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October 4, 2021
Emily Cohen Ibañez’ Fruits of Labor is an unusual entry in the genre of documentary work about farm laborers and the food system. The hour-long feature POV documentary, which airs on PBS and streams on the PBS website starting tonight, is focused on the daily life of Ashley Pavon (credited as a cowriter for her work on the film’s voiceovers), a teenage farmworker in Watsonville, California. And while a critical analysis of the food system is wound indirectly through every frame, the film focuses on Pavon and her experiences, narrowing the lens from some 830,000 farmworkers in the state to just one pair of hands that picks and packs strawberries in the smoky fields and chilly early mornings.
Pavon is from a mixed-status family—she and her siblings have documentation that allows them to live and work in the United States, while their mother Beatriz does not. Questions of status and citizenship flow throughout; nationwide, around 50 percent of farmworkers are undocumented and the number is believed to be even higher in California. Filmed during the height of the immigration raids on the region’s agricultural regions under former President Trump, Fruits of Labor explores the emotional tension of living with familial uncertainty while coming of age.
Pavon is struggling in high school, yet wants to go to college; in one scene, a guidance counselor winces as Pavon talks about her absences, forced to choose between work and her education. When she is in school, she’s exhausted from working the night shift at a packing facility, sorting flash-frozen strawberries. During the days she labors in the strawberry fields, picking fruit in repetitive, low-paid toil.
She experiences pressure to provide for her family, as her mother cannot support them alone in low-wage jobs as a cleaner and farmworker; while Beatriz aspires to one day buy a house for her family, they share a crowded home in which immigrants from 12 families share a bathroom. Her younger brother, also in high school, doesn’t work; Pavon expresses clear frustration with his privileged status as a boy, even as they have an affectionate relationship, and crushing fear at what might happen if her mother is deported. This taps into the deeply underlying theme of Latinas as providers for their families, managing everything from household cleaning to paying the rent.
The hyperfocus on Pavon gives the viewer a very distinct and personal view, humanizing a farmworker who actually does very little work on screen. The viewer will come away from the film understanding in broad sketches what it’s like to work in the fields and the processing plant, but it is Pavon as a person they are likely to care for, and Pavon they will think about when slicing strawberries over their morning yogurt.
As Pavon navigates her transition into adulthood, followed by the camera from the prom to the boardwalk and back home, it’s impossible to avoid her humanity. It’s also impossible to avoid a reckoning with the hidden costs of the food system and who ultimately pays them.
Civil Eats spoke with Ibañez about the film, the dignity of farm work, labor organizing, and the next chapter in Ashley Pavon’s life.
What brought you to this very personal approach?
The coming-of-age story is a popular American genre in film, and yet, it’s rarely afforded to women of color, especially working women of color. I did a short film [on the same topic] for The Guardian that was more social issue based. For a feature, I wanted to show Ashley as the full, complex, layered young woman that she is. So that when you see people working in the fields, it’s not someone to ignore or to conflate with a social issue, but to see people as full humans, people with complexities, navigating all these dreams and desires that are often universally shared. To me, that was really important. Oftentimes, for women, work politics don’t end in the external work world, but actually in domestic life. To look really closely at gender, it required looking at the family and its dynamics. Those were some of the reasons I approached the film in the way that I did.
The theme of Latina women holding up their families is an incredibly powerful element of this film. What surfaced as you followed Ashley and her family, especially her brother, whom viewers might come to resent?
I think it’s a sensitive subject. I hope that viewers see how much love there is between Ashley and [her brother] Ashford. There’s an old saying here in the U.S., “boys will be boys.” Men are often burdened with having to be the breadwinners as they grow older, but young boys are given more freedom than young girls. It’s certainly the case in many Latino families, but I think it goes beyond that. The young girl is seen as the responsible one, who will take on the work responsibilities, to keep the family going, and to be able to lift everyone else up. That kind of burden oftentimes also thwarts our dreams and aspirations. Most of us have some relationship to a tension between family obligation and our own desires for individual independence and freedom—our dreams.
Many viewers may be surprised to see teenagers at work in physically demanding jobs like this; can you tell me a little about underage farmworkers?
As Americans, food is so intimate that we want to look away. But actually, children have been working in the fields since the time of slavery. After Emancipation, there was Jim Crow. When we did get more broad worker protections across the country, with the New Deal, for example, Jim Crow was still in place, and what happened was that the Dixie Democrats actually wanted to exclude worker protections for Black and brown people.
What they did was a compromise with Franklin D. Roosevelt to exclude whole sectors of the economy— agriculture and domestic labor, [which both] have a relationship with slavery. So, to this day, even though we have more worker protections, especially in California, they aren’t equal by any stretch to other forms of work in the American economy.
Kids as young as 12 years old can work, in some states it can be limitless hours, in other states 40 hours a week. Oftentimes kids even younger than that are working in the fields. Today, we have around half a million people under 18 working in the fields. It’s a dangerous form of work. You have exposure to dust, pesticides, heat, there’s harassment, especially for women in the fields. It’s dangerous work, and yet, there’s not those protections. And moreover, the wages oftentimes are piecemeal, so people aren’t making an hourly wage. They’re being paid by the box or the bucket.
In those kinds of conditions, it’s very hard to make a living wage, that’s why families are pressured into having the entire family work in the fields, or to do these food processing plant jobs. There’s just not enough payment for a single parent or even a two-parent home to be able to make ends meet, especially in a state like California.
In terms of the night shift, that isn’t legal. One of the things that inspired me to make this film, I’d known Ashley’s family for a while; I’d been working with youth, and in the ‘90s I was part of a strawberry campaign in her town. Even though we had had ICE raids since the Bush years, it was really after 2016—in Ashley’s town, and across many agricultural towns in the U.S—when there was a marked increase in ICE raids and the terror around family separation. Adults who were undocumented were increasingly becoming scared to go work in the fields and the factories, and there was a major labor gap. Children, especially those born in the U.S., began filling that gap.
Now, we have [an expanded] guest worker program, similar to the Bracero program in the past, and people are being isolated in housing units where they aren’t even allowed to mix with the people in town. Even if you have a family member [nearby], you’re not allowed to go see them. So it goes in waves, it’s highly unstable, and I think that immigration and deportation, throughout U.S. history, is a way to control labor and to block people from organizing.
The United Farm Workers (UFW) was founded almost 60 years ago—and had some big wins in Watsonville and the Central Coast in the 1970s—so it was interesting to hear Pavon reference it as a historic item of interest without necessarily feeling like the UFW was personally relevant. As you interacted with young agricultural workers while working on the film, how/did they talk about labor unions?
I think unions in this country have changed their status. UFW still does exist, but I don’t think it has the same visibility as it did in the ’60s or the ’70s, even as I remember as a kid, in the early ’80s. In the ’90s, when I was working with the UFW and did this student liaison group with U.C. Santa Cruz, we organized a march that had 10,000 people . . . it was a major strike, but it’s sort of a blip. There’s amnesia; that’s not something people really talk about.
We’re in a different moment. There is some momentum around more broadly looking at economic inequity, like $15 minimum wage advocacy. There are some bills in California that will be pretty progressive [and more] that will be put forth around essential workers and that discourse [that has come] out of the pandemic. There’s a glimmer of hope and some new awareness that, “Oh wait, these are frontline workers.” We think of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and they’re like icons, but the act of organizing isn’t so visible these days. The young people that I am in contact with, who are working the fields, I haven’t see them have a lot of contact with union organizers.
Another potential source of surprise may be the highly manual nature of agriculture in the U.S. What are you hoping viewers understand about the way their food is produced and processed?
I hope that people recognize the incredible skill that goes into farm labor. Sometimes it gets deemed as unskilled labor. No, actually it takes this incredible amount of skill to pick quality berries. It’s hard labor. You’re bent over, especially with strawberries. They’re highly delicate produce, and they grow low to the ground. A lot of people are shocked that they’re picking and packaging them directly. What you get in the supermarket the workers are packaging in the field.
It’s dignified labor. I think it got denigrated because we came to associate it with slavery, literally people were considered legally less than human, less than whole human persons, and so we have that legacy. We need to fight that and reimagine the way we understand how we grow our food. The way we grow food is a human endeavor and we can’t take human beings out of the food system equation. That’s what I’m hoping people realize. There are movements around not eating meat, only having organic produce, and sometimes we forget about the people that every day pick our produce and what they actually go through.
I hope that labor is recognized, is seen, and most of all that the people doing that labor are seen and recognized and treated with value. Which, in a capitalist society, means paying people higher wages and [giving them] worker protections just like everybody else.
At the end of the film, you tell the audience that Pavon is in community college and interested in psychology; where is she now?
Her dream is to start her own strawberry farm that has equitable pay for workers and provides benefits and pathways to a higher education. She’s becoming a social entrepreneur, and she’s pursuing a certificate at Santa Clara University in Latino Business. She’s doing really well. With her family there’s still struggles and challenges, but . . . she’s learned to put boundaries around family obligation and moving forward on her studies.
I’m dreaming of [the farm’s] success, because we need people like her to provide a model and a pathway towards a better food system.
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