May 9-15, AFOP is observing National Farmworker Women’s Health Week (NFWHW). This week of awareness is our opportunity to shed light on the occupational health risks that farm worker women face, and as an extension their families due to pesticide residue exposures in the fields. It is also an occasion to acknowledge the role of women in farm work in more than a socio-economic role but as proponents of the farm worker movement.
Maria Moreno a Mexican American, Indigenous, and US Citizen is considered the first farm worker woman in America to be hired as a union organizer, before César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Motivated by county laws prohibiting farm workers from receiving food assistance at the time which resulted in her eldest son not eating so that his 11 siblings could have more food to eat. Her story documented in “Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno” touches on her journey from Texas to California during the Dustbowl Migration.
Many of the same issues of the time, exclusion of farm workers and agriculture from the rights of workers in all other industries, inequalities in the child labor laws, and poor living conditions and wages, which persist today were the impetus for Moreno speaking out and organizing. Moreno was elected by her fellow Mexican American, Black, Filipino and Oklahoman farm workers to fight for collective bargaining rights.
Helen Fabela Chávez , wife, and mother to César Chávez and their 8 children, started out working in the fields at the age of 14 with her family. Chávez later walked along side her husband in his efforts to unionize farm workers, becoming the head of the UFW credit union, and at times returning to work in the fields prior to joining the UFW to support her family.
The New York Times quoted her saying: “While César was organizing, I was picking grapes or doing whatever fieldwork was available. I’d work 10 hours a day, five days a week, for 85 cents an hour, I think.” Like many women, she worked hard to keep her family intact and shielded from the public scrutiny often reserved for her and her husband and all the while supporting La Causa.
Dolores Huerta , a born organizer launched the National Farm Workers Association with César Chávez in 1962, as they shared a common vision of organizing farm workers. Huerta used her organizing and negotiating talents to secure aid for dependent families along with disability insurance for farm workers in California in 1963. Huerta was influential in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, granting farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
And, while fighting for farm workers’ rights Dolores Huerta was also inadvertently fighting for gender equality just by doing what came naturally, speaking up and speaking out when people were being wronged. To this day, although long retired from the union, Dolores continues to work and advocate for women, children and the working poor as the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
These women worked in farm work, personally understood the challenges of being underpaid and underrepresented, but also the power of one. It only takes one to make change and Moreno, Chávez and Huerta understood this concept and shared their collective knowledge with others, teaching individuals how to create necessary change to improve their lives. And, although a lot of these issues remain today, it is their individual roles that have propelled farm workers and the movement to where it stands today.
AFOP Health & Safety Programs focuses on the occupational health and safety aspect of agricultural work for farm workers but during this week it is important to stop and acknowledge the burden placed on farm worker women as well as the hazards they encounter from direct exposure or because of a partner working in farm work. For more information on how to join our efforts or learn more about the topic, check out our page on NFWHW.
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