Student-Farmworker Collaborations that Yield Stories and Build Justice

By Lucía Constantine

We hear a lot about immigrants in the media. It’s a story we all think we know about how times in Mexico and Central America are hard and how this hardship drives men and women to cross borders and take other people’s jobs. Many of us want to help, some of us want these people to return to their country of origin, but few of us take the time to ask questions and listen. Mainstream media rarely let immigrants speak for themselves.

Juan who hasn't seen his family.

Juan who hasn't seen his family.

For the past twenty-five years, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) has been documenting the stories of farmworkers in the rural South through oral history, photography and writing. Through the Into the Fields internship program, SAF trains and places college students with migrant education programs, legal aid offices, rural health clinics, community-based organizations and farmworker unions. Students spend a lot of time listening to farmworkers in waiting rooms of health clinics and on long car rides to union meetings. Over the course of summer, they build relationships with farmworkers and out of this rapport, they produce a documentary project based on the life of an individual worker.

Photo from SAF website

Photo from SAF website

Students are often surprised that farmworkers welcome the occasion to be heard. For many farmworkers, mostly young men from Mexico who speak little English, it’s the first time someone has asked them to share. In the US, farmworkers are isolated not only by their language skills but also by their living situations. Often they’re housed in trailers on back roads and only come into contact with their fellow workers, their supervisor and the cashiers at the Wal-Mart where they shop once a week. To have someone come out to visit, speak your language and show compassion is a rare thing. For students from farmworker families, connecting with a farmworker helps them make sense of their own experiences in the field. For other students, it prompts reflection regarding their own privilege. But regardless of background and experience, both the listener and storyteller are transformed in the process of documenting and the act of telling. Fear is replaced by trust and interest by empathy.

We find this process not only allows students to bear witness to injustices in the fields but also represents an opportunity to practice the values that form the foundation of SAF’s work. By collaborating with farmworkers, SAF students model the respect, humility and accountability that is so critical to organizing and social change. On an organizational level, collecting the stories of farmworkers year after year keeps our ears to the ground and marks how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go. We use student documentaries as advocacy tools to educate and engage the public on farmworker issues and to bolster campaigns for legislative change. We find that letting farmworkers tell their own stories through oral history or video can be much more compelling than a fact sheet or PowerPoint presentation.

Listening to the voices of the men and women who toil in the fields changes how viewers perceive and relate to them. They are not just laborers but also fathers and mothers, poets and musicians, cooks and curanderos (healers). They are not just bodies; they are people. There’s Juan who hasn’t seen his family for 13 years and can’t remember his sons’ birthdays (see photo above). There’s Israel who is seventy years old and still picking tomatoes in Florida (hear his story here (in Spanish)). And there’s the father and son who come to the same camp every year and work side by side. Their stories are filled with struggle and sacrifice but also pride and hope. Like all of us, farmworkers contain multitudes and cannot be reduced to the jobs they perform. When they are not picking tobacco in the heat of summer, when they are not urged to work harder and longer for little pay, when they are not afraid of their tenuous status in this country, they are trying their best to get through the day, to make a little money to send home, to make things better for their families. We cannot begin to understand farmworkers’ situation until we listen to them in their own words.

You can see some of the stories that have come out of this process here:

And you can hear some of the stories (in Spanish) here on Soundcloud:


About the author: Lucia Constantine is the Documentary Projects Intern at Student Action with Farmworkers and the Civic Engagement Fellow at Duke University, where she tells stories of student involvement in communities. She learned to tell stories at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies where she spent a lot of time with tough moms. She was inspired to make radio through her participation in oral history projects in the Bay Area, which included interviews with Stanford faculty and Mission residents facing eviction. She cares deeply about food access, civic engagement and immigration and hopes to use storytelling as a tool for change. 

SAF participates in the NC Groundswell Gathering and staff members have attended trainings/workshops in the past.