I approached the stairs where the beautifully decorated altar stood, my heart started beating louder than normal and it was time to confront the uneasy feeling I was experiencing all morning. “Hello and Bienvenidos to FAN’s annual Día de Los Muertos,” were the first words I said as I attempted to overcome my fear of public speaking. I got a grip of the podium, located my focus point, and glanced at my notes as I led the symbolic event where all 70 of us gathered to celebrate the lives of farm and poultry workers who were injured or died on the job in North Carolina. The undesirable feelings eventually faded away as I reminded myself the purpose of our gathering on that rainy Sunday afternoon.
A few months prior to the event, I was assigned to a team to help plan and carry out the event. Along with a few other tasks, I was responsible for researching the death of farm and poultry workers as well as writing short obituaries that would be read to the audience during the event - easy enough, right? Surprisingly enough, the task to locate the number of farm and poultry worker deaths was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Unaware of the Department of Labor’s unwillingness to report workers death, I was disappointed to find out that many workers’ deaths go uncounted or acknowledged in a state that prides itself in being the largest user of H-2A workers in the nation. The only information I had was a list of 40 agricultural worker fatalities or injuries that listed a name, age, county and in one word, a description of their unfortunate incident. Out of the long list, all I was able to locate was a small twenty-second report on Alejandro Cortes, a 36-year- old who suffocated to death after falling into a grain bin in Monroe, North Carolina.
Upset by the little recognition of his death, I called the news station that released the story and the sheriff that was present at the scene of Alejandro’s death to only be told that his death continues to be under investigation by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Alejandro’s untimely death has given me a new meaning of el Día de Los Muertos/ Day of the Dead, a tradition held by many Latino families in celebration of honoring and remembering the life of deceased loved ones. His death has lead me to acknowledge a population that receives very little recognition, but does so much to provide goods to consumers like myself. This rich tradition has contributed to my personal and professional values as a social worker. It is my responsibility to continue challenging the social injustice that agricultural workers encounter every day in our North Carolina fields. It is my duty to prevent oppression, eliminate worker exploitation, and advocate for better enforced laws. As the Advocacy and Organizing intern with Student Action with Farmworkers, I am gaining the skills required to uphold the organization’s vision where students and community members actively work together with farmworkers for justice in the agricultural system. Our agricultural workers deserve more recognition than to solely be listed on a piece of paper with a name, age, and county.
The Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a coalition of North Carolina organizations working for better working and living conditions for farm and poultry workers, convenes a Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos community altar and press conference annually. It is one of FAN’s many activities to engage the community and to advocate with and for farmworkers for worker dignity and justice.