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Librada Paz: activism for undocumented farm workers

by Joe Tomlinson - Campus Talk Editor
Wed, Feb 26th 2020 02:00 pm
 Librada Paz shares an agonizing but inspiring story of how she navigated her way to a new life in a new land.
Librada Paz shares an agonizing but inspiring story of how she navigated her way to a new life in a new land.

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, in Eagles Lookout, The College at Brockport hosted an event sponsored by the American Democracy Project that featured Librada Paz, a venerated advocate for farmworkers’ rights. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Paz had a harsh upbringing as she worked from a young age to help her impoverished family. 

Before she was a teenager, Paz moved out from under her parents’ roof in order to live by herself and pursue her dream of getting an education. Overall, Paz was still struggling under a heavy burden since she lived in poor conditions and continued to work while in school.  

As time passed, Paz and her sister decided to go to the U.S. in search of greater opportunity and a better future. 

“I didn’t want to come to the United States, I decided I had to come to the United States,” Paz said. 

At the age of 15, she left her country and moved to the U.S. with high hopes. 

However, Paz found herself stuck in a cycle of labor exploitation and abuse. She became a farmhand, working on multiple different crops and in multiple different states. The first job she took up was picking and packing tomatoes on a farm in Ohio. Paz recounted a harrowing story about an American man who worked at the same farm: “he invited me out for a drink, he took me to the bar and then on the way back he took me to a barn and actually tried to molest me.”

Paz remembers how helpless that event made her feel, “even if I screamed who would hear me?” Beyond that, she had no knowledge of what her rights were, who she could go to or tell about it. Paz was also wary of the repercussions of speaking out. Workers were silenced with threats of firing them or calling immigration officers to deport them back to Mexico. 

After working in Ohio, Paz migrated all over the U.S. in search of work, moving from Ohio to New York, from there to Florida and finally settling in South Carolina. “All those times that I had migrated,” she said, “I actually had been molested.”

 Two years later, Paz decided to follow her dream of attending college. With the help of her brother John, while still working, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology over a 10 year period. 

“The majority of farmhands are from Mexico, also the majority of them do not have the chance to go beyond high school because with the work, you don’t have time for other things,” Paz said. 

When her graduation day finally came, Paz did not forget the plight of farmhands, particularly  the undocumented ones in the U.S. She joined the Rural and Migrant Ministry, an interfaith organization dedicated to combating the oppression felt in rural communities and by migrant workers. 

She has worked tirelessly on behalf of farm workers in New York, who did not have a set day off, overtime after 60 hours, collective bargaining or any right to disability insurance. Paz recalls setting up an event for people to share their experiences where one man stated that he had not had a day off for 20 years. 

Earlier in the decade, Paz lobbied for and was instrumental in pushing for the Farm Workers Fair Labor Act, which would address discrimination toward agricultural workers and afford them basic rights while at work. In 2013, New York State failed to pass the bill, but Paz was presented with a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights for her efforts. The bill was officially signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 2019 and it came into effect Jan. 1, 2020. 

Tatianna Quintanilla, a junior double major in journalism and broadcasting and Spanish at Brockport, has known Paz for seven years. She met her through the Rural and Migrant Ministry and has attended rallies as well as lobbied in Albany alongside Paz.

Quintanilla was thrilled to see Paz at Brockport, spreading her personal story of hardship and activism. 

“I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about undocumented immigrants, like she mentioned stealing jobs and not paying taxes,” Quintanilla stated. “I think it’s so important for people to know that those things are not true, people pay taxes people pay for social security and they’re never going to get those things back, so I think it was so important for her to be here today and just clear the air and actually get people the facts.”

By contrast, Darrell Deas, a coordinator of service and community building in the Department of Community Development, did not know of Paz or her story before Tuesday night. Deas attended the event to prepare for a spring break service trip to Baltimore that revolves around urban farming. He strongly believes that Paz’s story relays a powerful message. 

“Given Brockport’s proximity to farmland and farm workers, Paz’s story can help people get a better understanding of their neighbors and fellow community members,” Deas stated. “This event sheds so much light on a profession that is sometimes ignored or overlooked.”

Paz is an inspiring force that has overcome tremendous obstacles and continues to be a shining example of how to fight for the oppressed and the powerless. 

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