North Carolina, days after Hurricane Florence…
For migrant Mexican farmworkers María and her daughter Dahlia, the most noticeable sound after Hurricane Florence has been silence.
The silence of not hearing from the farmers who employ the two women and many other farmworkers here in North Carolina.
Since the hurricane ripped through counties that are powerhouses for agriculture, work ceased indefinitely due to flooding rains.
“I was very scared, it looked like an ocean outside,” María told Latino Rebels, adding that she was worried. She said she has few resources, no work. The fields near her old, decaying rural home were flooded as well.
As the waters descended across the eastern front of the state with unprecedented force, the vast Latino farmworker population and their families face consequences unique only to them.
A large camp of 150 seasonal farmworkers who come mainly from Mexico under the H2-A agricultural guest worker program is located near María’s home in Greene County, a designated major flood area expected to experience more flooding until September 28.
During the hurricane, some of the seasonal farmworkers walked through the flood to ask María if she could cook for them, since the waters had prevented the loncheras —women paid by the workers to bring them food— from getting to their camp.
For many workers, news of the natural disaster didn’t get to them quickly enough, partly because of not having access to Spanish-language media. Some couldn’t prepare and evacuate in time like the rest of the population, and many are now facing concerns like food insecurity and damage to their homes.
Torrential rainfall and flooding, leaving at least 33 dead, has also inundated the tobacco and sweet potato farms across central and eastern North Carolina.
This has been a reality for workers like Beatriz, a recent immigrant and mother of two from Honduras whose life was dramatically compromised by the hurricane.
“I’ve already been told that there is no work because everything was flooded,” Beatriz said.
She and her husband Víctor packed what they could fit in their van the previous week and have been taking refuge at a church in Lenoir County, an area slammed by flooding.
“After everything has calmed down, we will have to see how to fix our trailer to live in it again,” Beatriz said. She said she was grateful for the church’s assistance, but lamented her family’s loss.
In addition, an established U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement presence in the affected areas has discouraged efforts by some undocumented migrant farmworkers to seek help.
“The worker who does not have a visa and is an immigrant usually lives in bad conditions and their mobile trailer homes aren’t great,” said Juan Carabaña, program coordinator for the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, a farmworker support and advocacy organization based in Dunn. His group has been rushing to gather food and supplies to provide hurricane relief to farmworkers across the affected counties. The EFM has been collaborating with the Kinston Community Health Center for this effort.
“If they are undocumented migrant workers, the work that they have now that they know how to do well, if that isn’t there, there isn’t much else,” Carabaña said.
“[The hurricane] is losing things in your home that may have gotten wet and losing work from now to two months that is as stable as the one before, which has never been stable to begin with,” he added. “The farmworker families, what they face most now is not having food on the table, really. It’s tragic.”
Despite the damage, many farmworkers were still able to salvage their housing. Nonetheless, many have bore the brunt of the storm through the economic uncertainty caused by the precarious relationship between hurricanes and agriculture.
“It feels terrible,” said Yasmin, a Salvadoran migrant farmworker. “You don’t have anywhere to be earning money.”
Farmworker families in trailer parks like Yasmin’s have received aid from the EFM now that they are out of work.
Her neighbor Iluvia, 24, also a mother of two, is a Guatemalan farmworker who prefers to speak in the indigenous Mayan language of Mam. She says she has faith in God that conditions will improve. “Well, nothing,” she said about hopes of getting back to work.
“The way that it has been raining, I can only believe God is working. We have to wait how things will be and wait on the will of God.”
Salvadoran factory worker Rosa Gonzalez isn’t a farmworker but she has seen her workplace flooded and has been out of work along with her neighbors who do work on the fields.
Melissa Bailey Castillo of the Kinston Community Health Center said that the hurricane began to put farmworkers out of work seven to 10 days before it hit because of crop insurance that farmers have.
“The crop insurance reimburses farmers for crops lost in natural disasters,” said Castillo. “When it became clear that North Carolina was going to be affected, the farmers stopped the labor, stopped harvesting. Because once that crop was harvested and put in the barn, the loss is not insured and it’s only for those crops that have not been harvested.”
Castillo says that since Florence has been a slow-moving hurricane, workers were impacted days before it came because growers would rather not spend money to pay workers when their losses could be covered by crop insurance—all at the workers’ expense.
Florence’s severe crop damage has affected seasonal farmworkers under the H2-A program by either leaving them off work until further notice from farmers or cutting valuable months off from their work.
H2-A farmworkers like Ismael Castillo don’t know when they’ll go back to work.
“As of right now, work cannot be done,” said Castillo at a camp where workers had to resort to digging a moat around their barracks to prevent flooding inside. “Where there was plenty of water, it [sweet potato] could rot. The truth is that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Lee Wicker of the NC Growers Association told Latino Rebels that tangible damage leaves uncertainty for many.
“The tobacco in the southeastern part of the state has been lost,” Wicker said. “While there’s no question that the growers, crops, and farmworkers have been hurt economically by the lack of work and the crops that have been lost, at this point it’s impossible for me to give you a solid estimate of what that looks like. It’s just going to take some time to try to figure that out.”
The NCGA is the nation’s largest user of the H2-A program, bringing in the most foreign farmworkers for North Carolina’s crops.
“There may be some workers that go home early,” Wicker added. “On the other hand, the storm damage creates the need for cleanup and repairs, and those kinds of things around the farms. It’ll be a mixed bag.”
Wicker’s observation isn’t far from the truth. Many farmworkers are left struggling, searching for answers.
Jesús Rodríguez, a seasonal tobacco farmworker, said his only work now is with tobacco that was harvested before the hurricane, which cut days off of work for him already.
“Right now we’re working with whatever is left at the farm, but it’s practically over,” Rodríguez said. “We need that time at work that we’re missing. Hurricane Matthew was worse, but we had already finished the tobacco by then. Now, we had over five weeks left of work, and now it’s all over.”
Names for some workers were changed to protect their identity.
Aarón Sánchez Guerra is an early stage bilingual, bicultural freelance journalist and recent graduate of North Carolina State University with a B.A in English and a minor in journalism. His work spearheaded Latino coverage at his university’s paper and there he developed an interest in long form, narrative journalism. His writing is focused on migration, farmworker advocacy, international affairs, critical theory and zine storytelling. A native of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico, he hopes to talk about experiences from that borderland region in future work in print and radio.