Carlos Marentes has been a farm labor organizer and  advocate for many decades. Currently founder and director of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, he leads efforts to organize farm workers on both sides of the US-Mexico border, especially chile pickers. He is involved in issues of poverty, economic inequality, environment and climate, and coordinates the International Collective on Migrants and Rural Workers of La Vía Campesina.

Do you come from a family rooted in farming in México or in the US?

My parents moved from an indigenous peasant community in Central México to Ciudad Juarez in the 1940s because of economic hardship. The World Bank was just beginning its “green revolution,” which introduced large-scale chemically intensive farming methods to artificially speed up food production. This destroyed the peasant economy in México. My father crossed into El Paso every day to work on a farm, and my mother to her job as a restaurant cook.

When I myself crossed into Texas to live in 1977, I saw how farm workers were exploited. Yes, conditions in agribusiness are bad everywhere — but borderland workers are the most oppressed. Why? Because there’s a huge reserve labor force waiting right across the border! Workers from México have been imported as scabs to break up attempts to organize.

That dynamic must create conflicts among Mexican workers. 

There are three different categories working on farms in the US. The first is the legal workers who are already citizens. Remember that many became legal due to the 1986 amnesty and path to citizenship granted to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Second is the contratados or temporary contract farm workers under the H2A program. Third is the undocumented workers who entered the US without papers.

All three categories are farmworkers, but the ruling class creates divisions. Existing undocumented farmworkers see H2A workers as competitors, because the expansion of H2A visas has been combined with a harsh crackdown on the undocumented. 

It was a dark moment when Cesar Chavez denounced “wetbacks” and “illegal aliens.”

Back in the day, the Texas Farmworkers Union recognized that undocumented and documented workers needed to be united under one organization based on working class identity — not on identity based on legal status. It’s obvious that we need a binational strategy.

Do people in México decide to become “migrant workers?” No, migration is simply a consequence of how the agricultural industry works.

What has been the role of radicals and socialists in the farmworker movement? Unions fight for more crumbs; do we need a broader anti-capitalist vision? 

Agriculture workers have a radical history, just as industrial workers do. In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, organized migrants from Oklahoma to California. Many radicals found their way to the US, due to the persecution of revolutionaries in Europe, and they organized in farm, factory, and field.

We need to educate workers that even with a union, we might gain five cents this year, but next year the company will speed up our work, cut back our benefits, threaten our organizers. For farmworkers, even after decades of organizing, conditions have worsened. During this year’s record-breaking heat, many farmworkers were denied water, and there were deaths from heat exhaustion. The struggle must not be for five cents, but against the cruel logic of capitalism.

In the course of union organizing, we can raise revolutionary ideas. Workers must learn to disrupt capitalist structures, particularly the social relations of production. What’s the composition of US productive forces? Workers from non-European countries make up more than 50% of construction workers and nearly 70% of farm laborers; 50% of service sector workers are women. Our main struggle must be against patriarchy and racism.

We can encourage women to see that they play a critical role in their workplaces and in the capitalist system — to recognize that they have power. For example, in Ciudad Juarez, México, FoxConn tried to force women to accept a third shift. When they resisted, managers locked the doors to keep them in. So, the women burned the doors down! 

There’s a lot of juice in the US labor movement right now; how has the UAW fight affected worker consciousness? 

UAW president Shawn Fain did us a big service in recovering the concepts of “working class,” “solidarity” across race and gender, and “class struggle.” For some time, US workers haven’t had a class identity. After the 2008 financial crisis, many lost homes and incomes but still saw themselves as “middle class.” To be working class was something to be ashamed of. That’s changing. 

And the concept of class should be extended beyond borders. For the US maquiladora plants in Ciudad Juarez, it’s calculated that for every one dollar invested, the company gets two dollars back in profit. Shawn Fain has educated the public that the huge profits of auto companies were created by pushing wages down. Like auto, agriculture is one of the most important — and profitable — sectors of the US economy.  Five million Mexican workers created that wealth. Where’s their share?

You have called the present a moment of social transition. What do you see?

It’s easier to imagine the end of humanity than the end of capitalism! But there are encouraging signs.

We are seeing an intensified class struggle, a big increase in strikes. The UAW hammered home that workers are the ones who create wealth, and they demanded they get their fair share — and they won.

The pandemic produced a shift in consciousness; it ended loyalty to employers as workers realized that loyalty was a one-way street. People saw that the government can bail out unemployed workers if they want to, and not just big banks. Today, low-paying jobs are going unfilled. Did you ever wonder why check-in time at hotels have gotten later? They can’t hire enough housekeepers to get the rooms ready.

And January 6? The political class can’t even protect its own! The veil has been lifted in many ways.

The goals of reform struggles are often to change the laws, the rules of the game. But we don’t need the rules if we refuse to play the game. What matters is the actions of working people. Those are what disrupt capitalist structures and  shift the balance of power. As farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta once said in what has become a rallying cry for all workers — “Si, se puede!” Yes, we can!