The Cesar Chavez of West Texas

Carlos Marentes works to protect the rights of El Paso area chili workers—and literally provides a roof over their heads. Modern Farmer spoke to him about the border wall, the forgotten NAFTA-immigration connection and other insights from life near the border.

In the Mexican state Chihuahua, chili pickers earn just five dollars a day.
Photography Terry Granger/Shutterstock

Carlos Marentes is holding a bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce, a product that was once made from cayenne peppers grown in the vicinity of New Iberia, Louisiana. Later, the raw ingredients came from fields outside El Paso, America’s hot pepper haven, and is now brewed with Chihuahuan chilies harvested south of the border in the Mexico desert. In this bottle, says the legendary labor organizer, is the story of all that’s wrong in agriculture.

I’ve been traveling along the border for several days. A canoe trip on the Rio Grande in Big Bend followed by a jaunt down dusty backroads to Presidio—once a thriving melon-growing district, now a derelict outpost overrun with drug smugglers—has enlightened me to some of the realities of a region discussed so often discussed in abstract, uninformed terms. Everyone I meet tells me the rest of America is completely clueless about the border.

Many who grew up here identify not as American or Mexican, but both. Locals move freely across the border on a daily basis—dinner in Mexico followed by a movie in America would not be an atypical date night. Culture transcends the political boundary; down here folks think of themselves as “border people.” And they talk endlessly of how quickly the political reality of the border has changed in recent years, even as daily life in this remote region, as in many rural places, seems to scarcely change at all.

I spoke with several farmers along the way, some with property that backs right up to the Rio Grande. These folks aren’t excited about the prospects of a massive border wall in their backyard, even though they voted for the man proposing it. There already is a wall along much of the border, by the way, and the locals here are completely mystified that many Americans fail to realize this fact. A portion of the existing wall runs through the backyard of one farmer I met—and he’s quite sure that a bigger one won’t do anything more to stop illegal traffic than this one has. It’s a real pain when you have to go through an armored gate to plow some of your fields or reach the river that serves as your irrigation source.

I eventually arrive in El Paso, which feels like New York City after the ghostly towns I’ve passed through, and met Marentes at his office across the street from a military-grade barbed wire fence that separates the city from the river. This is the headquarters of the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, which Marentes, 67, founded with his wife, Alicia, in 1983. It’s just after 5 pm when I walk past the reception desk to find a large linoleum-tiled room with 30 or so men sprawled out on sleeping bags, some snoring, some checking their phones and chatting idly, all looking exhausted. A smaller group of women are doing the same in an adjacent hallway. They will be outside in the parking lot by 1 am waiting for labor contractors to pick them up and take them to pick chilies at sunrise in distant counties, so this is bedtime.

The Border Farm Workers Center, as the building is known, is essentially a homeless shelter for itinerant laborers, many of whom used to sleep on the streets nearby after a day picking produce. The center provides shelter and a slew of social services, ranging from English classes to health check-ups and counseling. Marentes and his volunteers assist with filling out government forms and sometimes intervene when an employer is withholding wages or otherwise misbehaving. Perhaps most importantly, the center provides a sense of community.

Marentes tells me of his childhood in Juarez, the city across the border from El Paso, and of picking cotton as a young man. He tells me of coming to America with his young bride and taking a job with the Texas Farm Workers Union. Marentes was a colleague of Cesar Chavez, the late leader of the Chicano labor uprisings of the 1970s. He’s met Pope Francis twice.

But mostly he talks about the big trends shaping agriculture today, trends that worry him greatly. He points to decades of neoliberal economic policy as the cause of the great northward exodus of Mexican immigrants in recent years. Few Americans realize the role of NAFTA, now known as USMCA, in the epidemic of illegal immigration that some in right-wing circles love to hate on. Which is why he wants to talk about hot sauce.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Modern Farmer: Chili peppers are the top agricultural product in the El Paso region. But you’re hopped up about hot sauce for political reasons. Tell me about it.

Carlos Marentes: The label of Louisiana Hot Sauce leads you to believe that it is from Louisiana. It started in Louisiana, but today the cayenne peppers in the ingredients are mainly from Chihuahua, the Mexican state across the border from here, where chili pickers earn something like five dollars a day. How can you compete with that if you own a chili farm here in the states?

MF: Naturally that drives American farmers to pay their workers as little as they can get away with. Still, the paltry prospects of farm work are enough to send thousands of Mexicans across the border every day.

CM: The way I see it, both farmers and farm workers are victims of the same system where large agribusinesses control the rules of the game. For example, a company might come to a local farmer and offer a certain price for a contract to produce chilies. If they can’t make it work at that price, the company goes to the next farmer. The ones that end up getting the contracts are the large producers who can make a profit on tiny margins because they have large tracts of land. That trend isn’t supportive to small farmers, organic farmers, or anyone engaged in agroecology and community-based food production.

It’s driven by all the Wall Street speculators who are investing in agriculture now. They don’t know anything about agriculture, but they know that certain sectors of the food market are becoming more and more profitable, so they invest in those areas. It’s the same to them if the chilies in the hot sauce comes from Texas or Peru, as long as they get a good return. Financial investors are usually more greedy than people who do business locally—local producers generally don’t want to do things that harm their community.

MF: We’ve found ourselves in a world where Louisiana hot sauce is made from Mexican chilies and Mexican kids grow up eating tortillas made from Kansan corn, which their families struggle to afford at the mercado. You believe trade, at least the neoliberal version of it, is to blame for much of what ails the global food system. Why is that?

CM: As part of the NAFTA negotiations in the early nineties Mexico did away with the ejido system. This was the traditional system of collective land ownership in rural Mexico—all decisions about how to use the land were made by the community and the land could not be bought or sold. The idea was to produce food to feed the families in the community. Farmers had a sense of duty, of responsibility to their people.

That was seen in the United States as something similar to communism or socialism. So one of the requirements of NAFTA was for Mexico to get rid of Article 27 of the Constitution so that farm land could become private property, which of course served the interests of US corporations. Between 1994, when NAFTA began, and 2004, 4 million rural Mexicans left the land.

MF: To clarify, are you saying that the new system of private ownership allowed foreign interests to buy up Mexican farmland, thus pushing out the local subsistence farmers?

CM: Yes. The local people received title to the land, but many chose to sell. Often they used the money to pay for the coyote [human smuggler] to bring them to the United States.

MF: So NAFTA was largely responsible for the huge surge in illegal immigration during the nineties and 2000s.

CM: Yes, but actually the problem with the ejido system started way before NAFTA. NAFTA was like the last nail in the coffin. The problem actually started during the green revolution pushed by the World Bank in the middle of the last century. The idea was to raise productivity in the countryside by introducing technology like harvesters, tractors, chemical fertilizers. The World Bank provided loans to all these poor peasants so they could be more productive, but soon they became dependent on the loans.

And it forced them to change the type of agriculture they were doing. They used to produce only food— corn, beans, chilies, calabasitas. But then they started to produce commodities—cotton, mainly. Farmers resisted that for a long time because the communities were very strong. But then NAFTA came along and accelerated the destruction of the rural economy.

MF: In a sneaky way, it was a double win for Americans economically, as now they could import cheap commodities from Mexico and also had a cheap labor source for picking fruits and vegetables domestically. But socially, the consequences were horrific.

CM: I’ve met apple pickers in Washington State that used to be apple producers themselves in Chihuahua. They lost their land and are now dependent entirely on working in the United States in order to support their families.

MF: How does your own life story play into this scenario?

CM: I come from an agricultural family in Mexico, the second oldest of 12 children. My mother was from Zacatecas, my father from Aguascalientes; they came from indigenous peasant communities, but at one point they were unable to survive in their communities so they migrated to the city. I grew up in Juarez, so I consider myself a border native.

MF: I’m guessing it was much easier to cross the border into the U.S. back then.

CM: Yes. Because in the 1950s the economic situation wasn’t so bad in Mexico. It was very easy to get a border crossing card that allowed you to move back and forth. It was a bi-national life.

MF: But eventually you chose to settle here. Why?

CM: When my wife and I got married in 1970 we moved to the U.S. because we started to see the economic change going on in Mexico. Once we were here and we saw all the problems that the Mexican community was suffering in America, we wanted to do something about it. Besides, the American Dream was very boring to us [laughs]—it was about working all week, doing laundry and cleaning on Saturdays, and then going to church on Sundays, and that’s it. Then all over again on Monday. We wanted to do something more with our lives. We saw the discrimination that was going on here and we suffered from that ourselves.

MF: Thus began your career as a labor organizer. How did you get started?

CM: We joined the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1977. It was based in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. They were trying to organize the vegetable workers and citrus workers. We worked for that union for several years as volunteers and then in 1980 we decided that we wanted to dedicate our life to the farm labor movement, so we came back to El Paso and created the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project.

Our original intention was to create a union here, following in the example of Cesar Chavez in California, to engage in the struggle to negotiate collective bargaining rights. But we soon realized that besides better pay, there were other problems that we needed to deal with. One is that the workers here do not have a place to spend the night. They were sleeping in the streets next to the bridge. So we created a place where they are protected from harsh weather, robberies, harassment.

MF: How many farm workers are you able to support?

CM: We have about 150 here on a given night during the main growing months. We estimate that there are up to 12,000 farm workers in the area and we see about 8,000 here every year.

MF: How are conditions for the workers around El Paso?

CM: There is something very odd going on. The farmers complain that there are not enough workers during the harvests for onions, chilies, and pecans. But the farm workers that we talk to say there are not enough jobs and that they are being displaced by groups of workers coming from Mexico. The reality is the workers here only need to know where the jobs are and they will be there the next morning.

MF: What do you think is going on? Are the employers not wanting to hire local workers because they feel they have to pay them more than someone fresh from Mexico?

CM: Well, there is a guy here right now who said he went to look for work at a place where they grow tomatoes. The supervisor told him if he had a legal residence card there is a good chance he would not be hired. He said it’s a better idea to say that you don’t have papers, then you will get the job. So there is something very funny going on.

I think what’s happening, in the big picture, is that the industry is unable to develop a stable farm labor force. Why is there no stability? It’s because the pay is so low—if you get paid by the bucket of chili and you don’t make what you want to at one farm, the next day you will go someplace else. And if the situation gets really bad here, then you might go to Colorado. That happened during the onion harvest. It’s not that the farmers in Colorado are more generous, it’s because there are less workers there, so the employers have less leverage.

Part of the problem with stability is that we are importing more and more agricultural products from other countries where labor is cheaper, like I mentioned with the hot sauce.

MF: Our President sure isn’t helping the situation.

CM: Some of the workers here who received amnesty under Reagan are afraid now to cross the border because they think that the cards they received during the amnesty program may be taken away from them.

MF: What do you make of the argument that immigrants undercut American workers?

CM: The chili industry is supported entirely by immigrants. It’s going to be impossible to find North Americans to do the job. Not because it’s hard work. I know North American people in construction who work even harder than farm workers sometimes—like doing roofing in the summer. The reason agriculture is not attractive to American people is because you cannot rely on it. You cannot guarantee that you will have a steady flow of income.

Most farm labor around here is piece-rate—you never know how much you’re going to make or if you’re going to have work the next day. Sometimes you make $100 to $150 in a day and sometimes you come back from the field with 10 or 20 bucks in your pocket. If it’s raining, you might not make anything. If the wages and conditions in agriculture improved, more people would work in the fields.

MF: Do you think it would change anything if the wall was built?

CM: The economic situation in Mexico is so bad that people don’t really have any alternative but to cross the border. They are going to cross whether there is a wall or not. So what is the purpose of this border wall? To us, it is an offense. In El Paso and Juarez, we think of ourselves as one border community.

MF: Right, it’s not really a practical solution for anything. But for Trump, it’s a way to satisfy his voter base.

CM: To me, the border wall is a symbol. It’s a symbol for people who live in North Dakota or Wisconsin, for people who are very far from the border and don’t know what’s going on down here, but who are afraid of something and need assurance that we are taking care of national security.

MF: Many Americans don’t realize it, but there is already a wall or very large fence along 700 miles of the border, including around El Paso.

CM: We’ve had a wall here since 2008. It was built during the Bush administration primarily as a response to September 11th. The financial backers of Bush and Cheney are the ones that got the contracts. They were juicy contracts—like $11 million for 2 miles of wall. After Trump was elected I was speaking with some politicians and I told them, since you are in Washington, D.C., can you please tell him that we already have a wall, and to leave us in peace!

MF: What is your hope for the future of agriculture?

CM: We need to understand the importance of migrants to this nation. How can we satisfy the people who firmly believe that immigration is bad with the need of having immigrants come here? From my point of view, the only way that we can really deal with that issue is by improving the income of all workers, regardless of whether they are immigrants or not. So that no North American feels that he or she is being excluded from economic well-being as a result of immigrants coming here to work.

Also, if farmworkers earn less than the minimum wage, it means farmers are probably earning less what they should, as well. So we need to bring the conditions of both the producers and the farmworkers up. That means challenging the corporations who are making all these millions of dollars with food products that are not even healthy for consumers. There is a common understanding between farm workers and small family farmers in that the majority of farm workers in the United States used to be farmers in Mexico or Central America. So they can help with the effort to rebuild the agriculture.

We need to see agriculture not as under the ownership of financial capital, but as something that belongs to humanity, to communities, to people. The purpose of agriculture is to satisfy human needs and to provide decent conditions for farmers and farm workers so they can take care of nature.

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