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Shelter For Farm Workers Becomes Reality
Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.
By Ruben Castro, Claudia Moreno and Jessica S. Nevarez
Shoppers often complain when prices for their favorite chile peppers go over $1 per pound. But while consumers may pay 79 cents or even 99 cents for a pound of chile, pickers here on the border receive about 60 cents a bucket containing 40 pounds of chile, according to Carlos Marentes, Director of the Border Agricultural Workers Union. To put things into perspective, approximately 20 jalapeños or 10 long peppers make a pound. To make even close to minimum wage, a worker would have to pick thousands of peppers per hour.
Picking green chile in Mesquite, NM. Photo courtesy of Carlos Marentes.
Born in Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, and raised in Colonia Hidalgo, Carlos Marentes was one of twelve brothers. Marentes followed his father into the fields, picking cotton. After coming to the United States, Carlos Marentes joined the Texas Farm Workers Union, and he and his wife Alicia eventually were assigned to work on the union's behalf in El Paso. He was greatly influenced by farm union leader Cesar Chavez.
Marentes and his wife created the Sin Fronteras Project and helped the workers in the U.T.A.F.a (Union de Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos). Seeing farm workers isolated from the rest of society, Marentes wanted to do something to make them more active and integrated into the community.
After observing migrant workers spending cold nights on the Cordova International Bridge so they could be ready early in the morning when farm contractors pick them up, Marentes talked to the workers about the idea of building a center which would not only give them a roof over their heads but help in other areas. On October 10, 1984, Marentes presented the project to the El Paso City Council for the first time.
After almost ten years later and much hard work by Marentes and supporters, funds were approved, and El Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos (the Center for Border Farm Workers) became a reality. El Paso's City Council agreed with project supporters that the center's name should be in Spanish.
Located on 201 East 9th Avenue, the center opened its doors in May 1995. Murals cover the floors, reflecting the lives of the workers and their efforts to create the center. A large circular wall represents a joining of the United States and Mexico.
Marentes says, "The main purpose of the center is to help the agricultural workers become part of society." Workers attend English classes five times a week as well as learn various crafts so they can sell resulting products in the winter when farm jobs are scarce. Children attend folklorico classes. Workers are also taught about their rights, how to protect themselves in the fields and how the union can support them.
The center operates a small clinic, providing some free medical care for farm workers. A doctor and nurse volunteer weekly to give workers medical exams, particularly important when workers are exposed to pesticides in the fields. The farm workers are able to shower at the center, minimizing the risks and effects of insecticides they come in contact with. Other community and state organizations help, too. The West-Texas Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association helps workers with substance abuse; the Texas Employment Agency works with the unemployed; and La Fe Clinic donates supplies to the medical clinic.
Workers and their families are helped with the food and other donated goods, and they may eat in the center's cafeteria free of charge. They may also receive mail at the center. Another benefit that the center provides is assistance in filling out legal forms. Marentes says, "The first real chance for the center to prove its importance was when the amnesty program went into effect. Bringing the workers' families to the United States or helping them become legal residents became a real task for us."
Some former farm workers now help other in the center. Roberto Moreno Salcido says, "Since I am no longer physically able to work in the fields, I volunteer as the housekeeper in the center."
Marentes is very proud of the center and believes it represents a great achievement for the people of El Paso and migrant farm workers in the U. S. Marentes says, "We want to teach everyone about the importance and dignity of our work. That is what this struggle is about -- our people's dignity.
One of Marentes' greatest moments was meeting his long-time hero, Cesar Chavez, two months before he died. "I will never forget his efforts with farm workers, and how he inspired me to achieve all my goals," says Marentes.
The center is open to workers for shelter from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. year round and available to the general public Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon. A non-profit organization, El Centro de Los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos welcomes donations and volunteers in its bid to offer help and a safe haven for some of the most burdened of people -- America's farm workers.