Your ancestors farmed their own land in Texas when Texas still belonged to México. How did they lose their land?
I come from generations of farmers. My father, Jesus Guillen, never talked about how we lost the land, so I don’t know. It must have been a painful story. He was a positive person, and once we settled in Washington state, he never looked back. But I was taught that I had to behave differently with white people, that you have to be careful until you know which ones can be trusted. That gave me a clue!
You picked strawberries, and you say that your father told you to sit with the earth before the sun comes up and work starts, to just feel it and smell it. That really speaks to his love of the land and farming.
Like so many of us who come from a farming tradition, I am a person of the land. I loved picking strawberries. In the fields, you can feel beauty everywhere.
In the 1960s as a kid, about the most unpleasant thing you could do would be to pick a berry before realizing there’s a slug on it! But then, in the 1970s and 1980s, pesticides came into use, more and more of them, huge storage tanks full. Workers got sick. But no one documented what was happening. If you went to a doctor, they didn’t say what caused the sickness, they didn’t collect data. Without data, a problem doesn’t exist! Farm work has become so dangerous and exploitative that workers now hate what they once loved. The agriculture industry has beaten the desire to connect to the land out of us. We get chewed up and spit out. Today farmworkers in the US have an average lifespan of just 49!
So you see working with the earth as vastly different from working on the earth. Would that difference explain why you organize not just for farmworker labor rights, but also for food and environmental justice?
I don’t see these goals as separate. Yes, we fight sexual harassment on the job, lack of health care, retaliatory firings, overtime benefits — and all that requires unionization. But we also want to give workers a taste of a completely different way to organize work, to use their skills doing what they love to do.
What would it feel like to make decisions about your work without a white boss over you? We started a 65-acre worker-owned coop to answer that question. On this farm, workers collectively decide how many baskets of fruit each worker should pick. But when to start working, when to take a break, how fast to pick — that’s up to the worker. People brought into the co-op soon become amazed at how different the work feels. They can begin to imagine a whole society where power is distributed among the people and hard work becomes valued labor.
Farmworkers know we must respect Mother Earth. She must also be part of the decision making on what we grow upon her. Wine grapes, for example, do really well in the climate of California, but now they’re being grown in Washington state. That makes no sense! When you grow a non-native crop in an area simply because that crop could be profitable, you have to abuse the land to force it to produce. You have to add chemical “amendments” to the soil. That depletes the soil and requires even more chemicals.
Those of us who work the land feel environmental justice as a lived experience. We understand that the land’s health determines the health of all the living things on it, not just people. Not protecting innocent species on the lands we work will always be the greatest selfish act.
Food justice calls out inequities and racism in the food system. No one should have to feed themselves with food produced through the exploitation of humans, innocent creatures, or through the poisoning and abuse of Mother Earth.
You started Community to Community — C2C — to change rural living conditions. The organization has intentionally chosen women of color for leadership. Why?
As an organizer for the UFW, I got frustrated with the lack of gender equity. Then I went to the World Social Forum in 2001 and met people from Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement. That opened my eyes to how we could achieve not just gender balance, but true gender equity in decision making. At C2C we use consensus, rather than hierarchical, decision making. People who take part in a decision will carry out the plan decided upon and produce results. When women lead, we succeed.
But you don’t call C2C a women’s empowerment project. Why not?
We don’t “develop” leaders, women are leaders. It’s just that they have always been behind the scenes, leading from behind. And they don’t need to be “empowered,” they have the power. We provide safe spaces for analysis and alternatives, so that together we find the openings that can help us channel that creative power into movement building. And with the evolving concept of eco-feminism, we also learn respect not just for women and men, but for trans, LGBTQ, gender fluidity. Staying connected to Mother Earth grounds us. We say we are making the road by walking together!