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Farmworkers find laughter, kindness while toiling in fields

-  Community ties help lighten rigors of labor for area's farmworkers


Julian Perez-Perez began picking crops at age 7.

The Oaxaca, Mexico, native worked from sunrise to sunset, slept under shelters he and his siblings constructed from palm tree leaves — and made 60 cents a day. There was no system to fight unfair wages or to provide food on the days when the family couldn’t eat more than tortillas and coffee.

Now in his mid-40s and living in Hills-boro for the summer, Perez-Perez is still harvesting crops by hand, but he sleeps in migrant cabins with communal kitchens and bathrooms and makes $15 an hour. And when he encounters unfair conditions, he now has help to fight against them.

For almost 12 years, Perez-Perez and his family have been members of the Western Farm Workers Association (WFWA), a self-help system. In exchange for volunteer time, the WFWA provides struggling members with food, clothing, medical assistance — and a supportive community.

Recently, for example, a tearful woman with a small child struck up a conversation with Perez-Perez and his family when she bumped into them at the local WFWA office. They learned her husband was recently killed in the drug-related violence now terrorizing parts of Latin America.

Granted asylum in the United States, the woman was working in a food cart but making less than minimum wage — a typical case of wage theft.

Perez-Perez instructed her to leave the cart and join his family at the farm, whose owner treats workers fairly, he said.

“It’s hard at first,” he said of the farm labor, “but we’ll help you learn.”

Passionate political debate surrounds discussion of farmworkers. According to a 2013 USDA Economic Research Service report, roughly 50 percent of farmworkers from 2001-09 were not legally authorized to work in the U.S.

Some argue it’s not fair illegal workers are taking “American” jobs. Yet in the highly publicized “Take Our Jobs” campaign of 2010 — in which the United Farm Workers of America offered to give up a job to any American citizen who wanted to come do field work — only two people actually took the organization up on its offer.

Although farm work appears to be “unskilled labor,” it actually takes a long time to master. For example, Perez-Perez and his family members can each fill 18 to 20 one-gallon buckets with blueberries in three hours. That’s roughly 130 pounds and an average speed. The fastest workers can fill 28.

Speed matters, because in addition to minimum wage — $9.10 an hour in Oregon — workers get bonus money (a “piece rate”) based on how many buckets they fill.Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Volunteer Lorenza Villanueva works alone inside the Hillsboro-based Western Farm Workers Association office. The site has operated since 1988.

According to Perez-Perez, it takes time to learn that the best way to pick blueberries is to cup both hands together and gently pull the berries rather than pluck, or that the best position for rapidly picking strawberries is squatting.

But farm laborers willingly teach new workers, partly because they’ve been helped in the past themselves. Often, after the fastest pickers finish, they return to help slower workers fill their buckets.

Work hours fluctuate based on the ripeness of a crop, which can be affected by temperature, drought and other factors. Sometimes Julian works only three hours a day — other times he’ll work eight long days without a break, trying to harvest ripe fruit before it goes bad.

Most nights, he and his family members get four to five hours of sleep, but they take naps during the day if they finish work early. It’s still dark when Victoria, Perez-Perez’s wife, wakes at 3:30 a.m. to make tortillas, tomatoes, eggs and coffee for breakfast and lunch.

Long hours of squatting lead to sore backs and arms, Perez-Perez said. And out in the heat, farmworkers must wear loose cotton long pants and sleeves to protect themselves from pesticides, dirt and sunburn.

“We put up with it. We have to tolerate it,” said Perez-Perez, who has never seen someone faint from heat but has heard it happens.

Value of education

Victoria wants her children to see how hard the work is so they will value their education. Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Julian Perez-Perez and Victoria Vasquez-Garcia (left) talk with Guillermo Magallon (right) in the local Western Farm Workers of America office, along with daughters Luz and Alma, who attend a summer school for migrant workers children while their parents harvest crops.

“They’ll learn why it’s important to apply themselves in their studies,” she said, so they won’t have to be farm laborers forever.

But there are light moments in the fields. Margarita, Julian’s oldest daughter, accidentally stepped in her bucket once, smushing some blueberries as she hurried down her row picking. And her brother dropped a bucket, spilling berries across the field. Margarita retells these stories laughing, because, she said, they were all laughing at the time.

And for all its hardships, Perez-Perez said, he and his family like the work. They like the beauty of their office — the countryside — and that they get to breathe in fresh air every day.

They also like learning about better hygiene practices, such as consistently washing hands and buckets to keep the fruit clean.

“I’m proud that our work is producing the food people eat,” Perez-Perez said.