Raul Merino Paz and his wife Silvia Dionicio and child. Photo by Star Murray.
Raul Merino Paz
San Joaquin Valley, CA – October 31, 2013: With $2000 in his possession, Raul Merino Paz, plaintiff in a potential class action case against Sakuma Bros. Farms in federal court, made a thousand mile trek with his family. His car’s transmission had given out two days before his departure, without the money to fix it he had to give it up and carpool back to his community’s winter home in California.
“It was too cold to stay,” Paz mentioned in a phone conversation. It had been cold for over a month, and when it rained his family would get soaked, and his daughter had been sick most of the month. “The shacks are not homes,” he said, “they are not much more than an awning with plywood walls.” Though his family has to double up with his brother in law’s family to afford the $950.00 per month rent in California, at least it is a proper 3 bedroom home.
In the San Joaquin Valley, about 200 of the Triqui and Mixteco speaking farmworkers who belong to Familias Unidas por la Justicia make community over the winter months in a milder climate than Washington’s cold and rainy winters. According to the U.S. Census, Latinos made up over 55% of the county demographics, and 43% speak a language other than English at home.
Paz and the 200 members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia live in a city with a population of over 60,000 people of which 77% are Latino, and where 62% speak a language other than English at home. Compared to Burlington’s population of 8,400 where Latinos make up only 31% of the population and only 31% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia are more likely to blend in and lead normal lives in California, where they can work and enjoy their families.
Raul Merino Paz is from the community of San Martín Intuñoso in Oaxaca where his first language was Triqui. He was only able to attend school until the 5th grade because his family was poor. As a 9 year old child, Paz grew up helping his mother support his 10 member family.
The Paz family was a migrant farmworker family within Mexico. Together they worked as a household unit of production who would migrate to Culiacan, Sinaloa and Guadalajara, Jalisco to harvest crops. His family harvested cucumbers, tomatoes, chiles and zucchini in Mexico by piece-rate.
Compared to Mexico, the piece-rates at Sakuma Bros. Farms are much higher, but the cost of living was not as high in Mexico, and up until the mid 1990s they were able to grow subsistence crops they could sell for extra income before NAFTA made corn from the U.S. more affordable than locally produced corn. After NAFTA, the ratio of wage v. cost of living was so unbearable that Raul began to migrate to the United States in 2001 in order to keep the family from starving.
This is the historical context through which Paz see’s his decision to seek better wages in Burlington as absolutely necessary. On $2000 for the summer harvest, just over a quarter of his earning potential, he has just enough for the deposit and first months rent on his home, and the pressure is on to find work at any cost. This is how farmworkers are disciplined and coerced into accepting lower wages industry wide. Low wages make farmworkers desperate to keep their families from starvation.
This is why Familias Unidas por la Justicia is seeking change towards a living wage. In order to secure that, they need a contract. Paz’s lawsuit hopes to make the claims that Familias Unidas por la Justicia has made about abuse, wage theft and retaliation indisputable.
Paz addresses Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Triqui. Photo by Star Murray.
Paz began his career as a professional migrant farmworker in the U.S. in 2001 picking asparagus and pruning grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. Later that year in the company of his cousin, he migrated to Hillsboro, Oregon to pick Strawberries, Blueberries and Blackberries before returning to visit his family.
Paz continued this crop cycle until 2005, when after working in Hillsboro for two weeks he followed a lead to Sakuma Bros. Farms where he met the love of his life, Silvia Dionicio in June and became a couple in September.
Silvia Dionicio (far left) during a farmworker march in Burlington. Photo by Star Murray.
Dionicio was from the same town in Oaxaca, though they met over 3,000 miles from their ancestral home. Meeting Silvia in the Sakuma Berry fields cemented his migration pattern to Dionicio’s family crop cycle. Paz has worked for Sakuma Bros. Farms since 2004.
Car trouble is no stranger to Paz, in 2007 he and his wife were in an automobile accident that totaled their car just before summer harvest. Dionicio and Paz elected to stay in the San Joaquin Valley where they could recover and they worked together picking peaches, melons and apples.
This was the only year that the couple received equal pay for equal work as farmworkers, as they were paid by the hour the entire harvest and not by piece-rate. The second time was this summer, though they only earned $2000 each. The fair wages secured by the farmworker strikes the first part of the season and because of Federal compliance requirements in order to have H-2A workers during the late blueberry and blackberry harvest made a difference that was undone by their inability to work without interruptions such as being laid off and being assigned to poor quality fields.
Paz remains a committed committee member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia with the unprecedented task of organizing fellow migrant farm workers in transition. Luckily for Familias Unidas por la Justicia community bonds maintain a cohesion that though delicate, allows for labor history to be made. We salute Raul and Silvia and all of the Familias Unidas por la Justicia as they continue their struggle to gain a valid contract across geographies.
Paz was in charge of the fair distribution of strike relief to Familias Unidas por la Justicia this summer. Photo by David Bacon.
RESPECT THE FAMILIES THAT PICK YOUR FOOD!
STAND WITH RAUL MERINO PAZ AND SILIVIA DIONICIO!
STAND WITH FAMILIAS UNIDAS POR LA JUSTICIA!
BOYCOTT SAKUMA BROTHERS BERRIES!