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These Women are Advocating for Justice for Farmworkers

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is working towards a better future

Rachel Tepper Paley

September 15, 2021

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Picture of members of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas in a red room
The staff and board of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.  Photo: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 -percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.

Below, Rachel Tepper Paley discusses the creation of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (ANC), and how they are fighting for equality for farmworkers. 

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Back in November of 2017, an open letter in Time penned by Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (ANC), an advocacy group for farmworker women, went viral. It addressed the female members of an entirely different workforce—Hollywood actors, models, and other entertainment industry professionals—asking them to pledge solidarity with their cause. 

“We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen,” the letter read. But “even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist, and otherwise threaten our economic, physical, and emotional security.”

The series of events placed a Hollywood spotlight on ANC, co-founded by farmworkers’ rights activist Mily Treviño-Sauceda. The organization has conducted on-the-ground organizing and advocacy since its founding in 2011, although its roots go back even further. 

Alianza and its member organizations organizing against gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Photo: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

Treviño-Sauceda first became aware of the struggles her community faced by experiencing them firsthand as a teenage farmworker in California in the 1970s. Sexual harassment was rampant, and when a boss fondled her, Treviño-Sauceda was afraid to speak out. When she finally confided in her father, he seemed to blame her for the incident. After that, she didn’t want to speak out for fear of being shamed. Until, that is, United Farm Workers came along. Moved by their mission, Treviño-Sauceda became a union farmworker and began organizing on their behalf in the 1970s and early ‘80s. In 1991, she founded Líderes Campesinas, the nation’s first farmworker organization for women. Women, she believes, are the key to changing and uplifting the lives of American farmworkers and other marginalized peoples.

“In our communities, we have found that in the majority of households, men are still the head—they’re seen that way,” said Treviño-Sauceda. “But women are the center of the family. If the women are prepared or trained, it makes it much easier to organize a family.”

At ANC, farmworker women—many of whom receive training from the organization—are the center of its efforts. “They know how to make annual plans. They know how to plan events. They know how to organize. They know how to talk to representatives and public officials. They sit at the table with the chief of police, the sheriffs, the district attorney's office,” Treviño-Sauceda said. “They've learned the importance of better representation in their community and better representation of their families.”

Today, the organization’s advocacy agenda is stacked, covering everything from its continued effort to end gender-based violence and combatting wage theft to speaking out against the effects of harmful pesticides and in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. But much of its energy has recently been focused on issues related to the pandemic, which has only exacerbated problems facing immigrant and farmworker communities.

Images of tote bags with text on the frot
Photo: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

One of them is the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which the ANC wants expanded to include all children regardless of immigration status. In early August, ANC joined 112 other organizations—including the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, the immigration assistance organization ASISTA, and health and social justice nonprofit Futures Without Violence—in calling on Congress to take action. 

“Time after time during the pandemic, undocumented families have been left out of federal aid. Excluding children from the [Child Tax Credit] is a cruel wrong, a vestige of the Trump admin[istration] that Congress has the power to right,” reads a recent tweet from the ANC Twitter account. “The CTC could help immigrant and migrant families pay for basic needs, like food and shelter. It could help subsidize childcare for parents for whom working from home during the pandemic is not an option.” 

ANC is also putting boots on the ground to vaccinate American farmworkers and other underserved communities. For months already, ANC member organization Líderes Campesinas has organized food, water, and PPE distribution events across the state of California in coordination with free rapid testing clinics. It’s also brought vaccination sites directly to farming communities in an effort to reach individuals who’ve avoided other vaccination sites because of fears related to their immigration status or lack of health insurance. 

Recognizing the value of such work, this past June the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded ANC an $8.1 million grant to build out an even more extensive workforce of community outreach and community health workers, who’ll operate in 20 states and parts of Puerto Rico. These workers will do everything from helping unvaccinated individuals make appointments to arranging transportation to vaccination sites.

Image of woman holding a sign that says, 'We want better lives'
Organizer Elvira Carvajalr of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas at a demonstration. Photo: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

It’s tough work, but no tougher than the conditions faced every day by farm workers during the pandemic. As hard as the past 18 months have been for most Americans, it’s been worse for the nation's agricultural laborers: cramped working conditions often don’t allow for proper social distancing, and limited access to transportation can result in single vehicles jam-packed with workers. Workspaces often lack clean drinking water and soap products, and even regular access to protective gear like masks can be a challenge.

Treviño-Sauceda said that getting the vaccine to these vulnerable populations is what keeps her motivated and invigorated. “We're going to very hard, distant places, where no one else is willing to go and trying to convince people, because we're used to doing that,” she said. In truth, it’s indicative of what Alianza Nacional de Campesinas brings to the table for every issue it tackles. 

“We see with different lenses what our families need,” she explained. “We're very proud of this—and we're very, very successful.”

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Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.