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Between the legacy of César Chávez and the anti-immigrant vision of Republican extremism

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Washington, DC – Below is a column by Maribel Hastings and David Torres from America’s Voice en Español translated to English from Spanish. It ran in several Spanish-language media outlets earlier this week:

Eva Robles works in the fields of San Luis, in the county of Yuma, Arizona, harvesting broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, cabbage, celery, asparagus, carrots, and dates. She came to Arizona from Sonora, México, at the age of 15; she began to work in the fields at the age of 18 and it took her 25 years to obtain her permanent residency.

With all that effort and sharing this same hard work with dozens of undocumented workers every day, this week—as on previous occasions—she and her co-workers will be demonized by Republicans coming to the border to blame migrants for all the ills of this country, without recognizing their contributions to the economy, never mind admitting that the hands of these farm workers sow, harvest, process, and pack the food that this nation consumes.

Eva belongs to one of the industries considered to be essential, after all of the attention to public health and safety that the recent COVID-19 pandemic made visible. The pandemic also revealed the profound dependence the U.S. economy and society have on immigrant workers. However, some people are still bent on minimizing their importance to the strengthening of this nation of immigrants, the United States.

For example, this week the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing called “Biden’s Border Crisis: Part 2” in Yuma, Arizona, the city where the iconic farm worker leader César Chávez was born. With just a glance at the Republican congressmen comprising the delegation—Jim Jordan, Tom McClintock, Andy Biggs, and Matt Gaetz among the most recalcitrant—it’s easy to see that they are coming to repeat their tired old song about the border being “out of control” and that immigrants amount to “terrorists” and “drug dealers.”

“Since they don’t live here [at the border], they don’t know how we live,” Eva says in a phone interview. She adds: “What we do is work hard and help the economy of this country. They don’t know that we get up in the cold; that in times of heat we become dehydrated and wind up in the hospital, but the next day we continue doing this hard work because we have to harvest the fields and move our families forward.”

And this immigrant is very correct, as this hard work is directly reflected in the enormous agricultural production that has made the United States a leader in this sector of the country—capable of contributing some $175 billion to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020, along with the fishing and forest industry, according to New American Economy. In 2018, for example, the U.S. was the nation that produced the most corn, 392 tons—all that and more through thousands of hard working immigrant families who are constantly erased and attacked, like the most extreme wing of the Republican Party—entrenched now as the majority in Congress—will attempt to do again in Yuma.

Eva comes from a family of farm workers originally from Sonora. Her grandfather, Juan Robles, worked and marched with Chávez, the leader who headed up the fight for farmworker rights that, despite some advances, continues to this day without fair treatment, starting with the legalization of those who are undocumented. In fact, it is known that more than 30% of the farmworkers in the United States are Mexican or of Mexican descent and their purchasing power is around $881 billion, which represents 57% of the Latino community’s total purchasing power in the country. But there are Republican politicians who would like to hide these hard facts.

“My paternal grandfather attended the marches with César Chávez, he was his honor guard. My father has worked in the fields from the age of seven, and continues to do so. They were always on the seasonal harvest circuit,” Eva recalls. She does not hesitate to call Chávez “our leader.” It’s thanks to him, she adds, that “we have privileges we didn’t have before. His legacy is extremely important. They teach this history to children and they appreciate his legacy.”

That’s why she is so angry that politicians who, on one hand, accuse immigrants of everything bad, and on the other make promises they don’t follow through on. She says “It’s unjust that they don’t provide a solution to the problems we have here at the border. They can come and take a pretty photo, but they should also take notes about the matter, because people need legalization. They work hard with the hope that soon there will be a solution.”

Indeed, there is no directly proportional reflection between the huge effort of thousands of human beings like Eva and the stingy result the U.S. political class has given to this basic desire: the fact of simply being recognized under the law as part of a society where they have been rooted now for several generations, who consider this country that uses them—economically, physically, and politically—to be home, although it doesn’t completely accept them. This and the specter of racism and discrimination that emanates from traditional Republican rhetoric.

“Many people in my family fixed their papers with the amnesty [of 1986], but before that they fought hard [without documents] and left their mark, because working in the fields is not easy,” Eva emphasizes. She adds: “All of us who work in the fields contribute a little bit to the country’s economy, and without us things would be different… In the fields you’re not going to see any U.S. American cutting lettuce or handling broccoli to be packed. No. It’s us who work hard and bring all those vegetables to the table.”

Eva’s words confirm an indelible reality: that “among all workers of Mexican descent, eight out of ten were born in Mexico and two are children, grandchildren, or other relatives of Mexican immigrants, born in the United States,” according to the study “Essential But Vulnerable” from the University of California.

“Every time they promise that yes, this time [immigration law reform] is coming, they get excited and then nothing happens and sadness comes,” Eva laments. She explains: “They come to this country to work and to struggle. To move their families forward. And they are hoping to obtain a document in order to go to their countries, see their families, and return here to continue struggling and supporting the nation. It’s sad. You will see people working in the fields who are very old, 80, 85 years old. But they are still eager and hold out the hope of having that document.”

For his part José Flores, organizer for the UFW Foundation in Arizona says that one of the foundation’s missions is precisely to “raise the voices and the histories of farmworkers along the border.”

And, José holds, “They paint a picture like this is a dangerous and out of control place, and here in San Luis the story is very different. It’s a community where people cross the border on a daily basis to go to stores, school, to work.” On top of that, he makes it very clear: “In March, César Chávez’ life and legacy is celebrated in San Luis, [because] the community continues to celebrate César Chávez.”

In fact, José would like Congress to hear from the people who live here, the workers.

To read the Spanish version of this column click here