County celebrates National Farmworker Awareness Week, honors local advocates

March 25, 2015

Edna Vazquez preforms at Wednesday's National Farmworker Awareness Week celebration.

“I picked strawberries once,” said Edna Vazquez, a Portland-based singer/guitarist originally from Colima, Mexico

She only kept the job for a single day.

“I worked at a nursery. I worked at a cannery. It was so cold I couldn’t stand it. This is the suffering I’m talking about. The fire that’s born for changing things,” Vazquez said before performing a trio of songs Wednesday in honor of Farmworker Awareness Week. “We face these huge changes that destroy us, destroy our hearts and each time we overcome these challenges we become like a plant that grows.”

The Multnomah County Managers of Color Employee Resource Group hosted a celebration in honor of the more than 100,000 farm and migrant laborers who help Oregon harvest more than $3 billion worth of produce each year, and of the man who helped start a movement, the late Cesar Chavez, a farmworker turned workers’ rights advocate born 88 years ago this month.

National Farmworker Awareness Week is celebrating its 16th year of raising awareness of the struggles of the more than 2 million laborers who work in fields in the United States each year.  Farm laborers suffer heat stroke, parasitic infections and tuberculosis at higher rates than other workers, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.

Keynote speaker Octaviano Merecias addresses the crowd.

Keynote speaker Octaviano Merecias, faculty at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, applauded the work of early advocates from PCUN, Causa and Virginia Garcia, and the work of groups including Adelante Mujeres.

Merecias began working in a cannery when he arrived in Oregon 16 years ago. His siblings worked in fields and his father at a tree farm. Today Merecias is coordinator of 4-H Tech Wizards,  a Washington County after-school program that teaches students how to build websites and robots, cut video and plot data using Geographic Information System software.

"Whether you're a student at Harvard or a captain in the U.S. Army or an immigrant working for the county, we're all connected to the seeds planted by these activist," he said.

Raquel Aguillon, a senior case manager at Bienestar de la Familia, has helped immigrant families connect to public services for the past 18 years.

But when she first graduated college she went into broadcast news. It was the 1980s and the young reporter landed the interview of a career: Cesar Chavez stopped by the Paragon TV studio.

“He was a legend. And what I saw in his face was determination. You could see the years had taken their toll. You could see in his face, it was someone who had endured a hard life.”

She asked him what motivated him to keep fighting.

“He said there was a lot of injustice and it wasn’t right,” she remembers today. “He said I can’t give up. There’s a lot of work to to do. I thought of my father, who came in the 1940s to pick cotton and apples.”

Aguillon’s father is 92 today, but she says there is still much work to be done, fighting for better working conditions for agricultural and day laborers, and educating families about the effects of pesticides.

Multnomah County’s chief operating officer Marissa Madrigal ticked off examples of Latino advocates in Oregon whose work has had a cascading effect.

“At budget hearings year after year, the Latino community turns out, 100 moms come with children and husbands to advocate for addictions treatment, and domestic violence services,” she said. “They succeed in making sure those services are around for everyone, And they bring everyone to tears with their authenticity and their pain and their love.”

“We have a legacy of fighting for justice,” Madrigal said. “It’s beautiful and I’m proud to be a small part of that.”