North Carolina, a Household Name for Farmworkers Who Head Up North

Aaron Sánchez Guerra completed this photo essay while working at North Carolina Farmworkers Project, a nonprofit in Durham, NC.

DURHAM, NC — The state of North Carolina has long been a household name in Mexico, as fathers and sons disappear from their homes for six to 10 months at a time to work, usually to pick tobacco and sweet potatoes.

In a state that has gone from a Latino population of 76,000 in 1990 to 1.26 million last year, according to 2017 Census data, these workers’ presence in the state’s rural agricultural towns is felt. In 2004, for instance, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee accomplished a historic collective bargaining agreement with Mt. Olive Pickles that secured special rights and union contracts for seasonal farmworkers after a five-year boycott.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Census data also showed that four agricultural counties where a vast majority of farmworkers stay —Johnston, Sampson, Harnett and Duplin— are all 67% or more white. All four counties voted majority Republican in the 2016 presidential elections.

Harboring Mexican cultural havens in a conservative region with Confederate tendencies, North Carolina’s farmworkers hold stories far more striking than the miles of fields and silence that surround them away from home. The photo essay below highlights some of their surroundings, living conditions and stories.

Newly-arrived workers settle in their housing at Four Oaks on a Friday afternoon. For many of the young workers, it is their first season of farmwork in the United States. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

Raymundo, 37, from the Mexican central state of Querétaro, has been coming to work in the Carolina fields since 2014. However, he had been traveling to the United States to work long before this as an undocumented migrant worker in Texas. Landscaping there was an easier, better paying job than working in tobacco, but crossing the border for 15 years became too difficult.

A worker rests on a hot Sunday afternoon at his housing located at a tobacco field in Dunn.(Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

During Raymundo’s last trip, crossing into Texas in 2013 was during a time when Border Patrol activity was the highest it had been on his transnational journeys. “Six of us were on our way and the raitero, as we call them, who was coming to get us in his truck didn’t arrive, because there was too much immigration [enforcement],” Raymundo recalled. They had then run out food and water, resorting to eating cactus cut with pieces of tin cans and drinking out of dirty puddles from which wild animals drank.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a recurring visual motif in different forms for workers in Roseboro and Dunn. (Photos by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

Left with no energy or recourse, Raymundo and his group had ventured out to the main road to either find help or encounter immigration officials. It was then that a truck saw them and stopped, and the driver told them to get in and hide. They had believed him to be a white American, but it was a Salvadoran immigrant who took them in. Paying him a hefty price of $1500 later, Raymundo was provided for and then taken up to north Texas to work.

A tobacco grower’s Confederate flag in Four Oaks. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

Upon returning home, Raymundo would hear from a friend of the opportunity to get a visa to work seasonally in North Carolina. Like many other farmworkers, he has left past livelihoods and has been here ever since. “I’m left with the memories only,” he said. “It all seems like a dream now.”

Women hired as seasonal kitchen workers at a farmworker camp in Four Oaks. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

 

Farmworker Uriel and his son, also named Uriel, outside of a secluded farmworker house among cornfields in Mount Olive. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

 

Don Roberto, a 60-year-old tobacco farmworker who has worked over 20 different seasons in Faison. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)
Joel, a farmworker from Nayarit, smoking in the rain by a tobacco field in Dunn. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

 

(Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

Often, workers gather after work in places like Clayton to play and sing corridos and huapangos, regional northern Mexican songs with instruments brought from home.

Recently-arrived workers holding educational tobacco safety flyers in Four Oaks during a health assessment visit from NC Farmworkers Project. (Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

A native of the coastal state of Veracruz, 38-year-old Salomé has been coming to North Carolina to work in the state’s richest crop of tobacco for three years. He reflected on the cartel violence that has scourged his home state in relation to being a seasonal farmworker, preferring an honest living. “I rather my family and I eat beans and be safe than be rich and risk mine and my family’s lives,” he said.

Salomé as depicted in a zine documentary project by Student Action with Farmworkers.(Photo by Aarón Sánchez Guerra)

“Thanks to this work opportunity in North Carolina I can give my family a little more than in Mexico,” Salomé writes in a zine documentary by Student Action with Farmworkers. “Six months living in solitude, but for a great motive [to] support my family.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.