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On This Thanksgiving Day, Gratitude for the Harvesters

On This Thanksgiving Day, Gratitude for the Harvesters

Today, all over our nation, family and friends gather together to share
a meal and recognize the good life that America has bestowed upon so
many. Since Thanksgiving is as a holiday of gratitude and remembrance,
it seems an especially appropriate moment to recognize our country's
farmworkers, the one and a half million seasonal laborers who hand
harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables that grace our tables.

Farmworkers are the poorest and most marginalized of America's laborers.
They earn an average of $6,500 per year and over two-thirds live in
poverty. They have always been recruited from among the most vulnerable
members of American society - undocumented immigrants, the homeless, the
rural poor - and have consistently been denied the legal protections
provided to other workers. To this day, our nation's farm laborers have
no right to overtime pay, are denied equal protections for union
organizing, and work under special rules that allow children as young as
twelve to labor in the fields, despite the fact that agricultural work
is one of our nation's most dangerous professions.

Farmworkers pass through every region of the country, travelling
hundreds if not thousands of miles, crossing state lines and
international borders, enduring dislocation and uncertainty to ensure
that our supermarkets are filled with fresh produce. Despite their
important contribution to our lives, America's farmworkers remain
hidden from view, their struggles unrecognized. Still, remembering
farmworkers on Thanksgiving should not be an exercise in guilt, but
rather an extension of gratitude to a class of workers whose hard work
enables our prosperity.

As consumers, we have a direct, almost visceral, bond with farmworkers.
Virtually every vegetable or piece of fruit that we purchase was hand
harvested by a farm laborer. While the produce we buy may have been
mechanically sorted and packed, super-cooled, chemically treated, waxed,
and shipped across the nation, often the last hand to touch the produce
we buy was that of a migrant farmworker. Simply by purchasing the
lettuce, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, and apples
found on our tables today, we are connected with a hidden world of
laborers, a weave of interconnected lives.

While we are experiencing a moment of great affluence in our nation,
this is also a time of growing divisions between those who control
wealth and those who do not. As the more fortunate isolate themselves
from those less fortunate, living in different neighborhoods, sending
their children to different schools, they know little about the lives of
the laborers their world depends upon. Thinking about those who harvest
our food while living in poverty reminds us of the contributions of so
many others, whose worlds are similarly hidden from view and whose hands
produce the things that surround us.

Our society is characterized by enormous material wealth and the almost
magical availability of a diverse array of commodities whose production
often seems automatic and effortless. In fact, there is a growing divide
between those who make things and those who consume them within a global
economy where labor-intensive commodities are typically made in foreign
countries. Remembering farmworkers encourages Americans to see that
production is always a social process, binding people to each other
through the circulation of things. The apparent invisibility of
production is, in fact, a form of social forgetting, a politics of
glossing over the real structural and economic relations that allow for
our high standard of living.

It is clear that farmworkers, like all Americans, deserve to earn
enough to provide for themselves and their families. Nevertheless,
today, on Thanksgiving, let us not think of our nation's farmworkers
simply as a social problem requiring a focused political response, but
rather as people whose lives are connected to our own. The tragedy of
our nation's farmworkers lies not in their difference from other
Americans, but rather in their great and overwhelming similarity.
On our nation's harvest holiday, we should honor the harvesters and
recognize their presence at our tables.

Daniel Rothenberg is an Assistant Professor at the University of
Michigan and a Fellow in the Society of Fellows as well as the author of
With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today
(Harcourt Brace 1998).

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