One Great Hour of Sharing

A new day for farmworkers

March 6, 2023 by by Emily Enders Odom

LOUISVILLE – Lupe Gonzalo understands all too well the hardscrabble life of a farmworker.

Having worked for 12 years in Florida’s tomato industry — in addition to traveling to other states to pick sweet potatoes, apples and blueberries — Gonzalo often had to wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to travel to a local farm, where she was handed a bucket and told to fill that bucket as many times as humanly possible during the day.

Even on those days when her own well was running dry.

“That’s your job,” she said. “That’s what you’re there to do. And when you’re doing this work, sometimes you aren’t even given the time to stop, take a break, to drink some water or to just gather yourself.”

And, to make matters worse, farmworkers are generally paid sub-poverty wages, if they even get paid at all.

Gonzalo said that being shorted or stiffed on their wages is a rampant violation among farmworkers, along with other injustices they regularly endure.

“I experienced firsthand how farmworkers really didn’t have any mechanisms or any ways of protecting our basic dignity from abuse or from being mistreated when working in the fields,” she added.

And while all farmworkers are subject to flagrant exploitation, the women are especially vulnerable.

“For farmworker women, one of the main things that they have faced is sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, which can be verbal but also physical in its form,” Gonzalo said. “With physical touch, the women don’t really have an option of speaking out for themselves, because often if you do, you run the risk of losing your job. And if you lose that job, you’re not able to put food on your family’s table.”

But Gonzalo’s life — and the well-being of thousands of farmworkers — has changed, thanks to the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization based in Immokalee, Florida.

As a partner of the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), the CIW receives generous support through Presbyterians’ gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Founded in 1946, the Offering’s purpose of helping neighbors in need around the world remains constant, giving the PC(USA) a tangible way to share God’s love since Presbyterians first joined the effort in 1947. One Great Hour of Sharing benefits the ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Self-Development of People and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Although the Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday.

The PHP has partnered with the CIW in many campaigns for decades and especially since the beginning of its Campaign for Fair Food, which was launched officially in 2001. This farmworker-driven, consumer-powered initiative has pressured major corporations to increase farmworkers’ wages while also seeking to protect the human rights of farmworkers with a Code of Conduct designed, monitored and enforced by the workers themselves.

Women in sunglasses holding a green banner protesting. The green banner reads "You're not going to be Harassed. You're not going to be insulted. you're not going to be forced to work. There's more respect now." Alejandrina caraera. Farmworker on Fair food farm

“Accompanying the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as they struggle to bring safety and justice to the fields where our food is grown, I believe, is a perfect way to actualize our commitment to being a Matthew 25 denomination,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for National Hunger Concerns in the PHP. “Farmworkers face daily hardships rooted in racism, sexism and poverty, and our solidarity with them is a clear demonstration of our beliefs. Whether it is through donations, participation in marches, or bringing a manager’s letter to your local Wendy’s, Presbyterians can stand with the farmworkers and help build the kind of world we all need.”

By demanding that corporations be held accountable for how farmworkers are treated on the farms from which they buy, the CIW has been able to bring about significant change.

Including in Gonzalo’s own life.

“This whole story has had a real impact on Lupe in that all of these changes were happening when she was a farmworker in the fields,” said Uriel Zelaya-Perez, faith coordinator for the Alliance for Fair Food. “Lupe was one of the farmworkers who saw CIW go to her farm and do worker-to-worker education, where they were talking about the rights that farmworkers were entitled to, the mechanisms through which they could speak out, and how they can have a voice in the workplace. All of this piqued her interest to learn more about CIW, to become involved, and to use her voice to advocate not only for herself but also for her fellow farmworkers.”

Gonzalo, now no longer a farmworker, is a staff member at CIW.

And, as a longtime attendee of the CIW’s weekly women’s group meetings, she continues to champion women’s rights.

“It’s important to mention that in the area of sexual violence, things have changed drastically,” Gonzalo said. “We have almost eradicated that issue in farms that are participating in the Fair Food Program. And now the protections have been expanded to include other genders. Individuals have the right to decide for themselves, and not have derogatory comments made about them.”

As the farmworkers’ struggle for justice persists, Gonzalo gives thanks for the work and witness of Presbyterians, which includes — but extends far beyond — monetary gifts.

“For us farmworkers, the support from Presbyterians across the county has meant the world to us,” said Gonzalo. “It has meant that we don’t feel like we’re alone, and that we’re not just demanding dignity and human rights, but that human rights need to be guaranteed. And we’re walking the walk together. Farmworkers have protested alongside Presbyterians. They’ve fasted with us, they’ve marched with us and they’ve picketed alongside us. It has been through that collective action that we’ve been able to demand together a new day for farmworkers.”

Kang Bartlett, too, affirms their enduring partnership.

“We have received so much more from our relationship with CIW than we can possibly hope to return,” he said. “Thinking about this amazing history of struggle and all that has been achieved by a group that has been the most exploited, the most underpaid, who face so many challenges as immigrants in our country, that the coalition has the day-to-day energy and the will to keep the struggle going deeply moves and inspires me.”

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