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Carlos speaking at a farm worker rally in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Photo by Alex Marentes.

Food Voices: The Interviews

Carlos Marentes, Farmer
El Paso, Texas

Carlos has been organizing migrant agricultural workers since 1977 in South Texas, the Río Grande Valley, and now in the border area between the United States and Mexico.

It took me time to realize the importance of the fight for food sovereignty. For many years, our enemies were the farmers and producers. We were on one side, demanding the rights of workers, better wages, improvements of working conditions. On the other side were the farmers protecting their fields and crops. We organized many labour stoppages for better pay. The salaries in the border region are very low in comparison to other regions of the country. The average annual income for the chile pickers is less than $6,000 a year, which is not even close to the federal poverty income guidelines. Often we won, increases of 5 cents here, 10 cents there. Little by little, we were improving the wages.

In 1992, I was mapping the field in Southern New Mexico for a labour stoppage. While I was there, people arrived to test the field, the chiles, and the crop. Suddenly the owner and farmer of the field arrived. When he saw me, he knew he was the farmer who was the target for our labour stoppage. I asked him, who are those people? He said they were the owners of the crop. They were there to check the quality of the chile, to check whether the chile was ready for harvest.  

At that point I realized the farmer did not have control over production or the price. He was also a victim of the food system controlled by a few corporations and food processors who set the rules of the game. At that time we changed our attitude towards producers and realized they were not the enemy. At the beginning of the year the farmer signed a contract with the company to set the price, what to grow, when and how. The contract clearly specified the quality of the product and told the farmer what kind of seeds to use, the fertilizers and the chemicals. Everything was imposed upon the farmer. I started to dialogue with this specific farmer and realized there was no margin to increase salaries and improve the working conditions in the field. We started to understand the plight of the agricultural worker in a bigger context. We were so focused on the conditions of the farm workers that we did not realize that it was a system.

That made us think about developing relationships with farmers, especially small framers who were in a more vulnerable position. We realized that we can fight all we can for the rights of farm workers and that we will not make any advances if we fight in isolation. Out of this relationship, we discovered the big picture, that is was a global problem. We learned how the farm policies of the U.S. have a deep negative impact on the farmers, and the results were low wages and bad working conditions for farm workers. Those policies were also responsible for the displacement of peasants from rural Mexico who came to the United States, to cross the border, to risk their lives, to work in intensive industrial agriculture. We realized that our life was connected to something bigger and it was basically an attempt to change the neo-liberal model of agriculture.

Until 1994, the Ejido system prevailed in rural Mexico, where communities, rather than individuals, owned land and natural resources. In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated. Prior to the approval of NAFTA, the United States insisted the Mexican government modify Article 27 of the constitution - the Ejido system. The modification allowed land privatization, and now, nearly 5 million peasants are landless.

Our fight, our struggle includes two aspects. The first aspect is the day-to-day fight to protect the rights of the workers for better working and living conditions. That is something we don’t give up on, we keep fighting. That only alleviates the problem in the short run. The second aspect in the long run is to fight and organize to rebuild the peasant economies that have been destroyed and where these workers are coming from. This is the root of the problem. If many of the farm workers are able to survive in their own land, they will not have to cross the border, they will not have to become part of the cheap labour that is the foundation, the backbone of industrial commercial agriculture.