Anthropologist’s new book explores U.S. demand for fresh produce year-round, impact on Mexican farmworkers

Residency, work and identity

A new book by a University of Texas at Arlington anthropologist examines the perennial demand for fresh produce in the United States and the effect of a robust agro-export business on workers in Mexico. 

Christian Zlolniski, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts, said De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintin, or translated into English: From Migrant Farmworkers to Settlers: Residency, Work and Identity in the San Quintin Valley, sheds light on how transnational agribusinesses in Mexico are growing crops to meet U.S. demand.

“We look at how the food that we consume in the U.S., especially fresh fruits and vegetables, influences the farm work growing those crops south of the border,” said Zlolniski, who also serves as director of the UT Arlington Center for Mexican American Studies. “It is a study of the development of a region in northern Mexico and how the demands we have here in the U.S. shape the working conditions and the lives of the workers growing those fresh crops.”

Zlolniski collaborated with sociologist Laura Velasco and demographer Marie-Laure Coubés from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, Mexico, to examine the living conditions of farmworkers in Valle de San Quintin, Baja California, an agricultural community located 90 miles south of San Diego. Research for the monograph was supported by a grant from Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Workers in the region earn an average of $10 per day and lack basic employee benefits such as vacation days, overtime pay and healthcare. In March, 75,000 farmworkers joined a labor strike to call attention to the issues.

Zlolniski said fewer labor and environmental regulations in Mexico enticed U.S. business to move production south of the border once the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in the 1990s. That move — coupled with agricultural innovations that allow common crops to be grown continuously — has had a lasting impact.

“Policymakers need to understand the intended and unintended consequences of conditions that arise for people who grow crops for export and not for themselves,” Zlolniski said. “It’s important to document that. This is the price for us to have access to these fresh crops all yearlong.”

De Jornaleros a Colonos also examines the growth of a region of Mexico that has had rapid expansion as a direct result of the burgeoning agriculture industry. Many of the workers living in the area migrated from southern Mexico over the past three decades and, in Zlolniski’s view, have colonized the area.

“Despite the harsh life and low paying jobs, I was surprised by the energy and commitment of these farmworkers to adopt this new region as their home,” he said. “There was very little there before they moved in. So they are not only growing the foods we eat, but they’re building the place where they live from scratch.”

Zlolniski is working on an ethnographic study of the agricultural workers in the Baja California region and hopes to have a manuscript completed by next year. He and his colleagues also have published articles based on the research in De Jornaleros a Colonos in English- and Spanish-language academic journals.

“This book continues Dr. Zlolniski’s important research on those who are marginalized in the global economy,” said Robert Kunovich, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “His work sheds light on their plight and will encourage people to think about workers and communities around the world that have been placed in a similar situation.”

Zlolniski hopes his work will motivate students, scholars, government officials and the general public to reflect upon an issue that holds economic, social and humanitarian ramifications.

“Where previous discussions have been about where the merchandise and clothes we buy has been produced, now the discussion has moved to food,” he said. “What we provide in the book is the basis for understanding the conditions and why events like the labor strike took place. It is important for us on this side of the border to understand how the foods we expect are grown.”

Learn more about De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintin at the COLEF website.

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