“Masks Are Like a Patch”: On the limits and possibilities of solidarity with farmworkers in a pandemic

Distributing masks, Indigenous-language information about COVID-19, and encouraging immigrant farmworkers
to complete the 2020 Census. Photo courtesy of CBDIO.

When immigrant farmworker communities are not accounted for in the official records, like the Census, they will, once again, be denied significant resources and support for at least another ten years. The cumulative effects of this are devastating and harder to ignore or hide during a pandemic. Years of activism, research, and experiences as and with immigrant agricultural workers and communities in California demonstrate time and time again, during crises past and present, these essential workers are among the last to be considered, if at all, during disaster preparedness and response work at the local, state, and federal levels. 

It is from these recent and longer histories of organized abandonment that the COVID-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) and the “Protecting Each Other: Masks for Farmworkers” projects emerged in March 2020 and May 2020 respectively. They represent two distinct yet interdependent forms of agency and solidarity with rural, immigrant farm working communities in California and beyond. 

In pandemic times and otherwise, community organizations, activist researchers, and other farmworker allies and accomplices are always thinking and acting ahead. They do this not only as concerned professionals, but also as friends, neighbors, and kin to farmworkers. We had to quickly learn new kinds of knowledge about public health, contact tracing, testing, viral biology, and mitigation measures. We had to re-learn how to do surveys and interviews in conditions of physical distancing. In some cases, we (re)learned how to sew. 

COFS is a rapid-response, collaborative, research-to-action project that sought to connect with farmworkers directly and collect data about their experiences during the first several months of the pandemic. The group includes a diverse coalition of farmworker-serving organizations (including CBDIO), and rural researchers across California, Oregon, and Washington connected through the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). By May 2020, COFS launched a community-based telephone survey assessing the status of farmworkers in the pandemic, and in September, we started interviewing farmworkers using an internet-based call service to enhance the survey data with farmworkers’ testimonies (testimonies). The intention from the beginning was to mobilize findings to push for systems and policy changes and to create tools that would support farmworker-serving community-based organizations in their efforts to inform and help people in a pandemic.

Around the same time, with a small “solidarity grant” from the Atlantic Institute (secured by Saxton), and donations from colleagues, armed with sewing machines, and riddled with nerves and boredom while sheltering in place, the author and others created “Protecting Each Other.” This short-lived project involved collaborations between the Pan Valley Institute (of the American Friends Service Committee), the Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy (LEAP), Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, Mexican, Syrian, and Hmong seamstresses, and a Facebook group with members of other San Joaquin Valley grassroots organizations like Mothers Helping Mothers and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In May 2020, we set to work making and collecting reusable cotton cloth masks destined for agricultural workers. We lost count of how many masks we made, collected, and distributed across five counties in the San Joaquin Valley, but it was probably well over 8,000. 

Retired farmworker receiving donated materials to make masks for farmworkers in Fresno County, CA. Photo courtesy of LEAP.
A Syrian woman makes masks at home in Fresno County with her sewing machine. Photo courtesy of Pan Valley Institute.
Masks (mascaras) made by Syrian women for farmworkers.
Photo courtesy of PVI / AFSC

In organized abandonment, the burdens and responsibilities for care, and the emotional and material labors of responding to crises, are thrust onto the general public, “communities,” and particularly onto the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. This was true of farmworkers and many others. Essential immigrant farmworkers are not only “essential” because they feed and care for us, but the current organization of industrial agriculture makes their exploitability key to profit making. At the same time, immigrant farmworkers are also blamed for spreading diseases and dangers that are in reality a direct product of our predatory and exploitative food system and unrestrained development. Those who stand to benefit the most from corona capitalism deftly deflect responsibility for exacerbating conditions of plague and vulnerability. In the same breath, they identify immigrants, farmworkers, and Latinx “culture” as the problem. 

In reality the problem is the endemic structural exclusions and inequalities that consistently harm, maim, and kill essential workers, their families, and their communities transnationally. It is no accident that COVID-19 illnesses and deaths have disproportionately affected BIPOC communities long excluded from rights and protections, rendered disposable and vulnerable. This includes immigrant farmworkers, many if not most of whom are undocumented and uninsured. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that Latino farmworkers in California experienced excess mortality of 59% in 2020 due to COVID, compared to 6% among White workers across all occupations. 

What good, then, is the title of “essential” if it comes with no changes in people’s day to day circumstances? No rights and protections? No dignified salaries? No access to health care and no clear or reasonable pathways to legal status? Indeed, racialized capitalism depends upon keeping the poor poor in order to keep the rich extraordinarily rich. In addition to corporate and industrial behemoths, state and local governments are complicit in this. Many of California’s governing and enforcement agencies, from the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (aka Cal/OSHA) to county-level inspectors are required to “balance” business interests with public health and safety. It is intentionally designed this way, regardless of the good intentions of individual agents within these institutions. 

While farmworkers’ labors have been deemed essential because they feed people and keep massive food economies afloat, their contributions have mostly only received lip service.  This perpetually dehumanizes and denies immigrant farmworkers even the most basic rights. Undocumented people were not eligible for the federal stimulus in 2020. They do not qualify for federal unemployment benefits. They could not just stay home and ride things out, or work from home. Despite cries of a labor shortage, some food and agricultural employers have been quick to fire and blacklist workers who ask for sick leave or who question unsafe or non-existent protective measures. Concrete, sustainable, and enforceable policy changes and practical solutions to long standing problems–like inclusion in health care for all people, dignified wages, safe conditions and respectful treatment at work, and comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for all–remain elusive or stuck in neverending debates. 

In California, only some farmworkers were able to access the one-time payments allotted by the state in partnership with some philanthropies. Many of these philanthropies are funded by corporate sponsors that are reaping record profits. The processes for accessing state-sponsored sick leave and workers’ compensation are overly complicated to navigate for Spanish, Indigenous-language, and even for English speakers. And, many farmworkers feel pressure to keep working, even when they are sick, because if they don’t, they cannot pay their rent or buy food to feed their families. They cannot afford to stay home and shelter in place. This was true before COVID as well, and has only grown more intense. Meanwhile, the underpaid and unprotected workers who make those profits possible are forced to just try and survive against all of the odds.

Even before we had concrete COFS data, researchers and community partners already knew what to expect. We’ve witnessed these patterns and the painful consequences of organized abandonment for food and farmworkers for collective decades. Unsurprisingly, COFS findings show that the pandemic only exacerbated farmworkers’ long-standing and multilayered social, economic, and health vulnerabilities. 

Sometimes, local and state agencies listened empathetically and collaborated with farmworker groups in response to our calls for increased support and resources. In other cases, we received responses from elected officials such as the following from a Fresno County supervisor: “Thank you for taking the time to share with me your concerns regarding COVID-19.  I have been directing people to our county website… Once you are there please click on the COVID 19 link and it will take you to our health department page and you can see the many languages we offer information on COVID 19…Thank you for reaching out to my office.” Websites, even those featuring information in “many languages,” are a crutch often leaned on by people in power. Even when well designed, web resources are a glaringly insufficient response to complex and ever evolving problems like pandemics.

Eventual government interventions, resulting from sustained pressure from farmworker community groups and their allies and accomplices, such as placement of free and no-appointment necessary COVID-19 testing and vaccine clinics directly in farmworker communities, and more effective and transparent distribution of masks, took much too long and way too much convincing to manifest and retain. Many are flawed in ways that are costing people their lives. Some state-sponsored interventions had mixed results because they were implemented without the grounded insights of farmworkers and community groups. Many immigrant farmworkers and those from mixed-status families feared using public services or accessing testing and health care, despite being free of cost, due to the chilling effect of Trump’s “public charge” ruling, which sought to penalize immigrants and their families for seeking out federally sponsored help, even for documented family members who legally qualify. Even though public charge was abolished in late 2019, many people still don’t trust even the most well-meaning stated-sponsored interventions with their lives. 

It took the urging of hundreds of farmworker advocates and rural community-based organizations to pressure state and local governments to get farmworkers appropriate cotton reusable masks for COVID-19 prevention at work and in their communities. In the meantime, efforts to produce and distribute masks for farmworkers, amidst global shortages and rationing for health care workers, started small, but small does not mean insignificant or powerless.

In these and other ways, communities took on the roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local governments to protect public health. Activists, advocates, farmworker serving community-based organizations, immigrants, and refugees, mobilized, collected, shared, and donated materials, including old bed linens and new fabric in fun patterns and prints. They summoned their sewing expertise or learned (or relearned in my case) how to sew, churning out thousands of masks for immigrant food and farmworkers.

Flyer to collect materials and resources to sustain support for the project. Courtesy of PVI.

Huron, CA Mayor Rey León and Dr. Carolina Simunovic, M.D. with donated masks. Photo courtesy of LEAP.

CBDIO outreach worker distributing masks to Indigenous plum harvesters. Photo courtesy of CBDIO.

We, the farmworkers, community organizations, researchers, and concerned and caring members of the general population–are not the state. Yet, we often find ourselves doing what governments and agencies, at least on paper, are supposed to do, but are either designed to fail or ill-equipped to do: protect. The San Joaquin Valley remains at high risk for more outbreaks and surges, especially in rural and immigrant farm working communities, and now with the rapid spread of the Delta variant of COVID. What is most significant from the COFS and “Protecting Each Other” efforts were the solidarities that emerged. Immigrant and refugee women from Syria, Cambodia, and Mexico, some of whom are farmworkers themselves, and some of whom have survived war and genocide, stepped up to make masks for strangers. Young volunteers also developed short videos in Spanish and three indigenous languages (Santiago Xanica-Zapoteco del Valle, Triqui de San Martin Itunyoso, and Mixteco Bajo) to encourage immigrant farmworker communities to cobrete, or wear masks, and to care for their community or cuadrilla (work team) by maintaining social distance. The COFS collective is still going strong, still responding to farmworkers’ needs and concerns in a pandemic and otherwise through research-to-action and collaborative partnerships with community-based-organizations, who use the data to push for long overdue systems’ changes.

The stories from the ground over the past year paint a shameful picture of neglect. Farmworkers, human beings challenged by a pandemic, record-breaking heat and wildfire smoke, continue to deal with all of the other things afflicting and affecting their communities: poverty, racism, exposure to pesticides, an overburdened and culturally and linguistically incompetent health care and safety net system, and a hostile and punitive immigration system, on top of COVID.

At a Foster Farms poultry processing plant in Merced County, California, over 300 workers were infected, and 9 died of COVID-19. Another 250 were sickened and 5 died at one of the company’s plants in Fresno. News like this sometimes made the research and mask distribution work feel hopeless. We ran out of hand-made masks and funding (and energy) to make more in late August 2020, as COVID rates surged in rural communities. By that point, California Governor Newsom started sending millions of masks to county agricultural commissioners, who were then supposed to make sure they got distributed to farmworkers. County ag commissioners are not in direct contact or community with farmworkers unless they are called to do an inspection related to pesticide violations. It is well known in farmworker communities and advocacy circles that the ag commissioners usually cater more towards the needs and concerns of growers and employers, who are not often aligned with worker safety and wellbeing or in touch with their lived realities

The masks that first came to Fresno County were surgical masks, designed for use in indoor, climate controlled environments. Many went straight into the hands of grower-shipper associations and large food processors (like Foster Farms). Unlike farmworkers, these entities have the resources and legal responsibility to provide masks and other protective equipment to workers. 

It turned out these blue surgical masks don’t hold up well in hot sweaty conditions like farm fields and food processing plants. And, when these masks were distributed at work sites, many folks only received one. The elastic bands often snapped, and the now notorious blue fabric got soaked with sweat and tore, rendering them useless for protecting their wearers from COVID-19. This state-sponsored and industry abetted effort is yet another example of failure to provide legally mandated protective equipment to essential food and farm workers.

Eventually, the state got the message that surgical masks weren’t working, and bulk purchased 5-packs of white cotton, reusable and washable masks for county-wide distribution, again through the county ag commissioners and departments of public health. Thus, while the intentions of the state and some food and farm industry folks are sometimes good, they are not good enough. Over and over again, they are not guided by grounded insights. Sometimes, these well-meaning efforts distract from real and emergent needs, when it is wrongly assumed that the box is ticked and the problem has been solved simply by throwing resources at it or putting information on a website.

Ultimately, as our compañera Oralia Maceda, current community outreach director at CBDIO, remarked in the midst of our mask making and distribution endeavors, the masks are just un parche, a patch. Farmworkers and the sparsely funded and staffed community organizations supporting them are left to patch and hold things up in both ordinary and exceptional moments of crisis. The pandemic proved to be no exception; however, it has amplified and accelerated calls for systems change, accessibility, and accountability among the agencies and entities charged with public health and disaster preparedness and response. 

Masks absolutely work (when used consistently and correctly) and help save lives; however, they don’t fundamentally change the longstanding and ongoing challenges farmworkers endure as a result of organized abandonment of all kinds. Amidst the challenges and horrors we have witnessed and experienced during this pandemic, we as a community have an ethical commitment to react and respond to its emergent, cumulative and multi-layered effects. The COVID-19 Farmworker Study and the Protecting Each Other mask projects solidified old and fostered new solidarities and connections. We carry on with the work of protecting and caring for each other against great odds in many forms–from research to sewing and sustained community outreach and connections. 

Why did it have to be so frustratingly, sickeningly difficult to get the basics for essential farmworkers? The truth is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Farmworkers are not just essential workers–they are also our neighbors, friends, and kin, and our critical caretakers. As Indigenous farmworker Alma Patty Tzalain remarked with indignity, “I harvest your food. Why isn’t my health essential?” This is something we should all be asking ourselves, pandemic or not. The solidarities described above are also opening spaces for imagining new possibilities, for making demands for not just the basics–affordable housing, living wages, dignified and safe work environments, healthy and culturally nourishing food, clean water and air, access to healthcare and social support regardless of immigration status–but for the recognition that farmworkers, as humans, are essential for more than their labor.

About the Author

Dvera I. Saxton is a medical and environmental anthropologist. Her book, The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice (2021) is available from Rutgers University Press. She is an associate professor of anthropology at Fresno State, a researcher with the California Institute for Rural Studies, and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health with the Global Brain Health Institute.