Without migrant farm workers, there would be no food system. Here is what Mily Treviño-Sauceda and her grassroots organizations are doing to help.

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Portrait of Trevino Sauceda
Credit: KREMER JOHNSON

Mily Treviño-Sauceda struggles with being called a hero, as if she is a one-woman force. Yes, she heads up the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (the National Alliance of Farmworker Women), a network of 15 grassroots organizations and 950 members banding together to fight for job rights, lobby lawmakers to end labor abuses, prevent violence and sexual harassment against women, reform immigration and curb the use of toxic pesticides. But Treviño-Sauceda insists, "There have been thousands and thousands of women engaged in supporting everything we've been doing."

A more accurate word, then: catalyst. Born in Washington State to migrant farmworkers from Mexico, she has experienced all of these problems herself, working since age 8, and has devoted more than three decades to organizing women-first in California's Coachella Valley, where she lives, and then across the nation. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, a third of the 2.5 to 3 million farm laborers in the U.S. are women-75% of whom were born in Mexico or Central America. Many are undocumented. Silenced by poverty, language barriers or immigration status, they are too often invisible to the general public. "I didn't know I had rights until I joined Alianza," says Manuela Ramírez, who is among the 80% of California farmworker women who have experienced sexual harassment on the job. "Mily has become a mentor, a guide and an example of how we have power to do things for ourselves."

In 2020 and well into this year, the need for Treviño-Sauceda's grassroots spirit became a matter of life and death. After the government deemed farmworkers "essential," COVID swept through migrant camps and communities. Spanish-language safety information and protective equipment were scarce and misinformation was rife. Few families had health insurance.

She and the women of Alianza stepped up to help. Treviño-Sauceda lobbied lawmakers and health officials to provide culturally competent assistance, while members organized fundraisers and drive-thru food banks and distributed safety leaflets and PPE door to door. In California alone, campesinas passed out 120,000 masks, many of which they sewed themselves. Treviño-Sauceda says that Alianza's members weren't merely organizing out of necessity, but pride as well: "We knew all along we were essential. We knew that if there weren't enough people doing this work in the fields, the food system wouldn't work."

This article first appeared in EatingWell, July/August 2021.