Workers find beauty, laughter, kindness in county fields

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.Julian Perez-Perez began picking 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 find anythng more to eat than tortillas and coffee.

Now in his mid-40s and living in Hillsboro for the summer, Julian is still picking, but he sleeps in migrant cabins with communal kitchens and bathrooms, and makes $15 an hour. And when he encounters unfair conditions, this time he has help to fight against them.

For almost 12 years, Julian and his family have been members of the Western Farm Workers Association, a self-help system. (See sidebar.) 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 Julian and his family when she ran 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 by the U.S., the woman was working at a food cart but making less than minimum wage — a typical case of wage theft.

Julian 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 farm workers. According to a 2013 USDA Economic Research Service report, roughly 50 percent of farm workers from 2001-09 were not legally authorized to work in the U.S.

Some argue it’s not fair that 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 a small handful of 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, Julian 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.

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, Julian said, or that the best position for rapidly picking strawberries is squatting, not kneeling.

But farm laborers willingly teach new workers, Julian said, 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, though they take naps during the day if they finish work early. It’s still dark when Victoria, Julian’s wife, wakes at 3:30 a.m. to make tortillas, tomatoes, eggs and coffee for breakfast and lunch.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.

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

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

Victoria wants her children to see how hard the work is so they will value their education. “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, smashing some blueberries as she hurried down her row picking. And her brother dropped a bucket, spilling berries across the field. Margarita retells these stories while laughing because, she said, they were all laughing at the time.

And for all its hardships, Julian 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, he said.

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

Unpaid crusader finds reward in transforming lives

Guillermo Magallon helps farm workers find their voice

With a double major in political science and international relations from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Guillermo Magallon could have aimed for a government job with a comfortable salary and excellent benefits.

Instead, Magallon works full-time-plus helping vulnerable Latinos — and earns nothing. He’s the operations manager of Hillsboro’s Western Farm Workers Association (WFWA) office, a wholly volunteer position. Donations from WFWA provide his housing and food. The work provides his reward.

Recently, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce provided a bit of a reward as well, naming Magallon "Volunteer of the Year."

Dick Stenson, who retired last year as president and CEO of Tuality Healthcare, has worked with Magallon since his arrival in Hillsboro and is “mind-boggled” by the activist’s success in getting community members to support WFWA.

“He’s the Mother Teresa of Washington County,” Stenson said. “I have met devoted people, but not like this. He is just so committed and positive about what he’s doing.”

Magallon grew up in a working-class family in Stockton, Calif., where his mother owned a restaurant and his dad worked at a saw mill, but many of their family and friends were farm workers. In one of the most agriculturally wealthy areas of the U.S., Magallon watched those friends and wondered: “Why is it that people who work very hard don’t earn enough to afford the things that they produce?”

It’s a problem he’s spent 22 years trying to solve.

Magallon attributes many of the current hardships farmers face to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Because the law allowed large-scale farming to be done more cheaply in Latin American countries, it made competition difficult for American farmers — and wages lower for their workers, who sometimes run short of food and other necessities.

The WFWA provides food and clothing donations, “but (that’s) not going to solve the problem of why people are hungry,” Magallon said. So it also focuses on teaching its members — farmers and other low-paid workers — how to advocate for better conditions.

“You don’t have to just accept injustice,” he said. “You can do something about it.”

Lorenza Villanueva was a victim of wage theft in one of her first jobs after moving to the U.S. 20 years ago from Michoacan, Mexico. She had hoped for a better life. Instead, she worked as a house cleaner for four months before she realized the promised payments were never coming.

Now, the Beaverton resident makes at least minimum wage harvesting crops and working at Centro Cultural in Cornelius on Saturdays.

Villanueva doesn’t like the heat or cold of farm labor, or the people yelling orders to work faster. But at least she and her husband earn enough to support their family of 10, including her daughter’s children.

Still, paying the bills is a challenge. Magallon said this is a common concern for members, whose utility bills are typically at least 30 percent of their income.

Two winters ago, WFWA fought electricity shutoffs as its low-income Hillsboro residents had to choose between buying food and paying the heating bills, Magallon said.

In addition, WFWA members fought PGE’s proposed 9 percent rate increase by driving to Salem to demand a public hearing from the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC). The PUC lowered the rate increase to 7.4 percent.

It wasn’t much, Magallon said, but the real victory was showing workers they could make a difference

In 2007, WFWA held a successful letter-writing campaign to get the Washington County Department of Health to cover the cost of chest x-rays for members who tested positive for tuberculosis.

Those rewards keep Magallon going. “Being part of empowering people to be leaders ... what’s more gratifying than that?,” he said.

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