The Urgent Importance of Making Space for Stories from the Farmworking Community
A Roundtable on Immigrant Farmwork, Exploitation, and Finding Literary Authenticity
This November, The Common published a portfolio of writing and art from the seasonal, migrant, and immigrant farmworkers who bring food to U.S. tables. The portfolio appears in the magazine’s fall issue and highlights the work of twenty-seven contributors with personal and familial roots in the community.
In this conversation, portfolio co-editor Miguel M. Morales and contributors Oswaldo Vargas, Lizbeth Luevano, and Julio Puente García discuss how issues of immigration, exploitation, generational hurt, queerness, and authenticity arise in their work, and the urgent importance of making space for these stories.
What is your relationship to farmwork and the farmworker community?
Miguel M. Morales: I always thought I started working in the fields when I was in fourth grade. But when I was looking through photographs for this farmworker portfolio project, I came across a wallet-sized school picture of me. On the back I had written, 3rd grade ’77. I remember when it was taken, I had already been working in the fields for a while. So, I guess I must have started working when I was in the second or third grade.
Looking at the picture, I started to cry. For some reason that I had made up, it was okay for me to be a ten-year-old boy who worked the fields but the realization that I might have been eight or nine…well, that wasn’t okay. It was too much for me to process. Too much responsibility, too many sharp blades, too many days working in hundred-degree temperatures, too many miles walking up and down rows, eyes scanning crops and arms chopping weeds.
But in the picture, my eyes twinkle. I’m proud of my Jackson 5 afro and my button-up denim shirt. And while I mourn for the years of my childhood taken from me, I admire the boy in the picture and his ability to offer a genuine smile and to feel happiness—a lesson older me had to relearn.
Oswaldo Vargas: I was born in the Mexican state of Michoacan, and brought to the U. S. before I was one year old. My dad eventually landed a dairy farm gig in Oregon where we lived for several years (my first memories are of the snow!). Sometime before the new millennium, we moved to dairy farmland in Galt, California, where my dad has worked for decades, even now.
Me and my younger brother would help (sometimes begrudgingly so) with smaller tasks but my dad did most of it, of course. Once I turned eighteen, I started to get paid. That money financed my community college career, money earned from managing the irrigation of the dairy farm’s many alfalfa and corn fields. I did this for four years.
Julio Puente García: I grew up in Mexico in what is known as El Bajío, an agricultural region where many farmworkers living in the U.S. come from. When the harvests got worse and worse, my father migrated to the north of Mexico to find work. He tells stories about harvesting olives in Baja California, alongside his grandfather, when he was nine years old.For some reason that I had made up, it was okay for me to be a ten-year-old boy who worked the fields but the realization that I might have been eight or nine…well, that wasn’t okay.
In my case, I was lucky enough to avoid working in the fields as a child. I migrated to the U.S. once I finished high school in Mexico. During my first five years in the U.S. I was a farmworker in Fresno while I struggled to learn English and earn a college education. The first agricultural job I held was harvesting apricots—which lasted about six weeks. Most jobs in the fields do not last that long. After that, I harvested all sorts of crops: cantaloupes, cherries, watermelons, asparagus, and onions, to name a few.
Lizbeth Luevano: Although I have never done any agricultural work, I was born and raised in a community of migrant field workers in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. My grandfather was a bracero, coming to work in the U.S. in the mid-1900s before going back to his hometown in Calvillo, Aguascalientes.
When my father later immigrated to the U.S., he worked as a migrant field worker across the Midwest and West Coast. As a result of my father’s work, I was eligible for California’s Migrant Education Program, which supported me academically for most of my life. I grew up surrounded by peers and friends whose lives I eventually saw transformed by labor once they started working in the fields. While I had seen the effects of the field on my father and grown accustomed to his calloused hands and hunched shoulders, seeing friends have their childhoods disrupted by such grueling labor was heartbreaking.
Many of the challenges farmworkers deal with stem from their often insecure immigration status. Has this been a concern for you and your families?
Lizbeth Luevano: Although I am a U.S. citizen, I come from a mixed status household. The immigration status of my family members and the threat of their deportation is still something that pervades my life. At a young age I was taught to make myself unnoticeable, that it was better to not be perceived at all than to be visible. In my parents’ work, their immigration status has made it impossible for them to advocate for themselves. When my parents have been injured while working—like when my father fell harvesting dates in a palm tree—or when my mom has been underpaid as a house cleaner, my family has simply learned to live with the injustices.
Julio Puente García: My father, as a sixteen-year-old, migrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s. He entered the country through the Arizona desert. He repeated the same act countless times, sometimes three or more times a year. During those years, even though the farms needed workers, the raids were constant. In 1986, because of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), he was able to apply for his residence permit. Years later, he applied on our family’s behalf, and we received our permits to come to the U.S. in the early 2000s.
Oswaldo Vargas: I am undocumented with DACA status. Locally, it’s no secret at all. Nor in some publications like the Academy of American Poets, which labeled me a queer undocumented writer. That was my most public poem and publication, and I remember how terrified I was. But also how not terrified I was (due to the privilege that comes with DACA, relatively speaking).
Miguel M. Morales: I am fortunate to have been born in the U.S. I have friends like Oswaldo, and the farmworker youth I mentor, who teach me through their tenacity and their stories how immigration affects their lives. Because I have citizen status, I owe it to my undocumented friends to educate myself, to speak out on the issue, and to vote.
How did you come to writing? Where did it start for you? How has it evolved?
Oswaldo Vargas: Reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley were my kick-offs to writing. I wanted to create something like they did. But it wasn’t till I read “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats that I wanted to do that—be able to make the images that Yeats wrote at the end of that poem so many years ago. I had the audacity to want to replicate a tenth of that for myself, and it’s a lifelong process that I intend on seeing through.
Miguel M. Morales: I’ve always been able to write, but there’s a difference between writing and sharing story. How do you write what you did over the summer when everyone else went to Disneyland or Galveston Island or stayed home and slept late? Meanwhile, you woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to go work the fields. Many times I would not turn in my homework if it meant having to explain my life. I was separated from my classmates and put in bilingual education classes because my teachers thought I didn’t understand English, when it was the opposite. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to speak Spanish.
When you’re from a poor family, any talent is monetized. I saw cousins who liked fixing cars or doing hair turn those hobbies into work. And it became a job; they lost their passion. I knew I’d never let that happen with my writing. It was all I had. When my mom died of breast cancer, I grieved for ten years and held everything inside—until I couldn’t. I finally started writing so that I wouldn’t lose myself. I took a class at a local community college (where I now work). Soon the time came when I had to decide if writing was a hobby or something to pursue.
I live in an aging fat queer brown body. My arms, legs, and back remember what it’s like to work the fields, clean houses, work in an explosives factory. My throat remembers what it’s like to yell until my voice gives out during AIDS demonstrations. Demonstrations supporting Latinx, LGBTQIA+, farmworkers, labor, and more. My heart knows the sorrow of losing friends and family members to AIDS, COVID, cancer, and a host of other diseases and other violence. Every word I write comes from those places. I hope this portfolio inspires more farmworkers, and other emerging writers, to claim our space on the page and in life.
Julio Puente García: My older son, Alessandro, can claim the credit for pushing me into fiction. It happened during COVID, when he was three and half. From Monday to Sunday, he woke up at 5:30 a.m. and I followed him, dragging my feet, into our small kitchen. After eating breakfast together, he played with his toys or watched an animated film in Spanish, and I started working on my first novel, Los años breves, an autofiction where I reimagined my years growing up in Mexico in a family affected by circular migration (my father was home only four months a year, the other eight spent in the California fields).
I wanted to write something about the Central Valley, about the work that farmworkers do, about the conditions they deal with, but I could not do it at that moment. So, I moved on to another project, my first collection of short stories, Acrobacias Angelinas, which received an International Latino Book Award in 2021. Thanks to Acrobacias, I learned that the short story was the best way for me to write about the Valley. That’s how I imagined a new project, Tierra de Jacinta Murrieta, which focuses on the farmworkers’ experiences, myths, and hopes. It is important, as Miguel mentions above, to tell our stories using our imagination.
Lizbeth Luevano: Because my parents worked long hours and we had limited mobility, most of my childhood was grounded in the mobile home park. I have fond memories of playing alongside my siblings and the neighborhood kids, but as I grew older, reading different stories became an opportunity for me to experience other worlds.I’m slowly learning that I can’t measure my labor against other farmworkers. Gathering poems and stories for this collection showed me that we’re not different factions of farmworkers competing for who had it worse.
I remember falling in love with a story about a girl and her horse in the fourth grade, and seeing my own desire for independence reflected in the main character. Reading that book introduced me to the different possibilities I could imagine for myself and the future. The books I was reading in elementary and middle school served as a lifeline for me at a time when I was still struggling between Spanish and English and the opposing cultural values that were being contested at home and at school.
Most of my favorite novels in the beginning were fantasy, and when I later discovered magical realism and science fiction, and grew more confident in my own voice, I began writing work that could center my own personal experiences and the stories of my community, while still holding space for different worlds and different ways of being.
There are so many hurdles that prevent immigrant farmworkers from advocating for themselves, or telling their own stories. Do you feel any pressure when you’re writing on this topic?
Oswaldo Vargas: I take a lot of creative license in my writing but there is still a foundation of truth. For example, Noé is the name of a real co-worker of mine, but I did not engage with him sexually as the speaker does in the poem in The Common. I am not consciously thinking about identity as I write, but it’s there. The queer sensibilities in particular are there. Writing from a peripheral space is something I don’t think I can ever consciously shake off, especially when it comes to my own writings on migration and men (and more recently, nature and our relationship with it).
It’s been eight years now, and I don’t feel any pressure to be honest, but more so a self-appointed pressure to not forget this time in my life, how hard me and my fellow workers worked (including my parents, who are still out there). I still have my old tattered work hat on my wall as a reminder of that time. She has seen a lot and so have I—it would be a disservice for me to forget.
Miguel M. Morales: I still struggle with feeling like an “authentic’ farmworker.” I didn’t harvest fruits or vegetables. I didn’t get paid by the piece or the acre. I didn’t work on my knees pulling garlic or cutting cilantro. My job was to cut weeds. I walked fields of soybean, cotton, and corn. My family didn’t travel across the country following the crops. We worked as seasonal farmworkers in the Texas town where we lived.
But I’m slowly learning that I can’t measure my labor against other farmworkers. Gathering poems and stories for this collection showed me that we’re not different factions of farmworkers competing for who had it worse. I now see us as a community. Some of us crisscross the country, others cross the border, some stay in their towns and cities. Some of us work crops, others work on dairy farms, cattle ranches, or poultry farms. We tend and harvest fruits and veggies, we pack meat, we prune and cut Christmas trees. You name it and we work it.
Julio Puente García: During my years as a farmworker, I experienced a constant feeling of frustration. Frustration about working seven days a week and earning less than $300 a week (in the early 2000s); frustration about being exhausted as soon as I woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work; frustration about seeing people close to their seventies or older doing the same hard work that I was doing; frustration for not being able to communicate in English or express my frustration with the working conditions. That frustration sometimes turned into fear, especially when seeing on the local TV news that somebody, usually a woman, had died of dehydration in the California fields.
When I was writing Tierra de Jacinta Murrieta, I wanted to bring those memories back. I felt that I owed it to myself, to my family, and to the farmworking community to recount our stories in the most genuine and creative way possible.
Lizbeth Luevano: My parents never talked to me and my siblings about their lives in Mexico, the people they left behind, the communities they were part of. I know they still hold a lot of pain about that, so a big aspect of my own writing is reclaiming those histories and lost narratives.
As the oldest Mexican daughter in a family of four children, my voice emerged in opposition to cultural standards of docility, and it took me a long time to build up confidence in my writing and in my own personal voice. At the same time, as a current first generation and low-income college student, I think about my voice and identity in relation to power, and how I consequently can use my writing to create impact.
The pieces you’ve all contributed to the portfolio are personal, and revealing. Did you have any reservations about having this work out in the world?
Oswaldo Vargas: I hesitated to include one poem, “Noé,” only because of the overt sexual imagery in it. Recently I’ve been more open with this material in my writing, and while I myself have no qualms about it, I am sure others do. But overall I hope that my work in particular helps color this very varied, nuanced farmworking experience. Which yes, includes queers who have, do, and will always tend to the land.
Julio Puente García: Writing is personal because it is based on your own experiences and capacities, but writing can also reflect a collective experience or feeling. The short story I published in this issue of The Common, “Jacinta Murrieta,” is a combination of personal and collective feelings about the life and work of farmworkers, especially female workers. It is also an attempt to come back to the figure of Joaquín Murrieta as a metaphor for resistance within the Mexican community in California. I am quite excited about the publication of this story. I am curious to see what the reaction of readers will be when they see Joaquín Murrieta evolving into Jacinta Murrieta, an artist of the farmland.
Lizbeth Luevano: When I wrote the poem for this portfolio, “re(education),” I was immersed in the works of spoken-word poets like Tracie Morris, whose rhythmic letters and spiritual voice made poetry feel like writing from the soul. So when I sat down to write my own words, the only thing I could think of was home. The New York Times had recently published a piece about a mobile home community in the Eastern Coachella Valley where the water was contaminated by high concentrations of arsenic. The images reminded me of stories of braceros who were exposed to chemicals in the fields.
I hold so much anger for how field workers are routinely dehumanized, and for the land and labor exploitation that occur simultaneously. As I wrote out the physical toll of agricultural work, and etched out the pain and grief that my family carries, I thought about how the hands that have been worn down into blisters and tough skin are the same hands that cook for me, that embrace me. Although my writing is attentive to the negative consequences of field work, I ultimately hope people see my poem as a way to rethink how we look at communities of migrant field workers as not just broken bodies, but as people who also hold so much beauty.
Miguel M. Morales: I have one poem in the print edition of the farmworker portfolio. I wrote it with my sisters. It’s arguably one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written. Difficult because each of my sisters reveals a harsh truth about being a farmworking woman even though they were just a few years older than me. Sexual assault, abuse, having to learn adult lessons, and manage adult circumstances while they were still schoolgirls.
But I don’t want any of these pieces in the portfolio to be taken as cautionary tales or there but for the grace of God go I. We are real people. Yes, we have difficult lives, but we also have extraordinary happiness. Farmwork is exacting and draining but it is also sustaining; there are many gifts that come from the fields. If you read the pieces in the collection, you will discover how the writers explore those gifts, how they respect those gifts, and how they embrace them and embody them, and how those gifts helped make them who they are today.
Emily Everett is managing editor of The Common. She edited this conversation, and co-edited the farmworker portfolio. She grew up on Hemenway Hill Farm in Western Massachusetts.
Lizbeth Luevano is an undergrad at Stanford University, studying environmental anthropology. Raised in the Coachella Valley, Lizbeth has a vested interest in using story reclamation to bring about narrative change.
Miguel M. Morales is a two-time Lambda Literary Fellow and co-editor of anthologies Pulse/Pulso: In Remembrance of Orlando and of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. He was selected as a finalist for the 2023-2026 Poet Laureate of Kansas.
Julio Puente García completed his PhD in Hispanic literature at UCLA. His first book, Acrobacias Angelinas, received the Rudolfo Anaya Award in 2021. The short story “Jacinta Murrieta,” published in The Common, is part of his second project, Tierra de Jacinta Murrieta.
Oswaldo Vargas is a 2021 Undocupoets Fellowship recipient. He has been anthologized in Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color and published in Narrative Magazine and Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-A-Day,” among other publications.
The Common: Issue 26 is available now.