Immigrant Heritage Month: Farmworkers' Health
Every Thanksgiving without a fail, I stumble across the same meme. Chances are you’ve probably seen it, too. It’s made up of two pictures, one stacked on top of the other. My eyes first fix upon the higher photo of a “picture-perfect” family seated around their dining room table with candles decorating and a Thanksgiving feast. They are holding hands and their eyes are closed in prayer. The caption reads, “Thank you, Jesus, for this food.” Then, my eyes move to the second photo of a farm worker. He’s working in a field and the produce he has picked frames the picture. He’s wearing a hat to keep his face out of the sun, but his tan skin signifies both his occupation and possibly, his ethnicity. It reads, “De nada.”
Interesting enough, the word “meme” can be traced back to Charles Darwin, aka the scientist who coined “survival of the fittest”. In his writings, Darwin discussed the possibility that ideas were subject to the same pressures of evolution as were biological attributes. Memes, similarly, are ideas, behaviors, or styles that spread by means of imitation from person to person within a culture. They often carry symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon. So what does the meme I see every Thanksgiving represent? Primarily, it symbolizes the labor of farmworkers that is often disregarded and underrated in our society that simultaneously benefits from its fruits (both metaphorically and literally). It also jokingly points out that farmworkers are overwhelmingly Latinx, as conveyed from the farmworker’s name (Jesus) and appearance.
Actually, in a 2015-2016 survey conducted by the National Center of Farmworker Health, 83% of agricultural workers self-identify as Hispanic, with 65% identifying as Mexican and 6% identifying as Indigenous. The Economic Research Service (ERS), a component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, splits up the statistics by job position. It’s not surprising that the majority of farm laborers, graders, and sorters are Hispanic, while Hispanics make up only 19% of U.S. private wage and salary workers.
Reporting exact numbers is also difficult when a large portion of agricultural workers are undocumented. The ERS reports that in 2014 to 2016, an estimated 73% of crop farm workers were immigrants, with 4% having obtained U.S. citizenship, 21% being authorized (permanent residents or green-card holders), and 48% holding no work authorization.
With so many agricultural workers being immigrants, it’s important that this Immigrant Heritage Month, we discuss the immigrants that shape our lives every day by feeding our nation. As a community devoted to supporting Latinx in medicine, it is necessary to understand the ways in which farm workers’ health is impacted by farm labor. So let’s discuss the social and physical factors poorly affecting this predominantly immigrant, Latinx community.
It goes without saying that farm work is physically taxing. Repetitive picking motions, bending over for hours at a time, lifting heavy buckets of produce, and operating dangerous machinery led to a fatality rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2016, the CDC reported. Additionally, farmworkers are exposed to the natural elements and are often unprotected, leading to heat-related illnesses such as nausea, dizziness, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, and even death. The only state in the U.S. that requires water and shade breaks is California, consequently causing farmworkers to die from heat-related illness at a rate 20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. civilian workforce.
Besides natural elements, farmworkers are exposed to toxic chemicals in pesticides that are sprayed onto agricultural crops to combat infestations and increase crop production. Farmworkers are often sprayed while working or are exposed to recently-sprayed fields. According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, pesticides can stay on clothes and follow farmworkers home to their families. These dangerous chemicals have been linked to reproductive problems, birth defects, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, cancer, autism, and memory loss.
In addition to these issues, many agricultural workers lack access to healthcare, 33% of families are below the national poverty guidelines. Although more than half reported that the lack of transportation is the biggest barrier to accessing healthcare, only 14 states require workers’ compensation for all agricultural workers. Even if workers do have some sort of health coverage, seasonal workers are often not aware of the medical resources available to them in a specific area and most do not regularly visit the same doctor or attend annual doctors’ appointments. Thus, they are never subject to screenings that detect cancer and other serious health issues. The ERS also reported that 77% of agricultural workers were most comfortable conversing in Spanish. Spanish-speaking physicians make up less than 6% of physicians nationwide. This discrepancy causes negative consequences and can also lead to frustration, an inability to communicate, misinterpretation, and a lack of adequate care. Latinx-immigrant farm workers have lower levels of education. The NCFS found that the average level of completed education was 8th grade, which impacts the health literacy of agricultural workers. For those farmworkers who manage to obtain access to Medicaid, immigration statuses, or mixed immigration statuses of their family, members may deter them from seeking care. Being undocumented and fearing deportation can also lead to serious mental health issues such as anxiety, paranoia, PTSD, and depression. Farms and fields are typical sites of ICE raids which can make each work day emotionally draining.
Many of these farmworker health stories are found in the book, ‘Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies,’ by Seth Holmes. Holmes, a physician and medical anthropologist, travels to doctor’s visits with farmworkers. He notices that the healthcare workers serving the patients often disregard the workers’ pain or display implicit and explicit biases towards them. Their own racial and socio-economic prejudices and lack of cultural competence causes them to prescribe medication that is too expensive, tell the patients to simply stop working in agriculture, and not take the patients’ pain seriously.
It is evident that this Immigrant Heritage Month and every month for that matter, we must work to support the agricultural workers that feed our nation. As Latinx in or entering the healthcare field, our cultural competence is needed. As grandchildren of braceros, remember the struggle of our grandfathers. As Spanish-speakers, use the skills to serve Spanish-speaking farm laborers. As voters, support politicians that will enact laws to protect agricultural workers. As consumers, consider boycott organizations that do not adequately pay and protect their workers from dangerous working conditions. This is truly the best way to say “de nada.”