University City

November 16, 2012

Remember the farm workers: Serve tortillas for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. As every school child knows, the first Thanksgiving took place after the original Americans discovered that a boatload of impoverished, undocumented immigrants seeking better economic opportunities had washed up on the beach.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. As every school child knows, the first Thanksgiving took place after the original Americans discovered that a boatload of impoverished, undocumented immigrants seeking better economic opportunities had washed up on the beach.

Fortunately, instead of building a tall fence to keep them out, or withholding help so the uninvited guests would “self-deport,” the First Nations people helped the newcomers survive a couple of tough winters. Then, after a bountiful harvest, together they sat down to share a feast.

Inspired by this traditional American celebration of generosity, sharing and finding common ground, I suggest an addition to University City Thanksgiving tables this year: fresh corn tortillas.

A plate of warm, fragrant tortillas deserves a place of honor, right beside the turkey, candied yams and pumpkin pie. So does a heartfelt “gracias” to the farmworkers – a vast majority of them from Mexico – who do the incredibly hard, but largely invisible, work of harvesting America’s crops.

Corn is our native North American grain and the original tortilla-making ingredient. Flour tortillas won’t cut it for Thanksgiving. Don’t settle for plastic-wrapped, mass-produced tortillas, either, when you can find delicious fresh tortillas available at local Latino markets.

¡No, amigo! Corn chips don’t count, and don’t even think about Doritos!

According to geographer Owen Furuseth of UNC Charlotte, North Carolina’s fast-growing Latino population is now an important part of our rural population, playing a vital economic role in small towns across the state.

At the same time, many Latinos have moved to urban areas such as Charlotte. “Carolatinos” make up about 13 percent of Charlotte’s residents, and 8.6 percent of North Carolina’s population overall. The state’s 160,000 farmworkers, who labor in our $69.6 billion agriculture sector, are more than 94 percent Latino, mostly from Mexico.

As a small farmer, I know firsthand how hard field work can be. But to be honest, I have it easy. I can take breaks when I want, and I can return home at night to a comfortable house. Farmworkers face a much harder row to hoe.

According to the N.C. Council of Churches, 85 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat are picked by hand. At the same time, N.C. farmworkers may earn less than $10,000 a year, in spite of backbreaking labor and 12- to 14-hour workdays. Half of farmworker families report that hunger is a significant problem.

That the very people who bring food to our tables cannot feed their own families in the midst of such bounty is a troubling thought indeed.

Farm work is dangerous, too. Few farm workers have health insurance, yet they face physical risks from large machinery and medieval toil, along with the constant danger of pesticide exposure.

All the same, Latino farmworkers are legendary for their willingness to work incredibly hard, something I saw personally when I directed the garden program at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center.

Every year, we’d eagerly await the wave of Latino field workers as the followed the tomato harvest up from Florida. If I was able to work with two or three of them, even for just a single day, we’d always have the best tomato garden in Mecklenburg County.

One year, a farmworker named Miguel had a hurt foot that kept him from traveling on with his friends. He came to the Center’s soup kitchen and offered to help in the garden. In a couple of hours, he had finished every job, pulled every weed, raked all the paths and even turned the compost.

The next day, first thing, Miguel again asked if he could help. I thanked him profusely but had to tell him that, thanks to him, we didn’t really have any garden work left to do. He smiled and, looking a little crestfallen, went over to sit on the curb.

It wasn’t a half-hour later that I saw Miguel again heading in my direction, hobbling fast, a little wild-eyed. He wasn’t tall, but he reached up and grabbed me by the lapels.

“¡Señor Don! ¡Señor Don! ¡Dame trabajo o me volverá loco!” (“Give me some work, or I’ll go crazy!”)

What American wouldn’t be thankful for, and impressed by, a work ethic like Miguel’s?

The American Thanksgiving holiday isn’t celebrated in Latin American countries, although the first church Thanksgiving services in the Americas were organized by Spanish priests long before the English colonies even existed. Writing in Bella Online, Carleen Sanchez thinks, however, that Latino-Americans can make the celebration their own:

“As any good Hispanic will tell you, any party is a good party as long as we are invited to celebrate. I feel that as time goes by and Hispanics become more accepted into the mainstream on a personal level, they will adopt this holiday and make it a new tradition.”

Sanchez makes a good point. A plate of tortillas is a fitting symbol, and tasty, too. But it is even better to invite farmworker families to join us at the feasting table.

That’s just the first step, of course. With our Council of Churches, we need to be sure that Latino immigrant farmworkers are not forgotten the other 364 days a year as they toil in our fields. We can also support church and other efforts to ensure fair pay and safe and decent working conditions for N.C. farmworkers and their families.

On this Thanksgiving Day, Latino immigrant farmworkers deserve our thanks, respect, acceptance and awareness. And, if we’re really lucky, maybe they’ll bring the tortillas.

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