by Mia Nelson '22
Professor Maria C. De Greiff and three student co-founders of FUERZA Fund, named for the word “strength” in Spanish, have run two campaigns totaling thousands of dollars each to support migrant farmworkers in Vermont during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is an offshoot of FUERZA, an unrecognized club at Dartmouth College arising from the class “Migrant Lives of the Upper Valley.” In 2017, FUERZA was created to maintain connections between Dartmouth students and migrant farmworkers beyond the term of the class offering, and still exists today as a blend of community outreach and community connection. Keren Valenzuela Bermúdez ‘21 says that club includes a mix of inviting the farmworkers to campus, establishing gardening projects between farms, providing english lessons, and hanging out. The club is not yet recognized by the college, requiring FUERZA club members to use personal funds and vehicles for club events. Despite the challenges of being an unrecognized club, FUERZA remains a community that Valenzuela Bermúdez counts among her most important at Dartmouth. Speaking of the club’s unrecognized status, Juan Quinonez Zepeda ‘22 states that “When it comes to real environmental activism and work, students have to take action outside of the college.”
The work of FUERZA shifted when the pandemic hit and students were not allowed back on campus. Professor De Greiff saw an immediate need for aid and relief to the migrant farmworkers FUERZA has built friendships with. She asked the Coalition for Immigration Reform and Equality at Dartmouth (COFIRED), a student organization seeking to advance the rights of undocumented and mixed status members of the upper valley, for funds.
“This cannot wait,” Grieff stated. Greiff, her son Frank David Loveland, and her partner Michael Gaffnery, who is a physician's assistant, went to visit the sixty-three essential farmworkers FUERZA has relationships with and delivered vitamins, information, and 198 face masks, donated by Thetford Hill Church and FUERZA co-founder Gabe Onate’s aunt. Grieff stated that masks were especially important as the farmworkers reported higher instances of being stared at in public areas such as grocery stores. Since many of the migrant farmworkers are undocumented or in families of mixed immigration status, being visible in racial and linguistic ways has always provoked fear; Grieff stated that for the migrant workers, the visibility of being unmasked in the upper valley has intensified that existent fear of being seen.
FUERZA Fund grew out of the original partnership between COFIRED, FUERZA and Greiff. The fund provides support for the needs of migrant workers beyond just materials, including travel reimbursements and medical bills.
“The FUERZA Fund is an all encompassing fund and it is an honor to work with our friends at the farms,” said Quinonez Zepeda. “In many ways, we were first responders in that they needed us and there we were,” he said.
One woman at a partner farm worked a 78-hour week even with a broken arm. The owner of her farm wouldn’t pay her for time off, and so she continued her days of waking up at 3:00 AM in Vermont winter to milk the cows. The woman, Grieff said, is someone who walks with joy in her life. She sings to the cows in the morning and she truly loves them. On her day off, she sells home cooked food to contribute to her community.
“I know a lot of farm owners in the upper valley, but I haven’t met a farm owner who works a week like our migrant friends,” said Greiff.
In Vermont, there are 1,800 migrant farmworkers and 70 percent of milk production relies on migrant hands. Milk and dairy staples at Dartmouth like “Ben and Jerry’s” and “Cabot Cheese” have contracts with the farms FUERZA fund supports.
“These farms are a couple of minutes from Dartmouth, but no one ever really cares about the conditions of the workers” said Valenzuela Bermúdez. But we should since they are less than 15 miles away; Grieff states, “The migrant workers help their families but they also bring food to each of our tables.”
The FUERZA fund is one step for co-founders Bermúdez, Grieff, Onate and Quinonez, however no amount of money would be enough to give the migrant farmworkers the relief they deserve, Grieff stated.
“Twenty billion dollars wouldn’t be enough––this work is about care and empathy. This, what we are doing, is sustainable justice: acknowledging their existence and contributions to our economy,” said Greiff.
Ways that FUERZA seeks to cultivate care and empathy is looking towards a future program of consistent language skill shares on partner farms. With a language program, Greiff emphasizes, they can understand their rights more easily and they can gain a political voice in the Upper Valley.
“The voices of the farmworkers, they are like the Dartmouth slogan. They are the true voices calling out into the wilderness and no one is taking the time to listen and hear them,” said Quinonez Zepeda.
Acknowledging the migrant workers is also about recognizing and appreciating their contribution to sustainability knowledge and land care.
“We have a really Westernized concept of an environmentalist, and we need to deconstruct what that means,” said Quinonez Zepeda.
Sustainability often is conceptualized in a way that imagines the only substantive work as that done by a white, affluent person with a reusable water bottle and spork. That definition of sustainability, that westernized concept on an environmentalist, precludes cognizance of the sustainability practices of diverse communities. FUERZA and FUERZA Fund do revolutionary sustainability work by honoring migrant farmworkers whose work with land and animals is essential to how our Upper Valley community eats and sustains itself. To Quinonez Zepeda, deconstructing a Westernized concept of environmentalism comes from acknowledgement of the knowledge and care migrant workers bring to the upper valley.
Farmworkers’ connection to the land and sustainability is emphasized by their living arrangements in homes on their farms of employment. Within immigrant and migrant farmworker communities, there is more emphasis on responsibility and reciprocity to the land, said Quinonez Zepeda. Since the workers live where they work, the urgency of helping the land is magnified: by tending to the land with care and grace, they can potentially live better. Intimate connection to the land, for both what it is and what it can be, is a core tenet of sustainability that the farmworkers experience and operate within.
“There is a relationship between animals and humans in the migrant workers,” said Quinonez Zepeda, speaking of the close tie described by farmers to the animals they steward.
Greiff, emphasizing Quinoez Zepeda’s point, calls on us to think of one of her migrant farmworker friends who sings to the cows she milks each morning, despite waking up at 3am in brutal Vermont winters in order to tend to them. She, Greiff explained, feels a deep tenderness for calves who are separated from their mothers, and takes time to see the need and worthiness in the animals.
The connection, empathy, and tenderness in the migrant farmworker’s story exemplifies true sustainability. Nurturing and living and working on a piece of land is true sustainability, working to ensure food is on the table in the upper valley is true sustainability, recognizing the soul of animals and treating them with care is sustainability.
“[The migrant farmworkers] contribute their intellectual knowledge of the land, but we call that labour unskilled,” said Quinonez Zepeda, emphasizing the general lack of cognizance most people afford to the integral skills of migrant farmworkers.
FUERZA and FUERZA fund are efforts to acknowledge the migrant farmworker community and provide them with support. Migrant hands are the hands, Greiff emphasized, that give their life so our families and neighbors can eat, and yet they don’t have access to education, they live in total isolation, without access to health care, while living in constant fear due to their immigration status.
When working with migrant farmworkers, “We are approaching an underground universe of survival,” said Grieff.
The survival is theirs, but it is also everyone who eats’ survival. By working alongside migrant farmers to meet their needs, FUERZA and FUERZA fund pursue a more empathetic, ethical, and appreciated future for those who feed the Upper Valley. The duty of seeing migrant workers: their needs, their joys, the institutional barriers they face, and their vast land and animal knowledge, is what Quinonez Zepeda, Valenzuela Bermúdez, Onate and Greiff have made their work, but it should be my work and yours, too.
“We can not just forget them,” said Greiff, “they are already forgotten.”
To contribute to the FUERZA support fund for the farmworkers please venmo Keren Valenzuela Bermúdez. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for ways to get involved or for more information.