Strawberries! A delight! Every year towards the end of May, the collective spirit of people at the farmers’ markets here in DC seems almost to shimmer, the excitement palpable as the little red globes of joy start to appear, sprouting up first at just one or two stands, where crowds of people quickly snatch them up, eager for a share of the crimson treasure before it vanishes. Within a week, two at most, these little red globes of joy burst forth like fireworks throughout the market, so that all stands become buzzing centers of commerce. People walk beneath the summer sun with red, happy stains on their faces, their shirts, their hands, some pushing babies who clutch half-eaten berries as sweet, perfumed pacifiers. Especially zealous shoppers tow carts containing massive quantities of the fruit, and everyone, it seems, wants to celebrate. Delightful!
Strawberries. Their arrival heralds the start of summer and the long, leisurely weekends replete with pancakes covered in freshly sliced little red globes of joy. Like a slow-moving wave, the temperature starts its daily rise, eventually crests, and then falls again, and with that fading of day into night, our bellies full of strawberry shortcake, our hands clasping drinks garnished with more slices of these little red globes of joy, we leave the safety of fans and air-conditioners to revel under night skies.
Strawberries. One of the few crops still harvested by hand, meaning that as we gorge ourselves on massive, near-unfathomable amounts of these little red globes of joy, we're feasting on the proceeds of substantial yet unseen and unacknowledged physical labor. Harvesting strawberries requires long hours of kneeling and contorting to work the plants, taking care not to bruise the berries as they're removed gently. Bend and twist, stand and shuffle, bend and twist, stand and shuffle, on and on, a physical litany lasting for hours, for days, until the season ends and then it's on to the next crop.
Strawberries. Given such demand, it should be no surprise that undocumented workers play a significant role in bringing these little red globes of joy from the plants to our plates. Workers who can be pushed hard in order to meet our insatiability. Workers who can then be pushed even harder. Workers susceptible to abuse. Exploitable workers. Disposable.
The popular understanding of the farm-to-table ethos, like the flattened narrative of organic farming more generally, is largely unconcerned with the mechanisms of how food actually gets from the farm and to your table, focusing instead on the idea of a wholesome product and the packaging of community spirit. We talk instead about eating healthily and living healthily, where each tote bag of produce we fill is an investment in both our communities and our futures. That these communities aren’t necessarily as inclusive or equitable as they ought to be rarely gets mentioned. We tend to overlook the people doing the actual harvesting, without whom the enterprise as we know it would not exist. The unseen, by whose hand every strawberry has been picked and placed carefully in those ubiquitous plastic clamshell containers, who must arrange the contents so that everything fits just so. The work is hard, monotonous, and pays little, especially considering the skill and stamina it demands. Strawberries.
The phrase, “they took our jobs,” creates a false binary of us and them, of innocent and guilty that we ascribe to one’s character as well as to one’s immigration status. Those with papers and those without. The verb “take,” rather than “give,” places the blame on workers instead of on those who hire them, erasing the long and ongoing history of the agricultural industry’s reliance on migrant labor and the fact that citizens don’t want these sorts of jobs. We tend not to interrogate the cognitive dissonance between birthright entitlement and meritocracy, that there is no “line” that people looking to “fix” their status can get into in this supposedly colorblind land of opportunity. Us and them.
Yet there are direct consequences of this social construction, this us and them. The United States has since its founding depended on division, whether by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, by class, or by the overlapping intersections of these and other issues. Division of people by people. Calling out these systemic forms of oppression is the preliminary step in working to dismantle them. Let us not simultaneously enjoy the fruits of undocumented labor and yet condemn undocumented workers. Let us instead embrace those who make possible our enjoyment of these little red globes of joy. Let us make space for them in us and us in them and celebrate the intrinsic humanity of us all.