By Carolyn Fleder
Between his sophomore and junior years of college, Baldemar Velasquez joined the Congress of Racial Equality in its campaign for civil rights. He lived in Cleveland in cheap tenement housing with some other volunteers and a few rats.
When a friend asked why he never complained about the rats, Velasquez explained that he had grown up in a poor family of migrant workers, who lived in squalor. Unable to afford toys, he and his brother used to play games with the rats that crawled in through the cracks in the house. The siblings would fling the rodents across the room with their shared blanket. Upon hearing of the conditions in which Velasquez grew up, his friend said, Good Lord, son, why arent you doing something for your own people?
Perhaps inspired by this exchange, Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to fight to give a voice to Americas migrant workers. Since then, FLOC has achieved great successes in advancing migrant workers rights.
This year, five students from Professor of Spanish Clara Roman-Odios Intro to Chicano/Chicana Studies class went to the FLOC headquarters to do an eight-hour training session as part of a class project that involved community-based research and service learning. Working with FLOC inspired the students to bring the effort to Kenyon, which they successfully did on Monday, when Velasquez spoke to a room full of students and professors.
Rebecca Chowdhury 13, one of Roman-Odios students, explained why bringing Velasquez to the College was so important. One thing we were trying to show the community is what goes into creating the lifestyle we enjoy every day. From the cigarettes we smoke, to the canned soup that we buy, really challenging them to think about the people who make that lifestyle possible, she said. Caitlin Ramirez 14, another Chicano/a studies student, said, We dont always think about where our food comes from, where our tobacco comes from, so just raising our consciousness to be aware of that [is important].
Velasquez is quick to say that FLOC is not seeking vouchers or handouts for migrant workers, as he believes that these act only as a temporary solution and that farmers are not beggars and thus do not want them. The goal is to give the workers the power to speak for themselves in their own voices, as Velasquez put it. FLOC is an organizing committee that works to extend participation to all members of the community. I look at everything we do on the basis of, How can we give that worker a tool that will allow him to take care of what bothers him to help [the worker] have a tool [he] can use and not fear retaliation. Thats what were doing, Velasquez said.
In 1983, against great odds, FLOC enacted a campaign against the Campbell Soup Company that ended in a landmark agreement that gave migrant workers the power to implement changes within their own communities. Their success with Campbells ended share-cropping, increased wages and led to renovated housing at their labor camps. These improvements increased the quality of life of migrant workers and their families and was also beneficial to the farms, which enjoyed a 42-percent average increase in productivity. We want the company to prosper, we want the farmers to get rich, because we want a good place to come to work that treats us like human beings, not dogs, Velasquez said.
FLOC has now turned its efforts toward big tobacco, hoping to make the same strides with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, one of the largest tobacco corporations in the world, whose cigarette brands include Camel, Century, and Salem. Despite its annual profit of $2 billion, Reynolds is, according to FLOC, responsible for egregious exploitation of its farm workers, 90 percent of whom are estimated to be undocumented. Aside from long hours, harassment and poor housing, the farmworkers face serious health risks that are associated with exposure to nicotine and pesticides. Despite these dangers, workers are not provided with protective gloves or adequate washing facilities.
After years of pressure from farmworkers, allies and its largest distributor, McLean & Co. Inc., Reynolds American has agreed to meet with FLOC representatives to discuss the issues at hand. Velasquez hopes these talks will give North Carolinas tobacco farmworkers the tools to make their own changes. That right is one of the basic freedoms that we hold dear in our society, Velasquez said. When we fought the Revolutionary War against the British, wasnt that for the right for self-determination? … Didnt we fight for civil rights in this country for African Americans to have a right to a voice? Thats all; its the same fight over and over again.
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