The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners proclaimed March 23-27 National Farmworker Awareness Week, in honor of the more than 100,000 farm and migrant laborers who help Oregon harvest more than $3 billion worth of produce each year.
The week also celebrates the man who helped start a movement, Cesar Chavez, a farmworker turned workers’ rights advocate born March 31, 1927.
National Farmworker Awareness Week is celebrating its 16th year of raising awareness of the struggles of the more than 2 million laborers who work in fields in the United States each year. Farm laborers suffer heat stroke, parasitic infections and tuberculosis at higher rates than other workers, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.
“Most Latinos have a connection to farm work,” Irma Jimenez, a program manager for Multnomah County’s Aging, Disability & Veteran's Services, told the board Thursday.
Jimenez was 6 when her family moved from Texas in 1971 to pick strawberries, cucumbers and blackberries on a farm in North Plains, Washington County. Their new employers had, the year before, settled a class action lawsuit brought by their laborers over wages and working conditions.
That year Cesar Chavez called for a national boycott of Oregon products to protest an anti-farmworker bill awaiting the signature of then-governor Tom McCall. Chavez drew a crowd of 5,000 to the steps of the Capitol in Salem.
“I was young,” Jimenez said. “My siblings went to rallies with Chavez, sí, se puede. Watching that, being the youngest, seeing the struggle and wanting to do better, I was able to finish my education, get a better job and reach back to my community.”
Her parents secured a loan three years later to build a home of their own, where they still live.
Today, Jimenez manages one of six county branches of Aging Disability & Veteran Services, where she has worked for nearly 20 years. She supervises a staff of 45 who help residents secure health insurance, food stamps and make decisions about long-term care.
Jimenez is a member of the Multnomah County Managers of Color Employee Resource Group, which is hosting a celebration on Wednesday, March 25 at 11:30 a.m. in the board room of the Multnomah Building, in honor of farmworkers and the advocates who fight for their rights.
This year’s speaker, Octaviano Merecias, is on the faculty in Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, where he specializes in youth development.
Merecias is coordinator of a Washington County afterschool program that harnesses the power of science and technology to drive up gradation rates and college admissions.
4-H Tech Wizards teaches students how to build websites and robots, cut video and plot data using Geographic Informations System software. And in the process kids learn about leadership, public speaking and problem solving.