Club generates discussion on local migrant workers

A new club geared toward bridging the gap between the Geneseo student population and migrant workers on nearby farms hosted a movie and discussion forum on Thursday March 31 in Newton 204. Senior Ariana Lippi arranged the viewing in order to garner attention for the club.

The event featured a showing of the 2014 documentary Cesar’s Last Fast—which chronicles the events of Cesar Chavez’s 36-day water-only hunger strike in 1988—and two migrant farm workers—both of whom work on farms in the area—as guest speakers. Chavez was a farm worker turned advocate and leader of the National Farm Workers Association.

The film highlighted issues that farm workers typically face, including underpayment, poor living conditions and the fact that farm workers are one of only two labor groups who do not have the right to collectively bargain.

After the film, the event became an open forum for students to ask José and Victor—who asked that their last names be omitted—questions about their work experiences. The two men spoke only Spanish and an interpreter translated their answers to the audience.

“It’s very nice to see so many young people here. You guys are the future. I think it is very important that we need to start valuing the people who bring us our food—everybody has to eat,” José said. “Before the job I have now, I worked on a farm where I wasn’t getting paid for my hours. They would demand more and more work and pay me an amount that had nothing to do with how many hours I worked.” José is originally from Mexico and came to the United States to find work.

Hailing from Guatemala, Victor is a former dairy farm worker and has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. According to Victor, the abuse of farm workers—as seen in the film—is not an issue of the past.

“A lot of things we saw happening in the film are happening on dairy farms today. Many times, farm owners don’t respect it when workers call in sick,” Victor said. “We came here to work and sometimes people are forced to work so hard, they lose their lives.”

Lippi noted that she was pleasantly surprised by the student turnout. An international relations and Spanish double major, Lippi was able to organize the event through her internship at the Worker Justice Center of New York. The WJCNY is an organization that advocates for the rights of farm workers and other low-wage workers who are often denied liberties.

“Part of my internship is to work with the Geneseo community, with the main goal being to make what goes on in the farms in the surrounding areas like Mount Morris and Perry—which are only 10 minutes away—apparent,” Lippi said. “Issues these farm workers face are even closer because they pick a lot of the food that gets sold on campus. Just go into Fusion Market and you’ll see signs for products from Upstate Farms—a lot of that stuff comes from right around here.”

Political science major junior Danny Ruiz found out about the new club—which he tentatively referred to as the Geneseo Coalition for Migrant Workers—via one of the “WhatsUp Digest” emails. Ruiz emphasized that migrant worker issues hit home with him.

“I’ve grown up with all the issues of migrant workers; my parents were migrant workers,” Ruiz said. “As soon as I saw this in the email, I contacted Ariana [Lippi] right away … Our main goal is to create awareness for the issues migrant workers face—like the working and living conditions—and to get students involved.”

International relations major junior Anna Biuso also got involved when she saw the email. At her Campus Auxiliary Services job, Biuso explained that she is constantly around the merchandise displayed as products of Upstate New York.

“As a CAS worker, I’m always seeing the Upstate Farms posters, which show a white male as the dairy worker. Once I saw the emails, I started to wonder if the advertisements really show who the dairy workers are,” Biuso said. “I felt that it was a problem and immediately wanted to get involved.”

The club is still in its developing stages. According to Biuso, the next step for the club to take is to work on its organizational structure.

“At our meeting next week, we’re going to discuss what to do for next year,” Lippi said. “I think a club like this and the internship I currently have are important because I think it’s important for students to be able to have a leadership role and make a difference.”