"It's a Heavy Job, and It Doesn't Pay Well": Latinx Farmworker Experiences in the U.S. Agricultural System
Maira Areguin (Joint PhD Program in Women’s & Gender Studies and Psychology) grew up in Reedley, CA, a small city located roughly 20 miles southeast of Fresno. Like most population centers in California’s Central Valley, Reedley’s economy is dominated by agriculture, and particularly by vast vineyards and orchards of peaches, almonds, oranges, and other fruit.
A drive through the Central Valley, especially one that spans its north-south axis paralleling Interstate 5, can be a numbing endeavor. For one thing, the region is simply enormous, comprising nearly 20,000 square miles of heavily-irrigated former prairie and desert grassland. Even without stops of any kind, just passing through takes several hours at highway speeds. But what ultimately stands out for many visitors is just how little stands out. The sheer scope and monocrop nature of the orchards renders them faceless and generic from a distance—an hours-long wash of peach and green.
Moreover, despite the undeniable beauty to be found—constellations of pink and white blossoms in the spring, deep-green leaves aglow with morning dew—the overall impression one gets of the valley is curiously inhospitable. Along the trunk roads and two-lane highways, rusty pickup trucks, tractors, and harvesters are common, but human faces are rare. Throughout the summer and large portions of the spring and fall, shimmering mirages summoned by the oppressive heat obscure the horizon and distort the few human figures one sees into blurry silhouettes against the dancing dust. For an area so crucial to humanity’s food supply (Reedley dubs itself “America’s Fruit Basket”), the valley often seems better suited to machines than to people: a place where human beings have been erased by the very economic apparatus that feeds them.
Of course, there are people working there—many thousands of them, both inside and outside the diesel-driven behemoths kicking plumes into the troposphere. But the nature of farm work means that those who perform it generally do so in remote areas, and often early in the morning or late into the evening: in short, out of sight. Among them are many members of Areguin’s family, and growing up in that environment helped inspire her dissertation research, which examines the psychosocial effects of the de facto cultural invisibility faced by farmworkers and other low-wage, precarious workers.
“My whole family did farm work,” Areguin recalls. “My mom worked in a packing house. My cousins worked in packing houses. My uncles worked in the fields. I remember riding on the bus every morning, and it was all fields everywhere. So I would see the fields and see the people working in the fields, and I knew there was mistreatment happening there because of things family members would share with me.”
Areguin also realized early on that there are obvious ethnic and racial components to that invisibility and mistreatment. It is true that farmworkers are rendered invisible partly due to the geographically and temporally isolated nature of the work. But their invisibility is also a product of the broader cultural discrimination they face as a predominantly Latinx population. In essence, farm work is often perceived as a less valuable or important occupation (and thus ignored) in part because the people who perform it (often Latinx, often first-or-second generation, often migrant) are themselves less valued by the dominant culture, a phenomenon demonstrated in previous publications by Areguin and her collaborators1.
“To be clear, when I talk about farmworkers, I am talking about the people who are planting, pruning, harvesting—all of the things that happen with our produce before we get it at the grocery store,” she explains. “I’m not talking about the people who own the farms and make the big profits. Those are the people I refer to as farmers and growers. Even as a kid, I realized there is a clear disconnect between people who own the farms, who are often white people, and the predominantly Latinx people who work there. I could see that the Latinx farmworkers were the ones experiencing much more discrimination and mistreatment. That really got me interested in workplace mistreatment and eventually led to my current research.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree (a double major in Psychological and Brain Sciences and Chicano/Chicana studies), Areguin came to U-M in 2017. Shortly thereafter, she began conducting outreach for an organization called Farmworker Legal Services. Visiting camps for migrant farmworkers during that time helped crystalize her interest in the ways farmworkers are made invisible.
She reflects: “It was sad but useful to know that what I had always suspected appears to be true, not just in California but all over the country: farmworkers are kind of hidden away, so we don’t tend to see all of the people actually doing this work. We would often drive out to places with sketchy directions like ‘when you get to this certain pole, make a left. Make a right at the third traffic cone.’ We would eventually end up behind the orchards and see the camps for migrant farmworkers. Based on my experiences, they usually seem to be camps of all men, though that is changing somewhat. But they are usually single men—not a lot of families. It was interesting to see that and to see how they are essentially made invisible by being forced into these very rural, hidden areas. They are kind of invisibilized by their work.”
That invisibility opens farmworkers to mistreatment and harassment, which is even more prevalent for the increasing number of women now working in the fields2,3. Sexual harassment and assault among women farmworkers is common, difficult to prevent, and likely often goes unreported. Even the most well-intentioned bosses are unable to supervise their entire crews (which usually consist of about 12 people) when everyone is dispersed so broadly amidst the sprawling orchards. And the physical nature of the work itself—climbing ladders, raising both hands to pick fruit, carrying heavy baskets of produce—leaves women physically vulnerable and less able to defend themselves. Many women have taken to wearing sweatshirts tied around their waists or other additional layers of clothing as a deterrent—a particularly unpleasant prospect when performing hard physical labor in the stifling heat of the growing season.
Beyond contributing to an environment rife with abuse and harassment, though, the invisibility experienced by farmworkers may also have intrinsically deleterious effects on mental health and wellbeing. After all, few people want to feel ignored, overlooked, or cast aside. But many farmworkers also report experiencing invisibility’s paradoxical counterpart—what researchers term hypervisibility, or the sense that they are constantly being watched, monitored, or surveilled due to a lack of trust in them or their abilities. Indeed, in many cases, workers may have the distressing perception of feeling simultaneously invisible in some contexts and surveilled relentlessly in others—truly the worst of both worlds.
As Areguin’s dissertation research has evolved, workers’ perceptions and feelings about invisibility, hypervisibility, or both have emerged as her focus. And while farmworkers remain at the core of Areguin’s research, she is also interested in the experiences of other workers whose jobs leave them feeling invisible—custodial workers, for example, whose labors often take place after-hours and under cover of darkness. “What I’m currently most interested in is how workers’ feelings of invisibility or hypervisibility at work relate to their mental health, how they make meaning from their work or believe their work is meaningful, and whether they feel like they have dignity at work,” she says.
To examine those questions empirically, Areguin developed a new visibility scale, which consists of invisibility and hypervisibility subscales. She then conducted two parallel studies: the first a digital survey distributed to lower-wage workers such as custodial staff and cafeteria workers across U-M’s three campuses (Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn); the second an in-person survey performed with farmworkers back home in the Central Valley. In both surveys, participants answered demographic questions (income, age, place of origin, etc.) and a series of questions about their perceptions of invisibility or hypervisibility and their beliefs about the meaningfulness and dignity of their work.
At this stage, Areguin has only begun to analyze the data collected in the surveys, so it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. But based on early analyses of the data from the first study, she is encouraged to see that the visibility scale she developed appears to be holding together.
But perhaps more importantly, based on feedback Areguin received from participants, it appears that even the mere act of conducting the surveys offered a much-needed outlet for workers whose experiences and thoughts are so often ignored.
“What was most heartening and exciting was that my participants said they were all just so grateful to have the opportunity to vent and so happy that someone cares and listens,” she says. “It was also very encouraging that when I shared some of my previous findings with them, they thought it resonated a lot with their own experiences. My ideal, perfect-world goal—for my research and my life—would of course be to eradicate all workplace mistreatment. But my most basic goal for now is just to make people more aware of farmworkers and the unseen work they do so we can all have something to eat. When I asked participants if they had anything they wanted people to know, they said things like ‘it’s a heavy job, and it doesn’t pay well.’ They said things like ‘the job takes a lot of time, effort, and space’ and that ‘fruits and vegetables are harvested in extreme heat and cold.’ Maybe most importantly, they said that they would simply like people ‘to imagine what it’s like to harvest the fruits and vegetables that we all eat.’ Helping make that happen is really my fundamental goal.”
1. Areguin, M. A., Huynh, Q.-L., & Berzenski, S. R. (2020). Reaping more than what they sow: A critical race perspective on environmental microaggressions toward Latinx farmworkers. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 938–948. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620919565
2. Areguin, M. A., & Stewart, A. J. (2021). Latina farmworkers' experiences: Maintaining dignity in an oppressive workplace. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(4), 988–1007. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12788
3. Waugh, I. M. (2010). Examining the sexual harassment experiences of Mexican immigrant farmworking women. Violence Against Women, 16(3), 237–261. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801209360857