Farmworker Health in the Age of the Braceros
Last summer, we started a series about farmworkers in the mid-1900’s, known as braceros. (See Part I and Part II.) This is the third and final installment in the series, where we discuss the far-reaching effects of agricultural work on one bracero’s family. Sadly, it doesn’t sound all that different from the state of farmworker health, today.
Bracero Manuel Montañez,* whose daughter we had the privilege of interviewing, always strove to present his best face to the world. “My dad was suave Latino,” Belinda Montañez* told us. “His mustache had to look just like a movie star. He smelled good; his clothes were nicely ironed. He was always very clean-cut.” Part of this carefully-cultivated image meant that Manuel didn’t share about the things he was struggling with, particularly not with his kids. “He was my dad, he was a big bear,” Belinda remembers fondly. But, she said, he was also “a man’s man. He didn’t talk very much. He was a bracero and that was the end of it: he provides. We [didn’t] know what else [was going] on.”
One of the hardships Belinda’s dad never opened up about was the impact of agricultural chemicals on his health. Belinda only remembers, vividly, a horrible illness: multiple cranial tumors that caused Manuel to lose part of his sight. “The tumor was behind an eye,” Belinda explained, “[so] he had a glass eye for the rest of his life.” Though the tumors were non-cancerous, they caused a debilitating stroke, which eventually killed Manuel at the age of 68.
Manuel wasn’t the only one. In fact, the link between whatever chemicals Manuel was exposed to and his illness was so clear that a group of workers took the offending company to court in a class-action lawsuit. The farmworkers won; the company settled out-of-court. Belinda’s family now owns the shares that were awarded to her father in the settlement. Needless to say, however, the money did nothing to bring back their dad or assuage their grief.
Pesticides pervade Belinda’s own childhood memories. Though she says she was “too little to understand” what pesticides were (she started working in the fields in the 2nd grade), she does remember “touching some of the plants; they felt sticky and funny, smelled chemically, unpleasant, kind of stinky.” Run-off laced with chemicals would drain into irrigation ditches in the fields – ditches which, Belinda said, served as ersatz swimming pools for all the farmworker kids. “There was one swimming hole in all of Calipatria,” she said, so, of course they swam in the canals, exposing themselves to unknown amounts of watery pesticides. (The same practice undoubtably continues today, despite a public safety campaign launched in the 50’s called “Dippy Duck.”)
Why do kids put themselves at risk like this? Because they are in the unfortunate position of having to ‘pick their poison’: pesticide exposure or heat stress. Crops like the onions and cotton Belinda harvested mature best in the heat, putting workers at risk for heat stroke as long as they cannot properly cool themselves down.
For Belinda, heat stroke first struck at age 15. After a very hot day working in onions or cotton, she traveled to a quinceañera, where, as one of the young lady’s godmothers, she was asked to kneel. Her eyes were open at the time, she said, but, suddenly, she was seeing black. Belinda remembers saying, “I can’t see! My eyes are open, but I can’t see!” And then she lost consciousness.
The experience was jarring, and it continues to have an impact on Belinda’s health today. Belinda says that heat stroke “progressively gets worse, like an allergy,” since those who have had it are less tolerant of the heat afterwards. When she goes back to the Imperial Valley, she says, she absolutely depends on A/C. “I feel hot a lot faster, and I can’t handle the heat as much as I could before then,” Belinda told us. “I remember getting around in our car that wasn’t air-conditioned, no big deal. But I can’t do that anymore. [Now,] I do feel horrendously uncomfortable.”
Are things better or worse for farmworkers now than they were in Belinda’s and her dad’s day?
In study after study, agricultural work frequently grades low on safety. Unfortunately, the last few decades have seen an increase in health risks for farmworkers, such as the deadly Valley Fever and an elevated rise in cancer rates, while heat stress is becoming of ever-greater concern as the globe heats up at an alarming rate.
How can the farmworker community navigate these occupational challenges, especially when they are so often at a legal and economic disadvantage and are therefore motivated to remain silent about their misfortunes (much like Manuel)?
Fortunately, AFOP Health & Safety provides training to thousands of farmworkers on all of these topics and more: heat stress, tractor safety, and pesticide safety. In an imperfect world, no solution provides all the answers, but we do believe that our training saves lives. AFOP & our members also serve as critical advocates for the farmworker population at large.
For more information on AFOP Health & Safety and the National Farmworker Training Program, please visit https://afop.org/health-safety/.
For the previous installments in this series on Belinda’s family, go here:
*Names changed to protect identity
Cancer rate among farmworkers: https://www.migrantclinician.org/issues/clinicianscancer.html
Dippy Duck’s 50th anniversary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiTjT9yVfD8
Symptoms and treatment for heat stroke: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/heat-stroke-symptoms-and-treatment#1