Andres Sandoval went to a doctor in Benson, North Carolina four years ago complaining of stomach aches and difficulty sleeping. He was diagnosed with leukemia, and as a pesticide applicator, believed his disease was linked with prolonged pesticide exposure over the nine years he had returned to the United States to work. Ultimately, despite receiving treatment, he had to return to Mexico when his visa expired. Andres died in Mexico in March of this year, waiting on a humanitarian visa so he could continue to work and receive treatment.
His obituary was read to publicly memorialize him and other farmworkers who have died on the job at a traditional Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebration held last week in Raleigh. The gathering was organized by the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a statewide coalition of more than 15 organizations – including the NC Council of Churches – working to create safer places to live and work for farmworkers.
Andres’ story highlights the dependency of the agricultural supply chain and consumers on migrant workers for cheap food. Facing dangerous working conditions, substandard housing, pesticide exposure, and legal loopholes that fail to protect them and their children, farmworkers risk life and limb to bring food to supermarkets, restaurants, and dining room tables.
Advocates and workers who gathered, in between the reading of obituaries like Andres’, described the lack of adequate shower facilities despite the presence of pesticides, the low compensation that means half of farmworkers are themselves hungry, and loopholes that allow children to be exposed to industrial agriculture. And Bacilio Castro of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center and other workers shared stories about people receiving pay cuts despite increased work output, and about being subject to injury on the job without protection or hope of a restored livelihood.
This year, FAN’s celebration of Day of the Dead, for all its solemnity, is a small sign of hope that these injustices are coming into the public consciousness, but it is also a call to action. There is much to be done, calling on state officials and legislators to protect the interests of the powerless in North Carolina. There are obvious, common-sense measures that can be taken, beginning with keeping children who would otherwise not be permitted to get jobs at malls and movie theaters from being exposed to industrial agriculture, and holding officials responsible for enforcing existing regulations. This is the clarion call to action for North Carolinians.
Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, told reporters gathered for the event that celebrating Day of the Dead next year in the same capacity would represent a failure of our society to notice the plight of workers and make the humane choice to support them. Her remarks highlight the road ahead this year. It may be a long one, but it is an important journey anyone in North Carolina who eats cannot ignore. The human cost of our food is not always apparent, but workers, like Andres, pay the price.