Advertisement

Hispanic Heritage Month: Luis Magaña spent the last 20 years advocating for farmworker rights

Luis Magaña, a farmworker advocate whose background is rooted in fieldwork, now uses his experience to push for fieldworkers' rights.

Advertisement

A cucumber field with 500 acres of produce ready for harvest served as the office for an icon in the Hispanic community on a hot summer day.

Advertisement

Luis Magaña's mission that day: Help farmworkers with anything they need.

On the day sister station KCRA tagged along, they went to a farm located on Roberts Island, which is about 8 miles southwest of Stockton. Magaña handed out face coverings to help protect against the coronavirus and encouraged workers to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Magaña goes out to various farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley at least three times a week to make sure workers have various necessities needed to do their job safely, to ensure safety protocols are in place and to pass along any resources they may need.

The 65-year-old farmworker advocate said he is not always welcomed by landowners because part of his work includes exposing a lack of access to basic needs.

"They question me, 'What you're doing? If you don't leave we're calling the sheriff. If you don't leave we're going to bring the dogs and we'll destroy you,'" he said.

The threats are not new to Magana.

Luis Magaña, a farmworker advocate's background

He and his family came to Stockton, California, from Michoacán, México, in 1967. His father was a Bracero, one of the thousands of Mexicans hired to work in the United States during World War II. The program guaranteed decent living conditions and pay, but Magaña said that didn't happen.

Instead, Magaña said Braceros were housed in overcrowded shacks, cheated out of pay, subjected to racism; some were enslaved.

"He [his father] told me many stories, and I feel that they don't change the situation," Magaña said while reflecting on how things have changed for farmworkers since his dad first started working in the fields. "Then I became a farmworker, and I don't see much difference with the stories."

Magaña followed in his father's footsteps, picking and planting produce for 30 years in the San Joaquin Valley. Decades later, farmworkers are still fighting for the same rights they were fighting for when he was in the fields.

"Now we have a lot of issues in the community: racism, discrimination, lack of study opportunities for our kids," Magaña said.

What drives Magaña's advocacy work

Magaña said the pandemic has made these issues worse.

"They're [farmworkers] treated like slaves to many people," Magaña said. "You're not respected. The people don't say you are a good worker. You produce for us but don't recognize them in society. There are also low payments and a lack of safety in the fields. Who cares? Nobody cares."

When Magaña worked in the fields, he organized numerous strikes that he said led to increased pay. His passion for justice and equality in the fields fueled him to become outspoken about excessive work conditions.

He said growers tried to silence him but it didn't work. He said he instead became more dedicated to the cause and became a full-time advocate for farmworkers. Magaña has advocated on behalf of farmworkers for the last 20 years.

Issues farmworkers face today

"They [landowners] bring water but limit the time to get the water," Magaña said. "Most the water is too far from where they are working, or the water is not good — I mean it is not cold enough, or the water is not clean."

"People can have an accident on the machines. Two weeks ago on the tomato machine, a young farmworker of 20 years had an accident," he said. "Very often they say, 'What happened to Juan, to María?' They had a stroke. But what caused the stroke? The heat? The high temperatures? The lack of water? Or the excessive workforce?"

No one truly knows how many people have lost their lives to working in the fields. According to Magaña, deaths, and injuries often go unreported by landowners.

Because of that, Magaña said it's important for him to educate workers on the importance of knowing their rights. He wants to change the culture of the workforce, encouraging people to report injuries in the field to Cal OSHA or workers comp.

Getting local government involved

Magaña also said that many farmworkers have either gotten sick or died during the pandemic. That's where councilmember Kimberly Warmsley of District Six comes in.

"Luis is an icon and inspiration in our community," Warmsely said. "He is a trusted partner."

Warmsley met with Magaña to discuss the best way to get farmworkers vaccinated.

The meeting happened on a Friday morning before Magaña took KCRA out to the cucumber field.

"Luis and I talked about having a mobile vaccine come out," Warmsley said. "This means having a mobile vaccine unit come into the communities that are having those difficulties, like getting off work, or maybe they don't have transportation to get to a vaccination clinic. We're also going to be pushing the message that people can access any pharmacy within the city of Stockton as well."

Helping underserved communities get the vaccination

Coronavirus infection rates in Stockton, specifically the councilwoman's district, continue to rise.

"We, unfortunately as a district represent more deaths, not only in the city of Stockton, but also San Joaquin County, and so, we're in very troubling times," Warmsley said.

Having fought alongside civil rights activists César Chávez, and countless others, Magaña has become a trusted advocate in the Hispanic community. It's the reason he's at the forefront of a campaign to get people in his community vaccinated.

"People trust him," Warmsley said. "They trust that what he says is viable. We're living in a time where people are distrustful of government. And so what better way to get the message out from a partner who was grassroots, you know, from the community and in the trenches of change?"

Although progress is being made, Magaña knows there's still a long way to go.

He remains hopeful that one day there will be no more injustices.

"Every day when I wake up, I say, I am going to this place or the other place to at least to do something, to [enact] a little change or at least one of the workers will listen to me and they will practice their knowledge of how to protect himself one day if I am not in the fields," Magaña said.

Watch the full story in the video above.