A new book co-written by a UT Arlington anthropologist examines U.S. consumer demand for fresh produce year-round and the impact of a robust agro-export business on workers in Mexico.
Associate Professor Christian Zlolniski (Anthropology), with scholars from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tiajuana, Mexico, recently published De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintin, or “From Migrant Farmworkers to Settlers: Residency, Work and Identity in the San Quintin Valley.” The Spanish-language monograph examines the living conditions of farmworkers in Valle de San Quintin, Baja California, an agricultural community located 90 miles south of San Diego, Calif.
Zlolniski, who collaborated with sociologist Laura Velasco and demographer Marie-Laure Coubés, said the book sheds light on how transnational agribusiness in Mexico are growing crops to meet demand in the U.S.
“This is a book about how the food that we consume in the U.S., especially fresh fruits and vegetables, affects the farm works growing those crops south of the border,” he said. “It is a study of the development of a region in northern Mexico and how the demands we have here in the U.S. shape the working conditions and the lives of the workers growing those fresh crops.”
Workers in the region earn an average of $10 per day and lack basic employee benefits like vacation days, overtime pay and healthcare. In March, 75,000 farmworkers joined a labor strike to call attention to the issues. Zlolniski said fewer labor and environmental regulations in Mexico enticed U.S. business to move production south of the border once the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified in the 1990s. That move — coupled with agricultural innovations that allow common crops to be grown all year long — has had a lasting impact.
“Policymakers need to understand the intended and unintended consequences of conditions that arise for people who grow crops for export and not for themselves,” Zlolniski said. “It’s important to document that. This is the price for us to have access to these fresh crops all year-long.”
De Jornaleros a Colonos also examines the growth of a region of Mexico that has had rapid expansion as a direct result of the burgeoning agriculture industry. Many of the workers living in the area migrated from southern Mexico over the past three decades and, in Zlolniski’s view, have colonized the area.
“Despite the harsh life and low paying jobs, I was surprised by the energy and commitment of these farmworkers to adopt this new region as their home,” he said. “There was very little there before they moved in. So they are not only growing the foods we eat, but they’re building the place where they live from scratch.”
Zlolniski, who is also the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, is working on an ethnographic study of the agricultural workers in the Baja California region and hopes to have a manuscript completed by next year. He and his colleagues also have published articles based on the research in De Jornaleros a Colonos in English- and Spanish-language academic journals.
“This book continues Dr. Zlolniski’s important research on those who are marginalized in the global economy,” said Associate Professor Robert Kunovich, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “This book sheds light on their plight and will encourage people to think about workers and communities around the world that have been placed in a similar situation.”
Zlolniski hopes his work will motivate students, scholars, government officials and the general public to reflect upon an issue that holds economic, social and humanitarian ramifications.
“Where previous discussions have been about where the merchandise and clothes we buy has been produced, now the discussion has moved to food,” he said. “What we provide in the book is the basis for understanding the conditions and why events like the labor strike took place. It is important for us on this side of the border to understand how the foods we expect are grown.”
Learn more about De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintin at the COLEF website. Research for the monograph was supported by a grant from Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
(Story by James Dunning/COLA Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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