Farmworkers loom large in the Chicano imagination. We’re talking about streets named after César Chávez and a day off from school to honor the man in California. But outside of our communities’ celebration of Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s work in the sixties and seventies, farmworkers are largely invisible. Unless you follow Mónica Ramírez and her Justice for Migrant Women, you may not know what’s going on with them today.
A new PBS documentary, premiering Monday, October 4, is getting more folks to pay attention to the people who pick our produce.
Fruits of Labor follows Ashley S. Pavon, the eldest daughter of an undocumented immigrant during Trump’s reign of terror. Ashley works in the fields and in the processing plants of central California to help support her mom, herself, and her three siblings. It’s tough work and it doesn’t pay much. With the earnings from Ashley’s work and her mom cleaning houses combined, the family still lives in a tiny space, sharing a bathroom with 12 other families.
And all of Ashley’s expertise picking moras and fresas won’t help her graduate high school — something both her and her mother want badly. They just aren’t sure how to make it happen, given Ashley’s punishing schedule.
Never forgetting her struggles, Fruits of Labor goes hard on the idea that Ashley is a normal teen, just like anyone else. We see her cuddle with her boyfriend, the two of them sharing dreams and gentle teasing. As a senior, Ashley is busy planning her prom look (spoiler — it comes out amazing) and worrying about graduation. These little details may seem small but they drive home the fact that farmworkers are people, just like anyone else and they’re worthy of childhoods and dignity, two things they’re often not afforded as we see in the film.
Fruits of Labor also is quick to point out the ways Ashley is an individual, whether it’s her nail styles or her wise-beyond-her-years insights. She’s just 18 but she knows a double standard when she sees it. In the film, she calls out how her younger brother (by just two years) gets to be a kid much longer than she does. Since he’s a boy, no one expects him to sacrifice his dreams to support his siblings, a luxury Ashley can only daydream about. With this critique, Fruits of Labor nudges our community to throw out long-standing machista customs that are damaging to girls and women like Ashley.
That said, Fruits of Labor spends its energy on the big fish, mostly critiquing the outside structures that make it hard for farmworkers. We’re talking low wages, weak child-labor laws, and threats of deportation. And even though those forces are largely imposed by others, Fruits of Labor shows that Ashley and her family are not powerless. My favorite part of the film is when Ashley helps set up a community garden. Because picking fruits and vegetables doesn’t make you enough money to buy them.
It’s a reminder of the injustice farm working communities face. Ashley presents her work on the garden as a class project and her teacher rightly praises her for it. But the Ashleys of the world need more than one kind teacher, a loving parent, a helpful nonprofit. They need systemic change. Hopefully giving their stories a platform, like Fruits of Labor does, will help us make that happen.
Check out groups like Justice for Migrant Women to see how you can get involved with farmworkers’ rights.
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