“Being a citizen, I feel free.”
Fausto Sanchez, age 49, is a community worker for California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit serving farm workers and other low-wage workers, regardless of immigration status. A trained interpreter and native speaker of Mixtec, a complex group of languages native to the Southeastern states of Mexico—including Oaxaca, Pueblo, and Guerrera—he’s a key support figure for non-English-speaking farm workers, making sure they understand their rights and can get help they need.
The work is personal for Sanchez. After emigrating to the U.S. from Oaxaca, he saw first-hand how strenuous field work can be, and how hard it can be for immigrant farm workers to find good advocates. Though undocumented workers are ubiquitous in food production, many fear they cannot demand rights and services they are entitled to—from minimum wage to federal food assistance—without fear of retaliation.
Today, Sanchez is himself a citizen. He told the story of why he came to America, how he’s built a better life for his children, and why he works on behalf of those who are voiceless, unable to navigate the complex laws and customs of a new country on their own.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a small mountain town called Santo Domingo Viejo. We lived off the land—my father planted corn, wheat, and beans. When we needed money we sold our sheep. I grew up speaking Mixtec and learned Spanish when I was eight or nine years old.
When I was 14, my sister and I went to Baja California. At first no one would hire me, but eventually I found work on a farm, keeping count of how many crates of tomatoes pickers were collecting.
In 1988, back in Oaxaca, my father had asked my wife’s family for her hand in marriage. I had known Alberta since we were kids. We were married in March 1988 and moved back to Baja.
I remember thinking, “I don’t want my children to be born in Mexico. Mexico is tough.”
We came to the United States and found work picking grapes in Kerman, in California’s Central Valley. We moved into a warehouse, where around 20 of us slept on the floor, shared a common kitchen, and used an outhouse.
Grape picking is difficult work. We would wake up at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning, make our food for the day, and catch a ride to the field in order to start work at sunrise. The growers paid us around 15 cents per cut, so you’d have to make 250 to 300 cuts a day to make any money. It’s tough. There’s dust and mosquitos—the mosquitos get in your mouth, your nose, your eyes. The juice stains your hands, your clothes, your face. You leave the field looking like you’d been rolling around in the mud.
Later that year , I applied for amnesty and was able to get papers [Editor’s note: Fausto was eligible for amnesty as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986]. Today, I’m a citizen and Alberta has a green card. Our three sons were born here.
We were relieved to get our documents and decided to buy a house, since we knew we could stay here. A few years later, I was working at a food-processing plant, managing the forklift, when I heard a radio announcement: a local nonprofit was looking for court interpreters who spoke indigenous languages.
A few years later, a friend told me there was an organization—California Rural Legal Assistance—that was looking for people who spoke indigenous languages. I’ve been working with CRLA for nearly 20 years now. I work with indigenous people, many of whom speak very little Spanish (the 2010 Census said that 36 percent of farm workers are indigenous people), and I offer training sessions in Mixtec about workers’ rights; we talk about what their rights are in the United States—how to recognize abuse in the workplace, how to ensure they’re paid for the hours they put in, and how to file complaints about work conditions if necessary. We help people bring their complaints to the labor board, and I often go on the radio and TV to talk about these things.
Many [undocumented] people don’t know their rights—they don’t know that they have the right to interpreters, the right to redress workplace grievances like injuries or wage compensation. I like helping people recover their wages, helping people find justice. We don’t charge for our services—the state pays us—we’re sort of like the lawyers for those who can’t afford lawyers.
Being a citizen, I feel free. I can travel to Mexico, I can vote, I can apply for federal jobs, and I don’t feel intimidated. I wish that for everyone who comes here: that they could be free, that they could come and go and visit their families back home, that they could earn fair wages.
On the other hand, many undocumented people [who don’t have access to drivers’ licenses], have become more afraid of being apprehended for driving without a license. I think it’s because of growing anti-immigrant propaganda. Every day you hear about new [anti-immigrant] bills, deportations. In Arden, where I live, you used to see more people in the parks, playing soccer in the parks. Today people go from work to home and that’s it; more people are staying indoors.
I don’t think a lot of Americans understand that people who come from other countries are the ones who harvest food, who work for minimum wage. Many don’t understand that if it weren’t for the seasonal workers, or those who are undocumented, food would be much more expensive. If you work in an office and earn $15 or $20 an hour, you’re not going to go into the field to work for minimum wage. Immigrants aren’t taking people’s jobs—they’re making their food more affordable.
As for my family, life has been generous, but we’ve worked for our luck. Alberta still works in the field, picking grapes. We have three sons: Daniel, Alex, and Cesar. They’re 27, 26, and 24 years old. Daniel lives in Los Angeles, where he works in a restaurant and is getting a master’s in English; Alex lives in San Francisco, where he studies computer science, and Cesar is in San José, where he works and studies biochemical engineering. Like any father, I want them to be good people, that they have good educations and careers, that they can have a better life than mine.