An often-overlooked segment of the farmworker population in California is gaining increased recognition as community-based organizations have collected and are now sharing their specific stories of working through the pandemic. “Indigenous farmworkers” is a broad term that includes people from Mexico and Central America who come from small, tight-knit communities where Spanish is not spoken or is a second language. The results are published in the report “Experts in Their Fields: Contributions and Realities of Indigenous Campesinos in California During COVID-19.” 

At a virtual press event announcing the report’s release, Dvera Saxton of the California Institute for Rural Studies, said “it’s not always easy to connect with communities who have this well-earned distrust of outsiders,” as is often the case with indigenous farmworkers. A 2010 study found about 25% of farmworkers identified as indigenous but Saxton said that’s likely an undercount. She added these workers need to be seen, recognized and treated with respect.

“Indigenous farmworkers are human beings,” she said. “They have expertise and skills that many of us don’t possess and they’ve kept us fed and healthy during the pandemic.” 

These workers have arrived in California in different waves of immigration, said Sarait Martinez, executive director of the Binational Center for the Development of Indigenous Oaxacan Communities, which is one of the groups that sent bilingual (or polyglot) interviewers to gather information from indigenous farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley and along the Central and South Coast regions. She says their stories illustrate not only the severity of the impacts of the pandemic on these essential workers, but how marginalized they were before the coronavirus arrived.

Many indigenous workers have been in this country for decades, Martinez said, emphasizing that workers’ immigration status cannot be identified by the languages they speak. She also said access to adequate housing, healthcare and childcare already were precarious for many of these agricultural workers before spring 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic just exacerbated those inequalities and worsened the realities for our communities,” Martinez said.

For example, all agricultural workers were deemed essential and were expected to continue working but when schools and childcare centers shut down, many families had to sacrifice one parent’s income so someone was home with the kids. Some of the workers interviewed said with only half the income they had to choose between rent, utilities and food. Others lost their homes and had to move in with relatives even as the public health messaging advocated for more social distancing. 

Martinez said the interventions implemented during the pandemic such as workplace safety measures, paid sick leave and protection from eviction were not always adequately translated for Indigenous communities and even sometimes when they were, they were not practical. For example, carpools presented a transmission risk but one worker said it was either ride together or stay home and lose income. Another worker said she tried to apply for rental assistance, but she struggled to gather appropriate documents and then those were rejected.

The larger concern, Martinez said, is that pandemic measures suffered from the same problems that plagued farmworker policies that came before: the rules on the books were not adequately enforced.

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“We’re not saying all employers are bad,” she said, “but there’s definitely not enforcement across the board.” That’s why one of the report's 10 policy recommendations is to create a new health and safety agency dedicated to agricultural workers.

“We need something different that is more worker-centered,” she said. It should recognize the needs of specific farmworker communities and also pay “a lot more attention to enforcement.”

Among the other recommendations are to ensure dignified salaries, provide government-funded safety net and disaster resources, ensure safe, affordable housing and provide language justice including more speakers of Indigenous languages in schools that enroll children of these farmworkers.

Some of the workers interviewed in the report said because they didn’t understand the technology their young children were expected to use for online schooling, the students missed out on lessons.

“I am sure that our indigenous youth were disproportionately impacted,” Martinez said. She’s hoping distribution of the report will generate more awareness of the layers of hardship experienced by agricultural workers from Indigenous communities. Ultimately, the intent of the project is to “really work to build an economy that works for everyone,” she said. 

Additional research partners include Vista Community Clinic and the FarmWorker CARE Coalition with support from the COVID-19 Farmworker Study Collective, a project that also has teams in Oregon and Washington.

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This story originally included an incorrect date for a count of Indigenous farmworkers. It has been corrected to 2010.