It might seem an odd conversation piece, but Carlos Marentes keeps a bag of dried Chinese chili in a box behind his desk.
Marentes, founder and director of the Border Farm Workers Center, discovered the chili in a place where, he says, it should not belong.
“That chili was being sold right here, in El Paso, Texas,” Marentes said, “and that seems like something insignificant, but it’s not.”
Some of the best chili on the market grows right in El Paso’s own backyard.
“Here, we have the most important chili production in the world,” he said. Why, then, would local markets stock cheap chili from the other side of the globe?
The question seems simple enough. But the answer, says Marentes, is far more complex. “There’s something that has to be noticed here about how agriculture works,” he noted.
In his view, the answer is a broken value system, one which links consumerism and commercial agriculture into an exploitative relationship with the sources of our food—namely, the land and the people who work it.
“We are talking about food here,” Marentes said. “The food that we’re supposed to give to our bodies, to strengthen our identities, even our beliefs—our religious beliefs, our cultural beliefs, our history—and losing that is the danger of leaving our food system in the hands of corporations that continue to disregard environmental issues and human rights.”
The Frontlines of Ag
Marentes began working with agricultural workers here in 1980 and founded the Border Farm Workers Center with a group of friends in February 1995. For nearly 40 years he’s been on the frontlines, advocating for fair treatment of farm workers in a system which he says is built from the ground up on their oppression.
At a given time, between 5,000-12,000 farm workers labor in the region surrounding El Paso, Marentes said. Additionally, numerous workers stop by the center on their way to other agricultural sectors throughout the U.S.
Many of these laborers, by virtue of being migrants, find themselves in vulnerable positions. They travel long distances with little support and arrive in a country where many are openly hostile toward their presence. Those who remain in the area to be close to family find themselves in a labor-surplus market, which keeps their wages low and situation precarious.
“Mexico is the largest labor reserve for the United States,” Marentes said. “Here, if you don’t work, there are all these people behind you ready to work.”
The center exists to support farm workers in any way possible, Marentes said, whether it’s providing a cup of coffee, a place of rest or education.
“A very important part of the work we do here is to make the workers understand the nature of the industry that they’re involved in,” he said, “so the workers can realize the importance of their contribution, and so they demand to be part of the prosperity created by agriculture.”
‘The disposable people’
Marentes maintains farm workers are exploited because they’re viewed as a specific group within agriculture’s economic system.
Between 3 million-4 million people work in U.S. farms, he said, and eight of 10 are from Mexico, while many more are from Central America.
Since most farm workers are from other countries, “America expects that they work, then return back home,” Marentes said.
For that reason, society tries to justify paying them lower wages than those standard for other workers within the economy, he said.
Meanwhile, the USDA estimated agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $992 billion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, a 5.5-percent share. The output of America’s farms contributed $136.7 billion of this sum—about 1 percent of GDP.
With so much wealth created, Marentes questions the ease with which society relegates the men and women working the land to marginal living and working conditions.
“These are not unemployed people,” he said. “These are farm workers. They work very hard. But they have to seek shelter to spend the night, to rest, to take a shower or have a cup of coffee. These are the only group of workers doing that.
“The rest of the workers have a place—even if it’s a modest place, a modest roof over their heads—to spend the night, to be with their families.”
In 2014, Marentes was invited to meet Pope Francis, who described society’s view of farm workers in a way that, to him, hit the nail on the head.
“Pope Francis gave farm workers a designation,” Marentes said. “‘They are ‘the disposable people.’”
The environmental cost
The concept of disposability applies not only to those working the land, Marentes said, but also to the land itself.
“The most terrible changes happening in climate and the environment have to do with the model of agriculture, the model of production that doesn’t care for nature, that doesn’t even pay for the destruction of nature,” he said.
Disregard for the environment is no small matter, Marentes noted, as the effects are visible in the mass die-off of species, in the poor health of most Americans, in air pollution and low-quality food and ecosystem degradation.
“Nature plays a major role in every aspect of production—the rivers, air, everything,” he said. “And the corporations use it, and they don’t even have to pay for that. It’s like unpaid labor. They damage a river and then when they no longer are able to make profit, they move someplace else. They leave the damage to the community.
“It’s important to challenge all these elements of production that damage nature,” he added, “because we live here.”
To that end, Marentes has begun advocating for more widespread consumer understanding of the role their choices play in the system. Harkening back to the 1960s and 70s, when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring helped spark a movement for the idea of chemical-free food, Marentes and his colleagues hope to again thrust consumer responsibility into the limelight.
“We have come up with this concept of oppression-free food,” he said. “The idea is to put into the minds of consumers the need to buy, to eat, to choose food that does not cause oppression to human beings or to nature.”
With this in mind, he hopes everyday Americans can help spearhead a shift away from large-scale industrial agriculture to smaller family farms.
“If you’re a small farmer, you will protect your piece of land, because it’s very important,” Marentes said. “It’s what gives you the capacity to live.”
In this respect, buying a bag of Chinese chili versus the same grown ethically and locally makes all the difference in the world, Marentes said.
“There’s a connection—food, workers, land, water. I don’t get tired of telling everybody that food is our direct connection to nature.”
Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area. Previous Columns can be read HERE.
Writer Chilton Tippin works for Wondor and is pursuing an MA in Latin American and Border studies at UTEP. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.