucks fruits and vegetables from the Imperial Valley, and she still bags groceries on occasion when she’s home. As a social welfare and Chicano studies major, she has read about the farm workers’ movement and United Farm Workers founder César Chávez.

Yet for all that, it’s still easy to lose sight of those who plant the onions, top the beets, thin the lettuce and pick the apples “I so carelessly eat every day,” as she puts it.

The late César Chávez often spoke of the movement he led as being about economic as well as political power, about unionizing farm workers but also about sacrifice and service to others for “la causa.”

It was in this spirit, blending experiential learning with community service, that Alvarez, 22 other Berkeley students on spring break, and members of AmeriCorps and Rural AmeriCorps spent the last week of March in the heart of the agricultural empire where Chávez organized farm workers for four decades.

The program — designed by the Cal Corps Public Service Center in partnership with Accord for Youth AmeriCorps, the Rural AmeriCorps Partnership, and United Farm Workers of America — opened a window onto the lives of migrant farm workers, whose backbreaking labor and difficult living conditions are largely invisible to the public.

For Berkeley students, the trip marked one of the campus’s first forays into what is called “alternative spring break,” a national movement devoted to blending education and community service during a week traditionally given over to revelry.

Written materials on Chávez, the new March 31 state holiday in his honor, and the history of the United Farm Workers were on hand. But to help effect what Chávez called “a revolution of mind and heart,” the week’s core curriculum was elsewhere: in the fields, a migrant workers’ camp, offices of the UFW in Delano and Rural AmeriCorps in Stockton, and local K-12 schools.

There, participants helped harvest vegetables, painted a migrant workers’ camp, distributing health-related flyers, met farm workers and veteran organizers, and gave classroom presentations on the legacy of César Chávez — as they plan to do again this month in Bay Area schools.

“One guy told us how he makes $7,000 to $8,000 a year for a family of five,” Alvarez said of a presentation by farm workers the night before. “It doesn’t add up! It doesn’t add up!”

The wind filled the air with dust as she spoke, in an asparagus field on the outskirts of Stockton. She and fellow members of the delegation had spent the morning there — fanning out through the long, straight, planted rows to speak with migrant workers (Spanish-speaking students translating for others) as the crew cut asparagus.

Unlike the two previous days, when participants were able to make a tangible contribution by sprucing up the interior of a 12-room migrant camp — in the process, getting a first-hand snapshot of living conditions for many farm workers — the morning in the field proved more confusing.

“I wonder if they resent us,” nutrition major Nina Zamora said of the asparagus workers. “I feel all those mixed feelings. Not knowing. Not want-ing to get too much in the way. Their wage depends on their productivity. I don’t want to be taking away from that.”

Some decided to help carry piles of cut asparagus — using a low-tech job aid, which workers had fashioned by tying together rubber bands, to capture the large green bundles and run them to the tractor without losing a single stalk.

Biology student Matt Singer got his hands on a long-handled cutting tool and spent several hours harvesting asparagus.

“It hurts a little on my back. And those people are out there every day,” he said afterward. “I thought I was getting good, and then a farm worker took the tool from me and just took off!”

Eighty to 100 men worked the field, yet for much of the morning the only audible sounds were the wind and the rhythm of knives slicing the flesh of ripe asparagus.

“I noticed how, being out in the field, the work is isolating,” Singer noted. “That would be one of the hardships for me.”

“I didn’t know they work seven days a week. Or how young they were,” said Supaporn Thonasombat.

Zamora, who moved to the United States from the Philippines when she was 10, got to talk with the Filipino labor contractor. “There used to be lots of Filipinos working in the fields,” she said. “A lot have found jobs in the city. What sparked my interest in the beginning was why these cultures — Mexicans and Filipinos? I’m trying to find out.”


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