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“The Cycle of Poverty”: Mexican-American Migrant Farmworkers Testify before Congress

In the early 20th century, large-scale commercial agriculture displaced family farms, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. Hand labor, however, remained more cost effective for harvesting certain fruits and vegetables. Farmworkers under this new system were hired only for seasonal work and had to travel frequently. The migratory experience left these workers—primarily Mexicans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos—permanent outsiders and vulnerable to exploitation, low wages, and wretched working and living conditions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established rights of industrial workers to unionize. The Act omitted farmworkers, though, due in part to fears that the powerful farm growers’ lobby would prevent passage. Organized efforts by unions and others to rescind the exemption failed in subsequent years. In the 1960s, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, started a strike and boycott of table grapes that gained nationwide support. Although California enacted the first state legislation to protect farm labor union organizing in 1975, other states did not follow, and many union gains in California have since been lost. In the following testimony from a 1969 Senate hearing, migrant farmworkers from Florida and Texas discussed their experiences and problems. Since 1970, fresh fruit consumption in the U.S. has risen sharply, increasing the demand for hand labor. Living and working conditions for migrants remain poor in much of the country.


Mr. JUAREZ. Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, I have prepared a statement that I would like to present to you. This statement is based on what I myself lived through since I was old enough to work and became a migrant at the age of 5. Based on my experience and how I continue to see the way my people suffer, in this statement I would like to express my feelings, as well as my opinions, and the feeling and opinions of others that I have worked with side by side in the fields.

Of all the groups living in poverty, the migrant farmworker and his family in general suffer the greatest socioeconomic deprivation. The migrant farmworker and his family travels throughout the Nation, living from day to day, depending upon his luck that the crops are good and that nothing happens, for instance, while he travels on the road.

Him and his family will eat as little and as cheap as he can, for he has very little money to get there. If his car breaks down, the mechanics overcharge him as much as they feel they can get away with. Because of bad weather and the time that laps between each crop, it is impossible for him to save any money—plus the high cost of living, plus the excessive amount of rent that he has to pay for the rat and roach infested pigpen that him and his family are forced to live in while he lives in Florida.

So when crops are over in the State of Florida, there is no way that he can continue to survive, so he migrates. And because of that the migrant farmworkers have had great difficulties in their employment relationships, much of this arising out of exploitation and abuse by irresponsible farmers and crew leaders who sometimes underpay them, short count them, and overcharge them for transportation. Crew leaders on occasions, collect wages from the employers and then abandon the workers without paying them.

His mobility deprives the migrant of many of the basic social services that are available to the local poor such as welfare, medical coverage and care, vocational rehabilitation, and day care for children. More than often his housing does not meet code standards.

Our children are pulled out of schools so that they may help provide for the family in the fields or at home taking care of smaller children so that mothers can work. . . .

Our children suffer regardless of what you do. If he goes to school, often he goes without breakfast—and if you are able to find out about the free lunch program and was able to take the insults or had the courage to fight for it, and find someone to fill out the forms, then your child might get lunch. For there are very few schools who have people who will search for ways to help you and many persons who will search for as many ways possible to keep you from getting such services.

This is also true in some of the Federal and State local agencies. For we have a very discriminatory and humiliating welfare system and unconstitutional residency requirements for receiving welfare and health services. Some of those people, when not able to deprive us from such services on terms of residency, plainly tell us we have no right and that we don’t belong—thus making most of my people mad, never to return.

What this system and our society is going to have to know and understand is that the migrant farmworker, even though tired, uneducated, hungry, and sick, have contributed and sacrificed just as much as anyone else and more than most to this Nation. We have cultivated this earth, planted and harvested all crops for generations in order to provide all the luxuries in food, clothing, and many other items that those of society which surrounds us enjoy today.

My people, the migrants in general, composed of all types of Americans, regardless of race, color, or religion, our fathers, our sons, our kin, have died in wars fighting for the security and peace of this Nation as well as in the fields while harvesting the crops because of irresponsible farmers and their insecticides sprayed in the fields.

Gentlemen, bad working conditions and low wages for generations have maintained a slave labor system which insures that the migrant farmworker’s children will have to live the same way he did and will continue to be slaves to agriculture and business.

Hunger, malnutrition, sickness, and lack of education will continue to exist. Our children will continue to suffer because children cannot study if they are hungry, always ill, and trying to do homework in hot and crowded shacks. And our men today will continue to lack the initiative and power because a hungry man with children who are sick and suffering from malnutrition, who must be constantly struggling to live and keep his family alive will soon tire and if he continues to seek assistance in the traditional government-processed way, and makes no headway, God knows how long he will be patient in his struggle to get his children out of the cycle of poverty that this system, through discriminatory legislation, has kept.

Mr. Chairman, members of this subcommittee, of all things I have said I hope you have paid attention. With all my heart I have presented some of the problems that have existed since past generations and continue to exist to this day. I have lived them, experienced them, and suffered them. This is not hearsay.

I am sure that others have told you the same things I have spoke about. Some of you have seen them with your own eyes. We have no reason to lie for we have nothing to lose for we have never had anything.

Those who have spoken against us, have because of profits, others for their own person gain, some have, because they, too, suffer and really don’t understand who is to blame and because they misinterpret our needs to charity they tend to be against us.

But more and more people are joining together and soon there will be enough people to keep men in power who will make, pass, and enforce laws that will be fair and equal to all Americans, just as there will be enough people to bring down those in power who are favorable to one group only because of personal gain.

Therefore, discriminary legislation practices should continue no more. The migrant worker should be covered by the National Labor Relations Act with additional favorable rights as well as workman’s compensation laws, unemployment compensation, insurance laws, social security codes must be enforced to improve the conditions of housing provided to him. Programs such as housing loans, small business loans which the migrant has never heard about until others who have recently come into this Nation.

Let’s stop worrying about other nations and do something about our own. Do something about the migrant so he can pull himself out of this repeating cycle.

The men who are in power must fight hard to make real changes in society and society’s laws. Change all discriminatory laws and attitudes. The men who are in power must help the powerless to gain power and all rights entitled to him. Bad programs of the establishment must be eliminated for good programs. Those which dispute the powers that be and fight for the poor must be maintained and encouraged in their activities.

If the poor are not given extra encouragement and help in gaining power over their own lives and influence into the general society in order to eliminate poverty; if the governments, local and national, do not respond to the real needs of the poor through traditional processes, the poor will find other ways to make their needs known and to gain power. . . .

Senator BELLMON. You mentioned you were sold to a sugar beet company?

Mr. JUAREZ. Yes, sir.

Senator BELLMON. How? Can you explain?

Mr. JUAREZ. Well, through our crew leader, through a person who had a truck who recruited labor who found out that the sugar beet company in Ohio happened to be in need of labor and so he just went around and since he was known to most of the people there, even to my father, these families were talked into coming to Ohio where the word that he gave was you can sweep money with a broom. So this is the way we were sold in the State of Ohio. I remember that it was a little town called Metamora, Ohio. From there, because of the rains we didn’t get to even know what the sugar beets looked like. Then I didn’t even know what sugar beets were. But we were kept there anyway because the man who brought us there just brought us there for what he got and he returned. We never seen him no more.

Senator BELLMON. So you were left in Ohio and it was raining and you weren’t able to work in the sugar beets, right?

Mr. JUAREZ. Yes, and we created a big debt. My father and all the rest of the families got in real bad debt. They split up the families, the company did, and found other various jobs so that they could pay for the food that they had eaten, my father. And my cousin, which was the oldest one in our family, was the one who worked along with him. The job that they got was the railroad company, railroad tracks, working on the railroad. After he paid, after they paid the debt and we were able to make enough money to try to return to Texas, we only made it as far as Osceola, Ark., because while we were there waiting to transfer on the bus, one of my sisters was very sick and then we met another Mexican-American fellow there that told us about the good cotton that was being raised there and we had picked cotton before. So therefore we decided to end our journey there and maybe try to make a little more money and give my sister a chance to get well. So that is where we stopped and then from Arkansas then we traveled into Missouri and from Arkansas and Missouri we started migrating into Durand, Wis., to work with the pea vineries. The only reason we went to Wisconsin was because when I was about, 1 year, there was 1 year, way after we had already started migrating back into Ohio to pick tomatoes and Indiana to pick tomatoes and Michigan to pick cherries. When we went to Duran, it was because I stowed away in a crew leader’s truck and I ran away from home. I was 12 years then. I was able after being tested by the foreman to prove my ability to do the job. I was given a job and was able to save about $200 to bring back to my father and thus told him about the good work over there. Then we started going into Wisconsin.

Senator BELLMON. Mr. Juarez, you mentioned then when you were 12 you became a full-fledged worker on your own, is this right?

Mr. JUAREZ. No, I was working in the fields. I became a migrant when I was 5 and then actually I was about 6 years old when I was working in the fields because that is when we started picking cotton, pulling cotton, chopping cotton.

Senator BELLMON. Do you still make your living as a migrant?

Mr. JUAREZ. No, sir. I don’t. My wife still works out in the field, yes.

Senator BELLMON. What sort of work do you do now?

Mr. JUAREZ. Well, now I am employed by the South Florida Migrant Legal Services. I was lucky enough to get a job there after trying for about 2 weeks without working in the fields so that I could go over and try to get a job because it has been my ambition to get out of the migratory road because I don’t want my children to live the life I did.

Senator BELLMON. Can you tell the subcommittee why migrant workers continue this kind of a life? Why don’t they all get out of it?

Mr. JUAREZ. Why don’t they all get out?

Senator BELLMON. Yes.

Mr. JUAREZ. Power.

Senator BELLMON. Is this the reason they stay and can’t get out?

Mr. JUAREZ. Well, for some it is possible sometimes, but on very few occasions it is possible. For example, the only reason I was able to get out of that system and happened to decide to stay in Florida was because there is a longer period of time where there is work available over there and if I stayed there was only about 3 to 4 months where there wouldn’t be no work, and usually when a migrant tries to stay in one place or he wants to quit the migrant stream, there is a lot of questions that trouble to your mind. For example: Am I going to be able to do this job that I am able to get? If I am not able, they will probably fire me. If they fire me, how am I going to pay my rent? I don’t know anybody here. Who is going to help me? Who is going to lend me any money? Nobody trusts me because I don’t have anything to put as collateral. Thus these questions go in your mind and a lot of them try. They will try for 3 and 4 years, continue to try each time in a place where it might look favorable to them where they see that there might be a job that they might be capable to do. But then there are doubts and, not knowing anyone in the community and then going into town and you get looks, people look at you with a question in their face like, what is this person doing here, where did he come from? Or the police is liable to pick you up for vagrancy if you are just standing out there trying to find a job or be friendly with anyone. If you happen to be broke or are trying to find a friend, the police just picks you up and charges you for vagrancy, and you don’t have any money to hire an attorney. It’s a problem.

Senator BELLMON. Your feeling is that most migrants feel helpless and as if they are sort of trapped in the sort of lives they live, is this right?

Mr. JUAREZ. Yes. Yes; that is true.

Senator BELLMON. They would prefer other types of employment if they felt they could get it?

Mr. JUAREZ. The majority of them, every one of them I believe would like to do something different, you know. Some of them would like to continue and work, you know, but with a decent wage, with a decent wage. . . .

Senator MONDALE. Mr. Juarez, have you ever tried as a migrant either alone or with others to talk to your employers and try to get the salaries up, the wages up, or other working conditions corrected?

Mr. JUAREZ. Yes; a lot of times.

Senator MONDALE. What has your experience been?

Mr. JUAREZ. They have one answer right away, “If you don’t like it, you know where you came from.” And you can’t very well try to get anybody else to protest or protest yourself because you will be thrown out and if you don’t have any money, where are you going to go, and then they consider you a troublemaker. So its very bad, you know, for that. It creates a bad feeling because then they can usually pay somebody else even in the group, for example, to deal with you in many ways.

Senator MONDALE. In your years as a migrant you haven’t found, even though you have tried, evidence that there is power among the migrant workers themselves, at least the way it is now, to correct your own conditions through improved pay or improved working conditions? That has not been your experience?


Senator MONDALE. What about political power of the migrant worker? I assume that it is obvious that when you are on the road and in communities in which you don’t reside, you don’t have any political power. You don’t vote there. You are not going to be there to vote in future years, and they all know it.

Mr. JUAREZ. You don’t have any political power anywhere.

Senator MONDALE. What about the place where you stay between crops and over the winter? I think you said you live in Florida. What about the counties and communities in which you reside? Don’t you have large numbers of Mexican-Americans or migrants with other backgrounds who can join together and try to gain some political power?

Mr. JUAREZ. No. Even the police, you know, the experience that the migrant has had with the police is something terrible. He can’t trust a police officer. If he sees a uniform he can’t trust it because the police has had a way with people who don’t belong in that community or who are not from there because as soon as something happens, then those people did it, since they come here it has happened, and usually, you know, like other people may get the benefit of a knock on the door, the migrant gets his door knocked down or opened even at night at 11 or 12 o’clock if they happen to be looking for somebody, they just go over and break the door down and shine the light on people that are sleeping on the floor because there is only room in that, only space enough in that room to put a bed or two and you don’t have enough bedding for all of them in that room.

Senator MONDALE. Take that situation in, say, Collier County. What is your home county?

Mr. JUAREZ. Okeechobee.

Senator MONDALE. There are a lot of migrants and farmworkers in Okeechobee, are there not?

Mr. JUAREZ. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. Suppose the local police do that and they have one system of law enforcement for the powerful in the community and another for the farmworkers of the kind that you are discussing. Can’t you seek a political remedy, in other words, get a new mayor or new county board?

Mr. JUAREZ. How? Who is going to believe you anyway? There are people in here doubting it, you know. I should feel hate, you know, because I can sense people in this room, you know, because I have been sensing it all my life and I have been trained to that, and I should feel hate, you know, but I don’t. I pity them, you know, because they are only sick people. In my way of feeling they are sick in their mind, and they are the ones who are causing this Nation to be in such bad conditions, to be falling apart. . . .

Senator MONDALE. I noticed that there were a good number of Mexican-Americans who had come from Texas who lived in Florida. Many of them had left. You went around, but you finally got to Florida. Collier and Lee Counties are the two places where we saw thousands of Mexican-Americans when we went with the Hunger Committee. Why do they go to Florida?

Mr. JUAREZ. Well, you see the cycle of crops are not always in the same months of time. There is even a cycle of crops in the State of Florida and each group, even though there are very many migrants to this day, follows, each group specializes in certain crops. For example, those who like tomatoes will follow tomatoes until there is no more tomatoes. Then they will do something else. Then they will come to pick cherries. So they can pick tomatoes in Ohio and Indiana. In Texas because of the floods, because of bad weather and the hurricanes that passed over, their crops have been bad, and a lot of the people there know that there is work to be done in Florida. So therefore they migrate into the State of Florida.

Senator MONDALE. Could it be that the rather free supply of unskilled poor farm workers from Mexico who freely cross the border into Texas and California encourages Mexican-Americans who live along the border to live somewhere else where they might not be as fully exposed to competitive labor?

Mr. JUAREZ. That is right. There are so many of them coming across and because the farmers continue to gripe about shortage of labor and then they are talked into that. For example, I know one man in Florida who was paid for to go all the way into Mexico to try to encourage or to find ways to bring the Mexicans from Mexico even all the way up to Florida.

Senator MONDALE. In Florida about 2,500 workers come in from the British West Indies to work in sugar cane. Now I am told that they are bringing in 2,000 from the British West Indies for citrus this year. What impact will that have?

Mr. JUAREZ. I guess they are trying to starve us. I guess they are trying to do away with us, like the man said, do away with the headache, because we find it awful hard to even find enough jobs for the people that are already there. If they bring in more people, I am scared to think. . . .


Senator MONDALE. You work with the migrant workers along the Texas border, do you not, the Texas-Mexican border?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. Is it your impression that most of them want to migrate?

Mrs. KRUEGER. No; they would like to settle down. But the problem there is that there is no industry, there is no work, and even the stores in town, the department stores pay only 50 cents an hour.

Senator MONDALE. You live in Pharr, Tex.? How far is that?

Mrs. KRUEGER. From McAllen?

Senator MONDALE. From Mexico.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Twelve miles.

Senator MONDALE. Twelve miles. Do the growers in that area and the department stores and banks and the other employers find it relatively easy to get Mexican labor from across the border?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Yes; very easy. As a matter of fact, some of them know for a fact that some of the Mexican workers are there illegally, but they will just close their eyes because they know that they can have cheap labor.

Senator MONDALE. So that would you say that that supply of labor is almost inexhaustible and employers can get all they want?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right.

Senator MONDALE. Whatever the details of the present regulations, in fact they can get all the foreign labor they want?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Oh, yes; very much so.

Senator MONDALE. There is no problem there?

Mrs. KRUEGER. There is no problem there.

Senator MONDALE. Meanwhile the U.S. citizen, the Mexican-American, or the resident alien, have to live at U.S. standards.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right.

Senator MONDALE. But he is exposed to the competition of people living in Mexican standards?

Mrs. KRUEGER. And he is forced to migrate.

Senator MONDALE. That is why he is forced to migrate, because there is not the employment that permits him to live or survive. So that he gets in his car and starts moving.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right.

Senator MONDALE. What about the political power issue? Along these areas of southern Texas there are many Mexican-Americans, are there not?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Yes, there are.

Senator MONDALE. Why don’t they do a better job of electing sympathetic people?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Well, for one thing I think down in the Valley there is, oh, I am not too good at figures, but I would say there would be about 80 percent Mexican-American population, but the thing is that we as Mexican descendants have feelings, pride, and a feeling of gratitude, and when some of our Mexican-Americans climb up the ladder, if they want to stay over there, they have to take orders from the higher power structure and just not heed the cries of the problems of the others.

Senator MONDALE. What you are saying is that a Mexican-American who makes it, so to speak, and starts getting a better job—

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right, and if he wants to stay there, he just better do what the power structure tells him.

Senator MONDALE. So that he is not likely to continue to be an ally of the poorer Mexican-American?

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right. I am pretty sure that if we, the Mexican-Americans, would be as united as the Negro people have been, we would be in a better position now to fight for our rights, but the thing is that, as I said, our race, we have always been inclined to be humble and just take everything that comes to us. . . .

Senator MONDALE. It is 1 o’clock. We could go on a long time.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Senator, I would like to get this on the record about no protection whatever to a migrant. We had a case in Arkansas that the worker died and he was up there by himself. So the grower shipped the body c.o.d. to Mission, Tex., and I would like to have the people hear this.

Senator MONDALE. When did that happen?

Mrs. KRUEGER. That happened several months ago—October of 1968.

Senator MONDALE. He sent it c.o.d.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. That was a thoughtless thing to do.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Collect on delivery. Of course, this is another morbid situation that migrants have to be faced with because can you imagine to even have the slap in the face that here comes the body of a beloved person and that the grower didn’t even care to pay whatever the expense was?

Senator MONDALE. I think what you are saying, and this of course comes out every day, is that the migrant is so powerless that he not only has lost the capacity to argue for a better wage and working conditions and housing and health care, but in a strange way they have denied him his humanity—

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right.

Senator MONDALE (continuing). His human dignity, his right to be treated as a person.

Mrs. KRUEGER. Right.

Senator MONDALE. It is probably this final insult that is the most costly and tragic part of the total process. . . .

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions on Who are the Migrants? June 9 and 10, 1969, Part 1 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).