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My Turn: In search of equality for Arizona farmworkers

Arizona farmworkers are more diverse than you think, and without them, up to a quarter of crops might go unharvested.


Migrant workers harvesting watermelons in 2013 on Northern Avenue at Delgado farms.(Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)
Migrant workers harvesting watermelons in 2013 on Northern Avenue at Delgado farms.(Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)


A half century since Cesar Chavez led a national boycott of grapes to highlight the civil rights of farmworkers, the status of both immigrant and native contributors to Arizona’s food system is still in debate. Although Chavez left an indelible mark on our agricultural history, we must look and see how much more equity Arizona’s food system has now than during Chavez’s march on Delano, Calif., 50 years ago.

How have the civil rights for farmworkers of various races and cultures fared over the past half-century in Arizona? And what next steps need to be taken to ensure justice and equity for all those who bring Arizonans their daily bread?

Ethnic, racial and gender diversity of Arizona’s food system has changed dramatically since 1966. The iconic figures of Arizona agriculture today are no longer the “Marlboro Man” rancher on his horse or the irrigated-cotton farmer on his tractor.

Instead, envision the contracted onion and lettuce harvester who comes over the border to Yuma each morning from San Luis, Sonora; or the Somali or Sudanese refugee who harvests citrus, dates and prickly pears from the backyards and roadways of metro Tucson. Without these immigrants, as much as 15 to 25 percent of Arizona’s crops might go unharvested.

Even before receiving statehood in 1912, Arizona engaged Mexican-born families as farmworkers and ranch hands. Despite their continuing dominance in the agricultural workforce, there are notable shifts. The racial and ethnic makeup of the hired farm-labor force has changed significantly in recent decades, with an increasing proportion coming from more southerly Mexican states, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

By 2006, “Hispanics” or “Latinos” comprised 43 percent of all hired farmworkers, 56 percent of the contracted crop harvesters and 26 percent of livestock workers in the country. Almost all non-citizen farmworkers in Arizona are Hispanic, and they continue to face serious pressures and discrimination while struggling to feed their own families as well as ours.

Gary Paul Nabhan (Photo: handout)
Gary Paul Nabhan (Photo: handout)

But immigration justice is not an issue only for Hispanic farmworkers, as it was in Chavez’s era. Our state’s food system today is also populated by farmworkers and gleaners fleeing from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Liberia, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Togo and Uzbekistan.

Many face racial discrimination and economic challenges as immigrants, even though they play productive roles in enhancing Arizona’s food security. And yet, for some of us, immigrant groups like the Iskashitaa Refuge Network of gleaners and harvesters are the pride of our community.

To be sure, initial steps have been taken by our state’s agricultural institutions toward embracing greater racial and cultural diversity, as well as gender equality, but much remains to be done. I applaud the efforts of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Farm Bureau, and the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in providing services and leadership programs for women, youth, Native Americans and immigrants. But we will soon need to see increased diversity on the governing boards, advisory councils and in managerial positions of those organizations.

To envision a more equitable and prosperous future for food producers of all colors and cultures, the new Center for Regional Food Studies will be hosting a Food Justice Forum at the University of Arizona on Feb. 11 and 12 to listen to the many stakeholders in our food system. In tribute to Chavez, we wish to promote broader representation of stakeholders to shape a more just future for Arizona agriculture.


Gary Paul Nabhan is director of the new Center for Food Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson and an orchard-keeper in Santa Cruz County. To pre-register for the Food Justice Forum being hosted by the Center and to get the “Changing Faces in Arizona Food Systems” report go to

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