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Migration, Food Sovereignty and Land Rights: A conversation with Carlos Marentes, Sr.

December 2014

On this International Migrants Day (December 18), Grassroots International pays tribute to the courage and dedication of many of our partners and allies, internationally and in the U.S., who are working at the intersection of migrant justice and resource rights. One of these partners is Carlos Marentes, Sr., director of Centro De Los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos (the Border Agricultural Workers Center) in El Paso, Texas. A close Grassroots International partner and co-coordinator of Via Campesina North America. Here is some of my conversation with Carlos.

Chung-Wha Hong: How did you get started in your migrant rights, border rights work?

Carlos Marentes: I was born in Juarez, Mexico, the other side of El Paso.  I am a border native. When I came to the U.S. in the 1970s, I was surprised to find such bad working conditions for farmworkers.  So I started working with the Texas Farmworkers Union to organize farmworkers.  Then I founded the Border Agricultural Workers Project in 1983 so that we can collectively act for better wages and working conditions.  And then we started the Agricultural Workers Center in 1995 because we wanted to address important social issues after seeing the connection between worker rights and other social justice issues. 

How are migrant workers doing?

Most of our members are farmworkers, majority of whom are from rural areas.  But because new technology in agriculture depends on fewer people, many go into the service sector or construction.  Many workers face dangerous conditions in the construction industry and many die or get injured.  In the service sector like restaurants, immigrants are often not paid wages at all and forced to survive on tips.  During the Bush years, there was a systematic lack of labor law enforcement.  There has been a deterioration of migrant rights in this country.  The system is trying to just extract profits from immigrants.  And the premise is that immigrants are cheap labor.  But we are human beings.

Why do migrants come to the U.S.?

Many migrants are the ruined campesinos of the South.  They are peasants who are displaced, involuntarily, by the U.S. industrial agriculture.  The irony is that they then become cheap labor for the ag-industry that produces more cheap products to the South, to then displace more workers.  It’s the same with African workers in Europe.  These migrants are the backbone of the agricultural industry.  In the case of Mexico, another cause of migration is the result of the millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Mexico for the so-called war on drugs.  Tragically, the military force is often used against communities, against movements, like people who are fighting against mining or the destruction of their forests.  The U.S. is supporting what many Mexicans see as corrupt and criminal government.  So more and more people are fleeing not only to escape poverty but to escape violence.

So how do we break that cycle?  And you are a member and a leader of Via Campesina.  How does Via Campesina see their work in relation to advancing international migrants rights?

We must organize bi-nationally and internationally.  Migration is a critical issue for the Via because we recognize that too often, farmworkers and low-wage immigrant workers are displaced peasants.  That’s why the farmworkers here are connecting our worker rights to food sovereignty and agrarian reform in the [Global] South so that we are addressing the root causes of forced migration.  We support the rebuilding of peasant communities in the South.  If one peasant leaves, the whole family and community suffer.  We have to restore our families and make our communities whole.  We also work to convince society that there is a different way – there is an alternative.  And appeal to consumers, because the current industrial agriculture system is sustained by consumers.  Workers demanding on one side and consumers on the other, can push for an alternative model of rights of workers, food sovereignty and environmental sustainability.

Speaking of the environment, how do you think climate change is affecting migrants?

 According to the United Nations, there are nearly 200 million migrants in the world, displaced from their homelands.  Migrants are trying to access homelands and countries are rejecting them.  One major cause of displacement is climate change.  There are more extreme droughts and extreme flooding.  I once visited a region in Mexico where, in 24 hours, they had more rain than during the entire year, destroying layers and layers of soil needed for farming. Climate change produces more migration, especially of young people who don’t see a future in their indigenous communities.  It’s very sad.  But Via Campesina is organizing rural communities to take back the control of our natural resources, to implement ecological processes to protect nature, cools the planet and make our world sustainable. 

Focusing back on the U.S., do you see any connection between your migrant rights work and the recent flurry of #BlackLivesMatter protests?

We need to recover an important concept from the old labor movement, that an injury to one is an injury to all.  If we don’t say anything, the violence will increase.  Recently, the immigrant workers here were having a discussion about Ferguson.  Many of us thought there was more decency in the U.S. but we are finding out that people of color and immigrants are increasingly becoming victims, without legal rights.  And immigrants are dealing with not only the police, but the sheriff and Border Patrol.  Once I was stopped by a Border Patrol and I asked why.  The Border Patrol said I can stop you any time I want.  I said I have my constitutional rights, and he said here, the Constitution does not exist.  It’s Border Patrol land.  There’s an increasingly violent offensive against people of color and we must organize to protect our communities.  Some of the deeply disturbing parallels that I see between the #BlackLivesMatter and our immigrant rights struggles are the increasing militarization of law enforcement, total disregard for the legal rights of victims, and the fostering of and collusion with racist right wing forces targeting of our communities.

What do you think about President Obama’s recent immigration administrative relief announcement?

It’s very unfortunate that President Obama didn’t keep his promise of immigration reform. We should continue to organize.  But we also need to remember that immigration reform is a tactic toward greater goals of challenging the corporate profit-driven economy, achieving justice and strengthening the longer term movement.  Some of our members will sign up for the program.  But without immigration reform there is a vacuum.  The absence of immigration reform is not just absence of justice for immigrants but it signals a greenlight for extreme groups to thrive and feel emboldened to attack immigrants. 

Could you share some victories in your struggle and tell us what gives you hope for the future?

Sometimes having a small victory like a worker withholding work to successfully get a better pay for a bucket of chilies, is a victory that is sweet like honey.  The building of our farm worker center, creating this precious space for freedom, is a great victory.  Freedom could mean a number of things.  We can have a relaxing cup of coffee here; skype with family members; or attend a taller/workshop to learn about people building similar movements around the world.  This is a glimpse of what freedom looks like.  The lesson of victories is that we don’t just fight to win material gains, but to create unity and dissolve differences between us.  Every battle shows that when workers organize, we can make change happen.  And this continuing struggle for freedom, always reinventing itself, is the biggest triumphant story of our lives.

December 18 is recognized as International Migrants Day, marking the date when the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  Carlos Marentes, Sr., founded the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project and is Executive Director of the Border Agricultural Workers Center in El Paso, Texas.  This year, Carlos also became one of the Co-Coordinators of the North American Region of the Via Campesina, representing the region on the International Coordinating Committee of La Via Campesina.  Carlos also plays a leadership role within the Via Campesina specifically in relation to the connections between migration, food sovereignty, and climate justice.

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