Zillah, WA – We stop at El Ranchito in Zillah in Washington’s Yakima Valley because of its historic significance. Beyond being famous for hosting Cesar Chavez in the 70s, Operating in the 1950s and 1980s, El Ranchito used to be the only place in Washington that Mexicans farmworkers would drive all the way from Renton or La Conner to buy their masa, chiles y yerbas for their gastronomical needs. It was naturally a center for organizing in the region, or at least for sharing la palabra.
I sit with two Mixteco-speaking compañeros as the rest of the compañeros wander the warehouse, check out the juke box and purchase their cemas for the road back. I tell a shellfish worker in Spanish that it’s always darkest before the light as he finishes telling me that retaliation has escalated at his workplace as a result of their organizing.
His gaze penetrates mine, as if to explain how well he knows the darkness, that my metaphor fails to capture what it’s like to actually be struggling on the shop floor that happens to be a remote Puget Sound shore at low tide in that darkness just before the sun rises. He accents his gaze by reminding me, “there are no bathrooms out there,” in broken Spanish.
The cost of fighting back for farmworkers is beyond the grower’s retaliation. The true cost is pre-mature death as described by Ruth Wilson Gilmore,
Racism is a state sanctioned and extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies.(Golden Gulag, 2007)
A fact that is accentuated by the police murders of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in 2015 and Ismael Maria Acevedo in 2013 in Pasco, the police murders of Carlos Mejia, Osmán Hernandez, and Ángel Ruiz in 2014 in Salinas, all of whom were farmworkers among the countless others who have arrived at a pre-mature death by legal means at the hands of the police or the many others who have faced a pre-mature death by extralegal means.
The cost of fighting back is a premature social death. Whether as a political prisoner in Mexico, as is the case of Washington Farmworker Nestora Salgado who stood up to the cartels in her hometown in Guerrero by leading her community’s auto-defensa forces or like the Washington farmworkers who find themselves on administrative hold in the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, who like hunger strike leader Ramon Mendoza Pascual are held indefinitely over false pretenses, to the humiliation of rape and sexual harassment at the workplace beyond the economic exploitation.
Still, farmworkers rebel, men and women, young and old, generation after generation, geography after geography.
At my side in El Ranchito is a 21st century union leader. One who has enunciated his experiences, his thoughts and his resolve after having lived the exploitative organization of production of agri-corporations in San Quintin, Baja California; Indentured labor in the U.S. South; Sharecropping in the Santa Maria Valley of California; and Seasonal Migrant Labor in Washington’s Skagit and Whatcom Counties.
He touches my shoulder to make sure that I follow, telling the shellfish working compañero, that what I say is true after I respond that this union took over ten years of struggle to be strong when he asks me when will it be time for them to beat back the retaliation. I realize that I am being used to strengthen the shellfish worker’s resolve, and am humbled by the honor, as he motions for the shellfish worker to continue.
San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico was for years immediately before and after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a migration anchor for Mixteco and Triqui farmworkers from Oaxaca and Guerrero. They faced here exploitation at the hands of Driscoll’s contractors, yet rebelled enough by moving between the many farms for better pay and treatment, that the Driscoll’s corporation moved most of its contracts further south to the states of Jalisco and Sinaloa in search of more ‘docile’ workers, workers who were desperate enough because of the rule of cartels to easily control beginning in 2013.
On March 17, 2015, over 10,000 farmworkers rose up in the San Quintin Valley. That same day 1,337 miles due north their brothers and sisters were also exercising their dignity.
For to rebel is to make the decision to exercise dignity in the face of exploitation, humiliation, indignity and disrespect. To be the bigger person. To be unabashedly powerful.
I explained further to the shellfish worker that the reason it is a good sign that there is retaliation is because the enemy throws all they’ve got at you right before they lose, that is why it is darkest just before the light, because they are in a panic because it is we who are winning in our rebellion.
The silence is what we should pay attention to, because it is the silence before the storm where the repression yet to come is brewing.
On March 17, 2015 a list of demands was released by the Alliance of National, State, and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice and the main road was blockaded in San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico. Tires were set on fire along the roadway as tens of thousands of indigenous people, farmworkers marched, some covered their faces in that traditional zapatista red, eyes menacing in that dignant rage that has been brewing from generations of exploitation, humiliation, and disrespect.
Simultaneously, on the Yakama Reservation near Toppenish, Ana Demetrio on behalf of her union Familias Unidas por la Justicia was present as the plaintiff of a case being heard by the Washington State Supreme Court. Beyond a record settlement for $850,000 in back wages against their employer Sakuma Brothers Farms, the Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether or not farmworkers in the state of Washington were entitled to paid rest breaks if they worked for piece-rates.
The message we are circling: we are winning!