My grandfather’s wife and children never expected him to survive when a 1,700 pound cherry picker collapsed on his spine while harvesting walnuts. He plummeted multiple stories to the earth, where he should have met his death.
Though he outlasted his injury, and managed a comfortable life as a paraplegic, it wasn’t without constant and debilitating pain. He was injured on the job, as a farm worker. His experience is not unique in a sector that produces the food we eat, under a shadow of work hazards and poor labor conditions.
Latino farmworkers in the United States, like my grandfather, regularly encounter most of the highest ranked occupational health hazards due to the nature of their job. They put in long hours of manual labor for an average annual salary of less than $35,000, are exposed to toxic chemicals, and take physical as well as other risks as part of their job.
These risks and injustices have not gone unnoticed. Congress has recently paid some attention to farmworker rights and protections. In May 2021, Congress moved to amend the Fairness for Farm Workers Act of 1938 to increase fair labor standards for farmworkers by regulating the total number of hours that are permissible within a single week. It adds to previous regulations that ensure overtime pay for farm laborers.
Such laws and regulations are a significant step forward to ensure better working conditions. But there is still much to be done to improve safety and bolster labor protections for Latino immigrant farm workers like my grandfather.
My grandfather, Raymundo Alvarez Salas, was born in a small town, Bermejillo, in the state of Durango, Mexico. He came to the U.S. in the late 1950s as part of the Bracero Program, which brought over 4 million guest workers from Mexico to the United States from 1942-1964 to work as farm laborers. My grandfather met my grandmother by the end of the program, and they were both able to seek green cards to build a family in the United States.
My grandfather was a hardworking farm worker for nearly thirty years. He worked his way up to managerial roles on various farms throughout Texas and California, where he eventually settled with my grandmother and their children.
Despite his work ethic, and the support of my grandmother’s similarly hard working character, it was often challenging to provide for their six children. My mother tells me of how my grandpa would wait for everyone to serve themselves dinner and finish eating before he would serve himself.
Abuelito, or grandfather in English, was my primary father figure as a young girl. My mother had me at 18-years-old, and raised me alone with only his and my grandmother’s help. I adored him; his big belly laugh, his charming sense of humor.
He would often joke about how, as a boy, he’d even eat the peels of the orange due to hunger. We’d always laugh, even though we knew it was probably true. His sly and charismatic smile would always encourage us to do so.
After his accident, he was awarded a legal settlement due to the injury that he sustained. With the resources that the settlement afforded him, he was able to purchase a cattle ranch on the outskirts of Tulare, California, where I was raised. He loved to buy and sell cattle for sport.
Though his disability prevented him from walking, it never stopped him from wandering his property to find something to fix, or a fruit tree to glean. But this changed after he developed Parkinson’s Disease.
Pesticide exposure, and its linkages to health issues, shows how farm workers remain under protected. One study finds that enduring pesticide exposure for ten years or longer will likely increase your risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease by 100-210%.
My grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinsons in 2011, and recently passed away due to Parkinson’s related dementia. Parkinson’s is prevalent among the Latino population, and particularly among Latino men, yet they remain underrepresented in research and treatment efforts aimed at diagnosing and preventing the disease.
Parkinson’s is more common among those who have handled certain agricultural pesticides. Though widespread use of various pesticides have exhibited strong links to Parkinson’s, Paraquat and Rotenone have shown the strongest link. Both are still used in food and farming industries in the U.S. today. Rotenone, in particular, is considered “natural” by certain Certified Organic regulations and thus is prevalent in organic farming. Paraquat continues to be the one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S., though it has been banned from agricultural use in Europe for nearly fifteen years.
Though I can’t know for certain, it is highly likely my grandfather was exposed to these and other pesticides regularly, simply as part of his job.
Pesticide use in agricultural work in the US became common practice in the 1940s. At the time, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) was among the primary choices of pesticides within the agricultural industry. It was often used in grape cultivation in California. DDT was banned from agricultural use by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 due to its environmental and health hazards, but the chemical took several decades to phase out before it was completely removed from the agricultural industry.
While my grandparents were still harvesting grapes, walnuts, and other crops in the Central Valley in the early 1980s, DDT was still prevalent in their work environment. DDT has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, particularly in women who were under the age of 14 in 1945 and who were around age 20 when DDT reached it’s peak prevalence in the US.
My grandmother fits within those demographics. My grandmother survived breast cancer in 2012. I left my first internship out of college to get her through six months of regular chemotherapy treatments. She still has all of the hair that she lost in a small box, and a scar on her left breast where a lump was surgically removed.
Pesticide-related injury and death among farm workers in the US has been one of the most pressing topics in occupational health for several decades, particularly among immigrant groups. There have been some promising improvements. The rate of acute, work-related pesticide poisoning among adults above age sixteen has decreased over time. There are also ongoing efforts to test, track, and better understand the risks of pesticide exposure among children of farm laborers, such as the CHAMACOS study conducted in the Salinas Valley of California. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to address some of the occupational health concerns via their 2015 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard to help curb the negative effects of pesticide exposure for farmworkers.
Despite these advances, the on-going and long-term effects of pesticide exposure have had a lasting impact on my family and me personally.
The Food We Eat
Agriculture is ranked among the most important and enduring industries globally. It delivers the nourishment we need to survive each day. In the US, this labor is primarily performed by foreign born immigrants, many of whom come from Mexico like my grandparents did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My family’s experience is one small snapshot of the toll that agricultural work can have on a farmworker’s body and health. While government, nonprofit, environmental, research, and other institutions continue to push for awareness and support for the occupational needs of farmworkers, it is important that everyone understands the risks taken by those who help to bring us the food that we eat.