Labor rights and farmworkers' rights
Remarks made at 2012 RFK Human Rights Award ceremony
My name is Librada Paz. Librada means liberty and Paz means peace. So my name is also my work. I am of the indigenous Mixtec people from southern Mexico. The history of the Mixtec is much older than the United States. Like so many indigenous peoples in our region, the Mixtec are culturally very rich, but most have known only poverty, discrimination and abandonment by a society that has turned its back on them. As a result, Mixtec language, culture and arts are at risk of extinction.
When I was 15 years old, I made the difficult decision to leave my home and begin the long journey north. I did not want to leave my family or my village, but I knew that opportunities in Oaxaca were scarce. If I stayed I would not reach my dream to study engineering and improve my family’s situation. So I followed my sister and came to the United States, like millions of compatriots and Latin Americans. But instead of finding opportunity, I found myself picking fruits and vegetables in the fields.
I was only 15, but I quickly learned that in the fields of the United States I had to work at the pace of an adult. I learned about injustice, discrimination, suffering, and vulnerability far from the warmth and protection of persons who could help me – far from my family. As a young girl I learned difficult lessons dealing with supervisors and contractors. For more than a decade, I experienced inhuman conditions working in the fields of the United States. In the fields of the United States I learned that farmworkers do not matter. Our security doesn’t matter. Our thoughts don’t matter. Our dignity doesn’t matter.
My childhood ended in the United States. I lived a life shared by so many day laborers working long, arduous hours in the hot sun without rest. I know the pain that comes from being bent ten hours a day. I also know the fear of getting sick or having an accident and losing my job. The enormous discrimination that all farmworkers suffer is multiplied against women who suffer all types of abuse.
Those that dare speak out are threatened, blacklisted, or even be deported. These fields and camps are often isolated and the growers can be violent. When growers feel they can do anything and suffer no consequences; this is terribly dangerous. Those who dare speak out are threatened, blacklisted, or even be deported. You are challenging their bottom line. You are questioning their authority. It is always dangerous to denounce an abuser when you live in the same town and the police will not listen to you.
This is how the dreams of so many farmworkers are buried in the fields of this country.
Abuses occur and you are alone, afraid and often threatened. This is what it means to be vulnerable. You cannot say nor do anything. You are vulnerable because you are poor, because you are a woman, because you are indigenous, and because you are a farmworker. This is what it means when the legal system permits abuse. Justice becomes a word without any meaning.
What is our role in this situation? If we are indignant, if we are upset, we must act. We must be true friends and worthy neighbors of our sisters and brothers. We must join voices as equals because this situation doesn’t only affect farmworkers, it dehumanizes all who look away and ignore the suffering of those who are most vulnerable.
Discrimination is wrong. It was not acceptable in 1937 when discrimination against farmworkers was made law. And it is not acceptable today.
We have marched in our towns and in the capital at Albany. We have faced down Senators in hearings who have questioned our integrity, our story. We must remain calm, but we must be clear. We will not ignore the suffering of our neighbors.
We have made promising advances in New York, including passing three new laws that protect farmworkers right to clean water facilities, sanitation facilities, and a standardized minimum wage. These protections were the first farmworker-initiated laws in New York State’s history.
But we have much more work to do. We are helping field laborers understand their rights and how the political system works. We are opening education centers. We are translating for workers who have been injured and speak only Spanish or Mixtec. We are working to pass a law to end farmworker discrimination. We are not alone. We have diversity and strength. We will pass and implement this law.
I reached my childhood dream when I got my degree in engineering, but one dream follows another. Now I dream of life with dignity and free of discrimination.
Our cause is your cause.
Can we do this? Yes, we can! Szaa Kuu Szahá! ¡Si se puede¡!