Alex Fine
America cannot eat without immigrant food workers. This is Ivan's story.

Culture Justice Policy Systems The Hands that Feed Us

Ivan*, age 28, a community garden coordinator in Central Florida, migrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents and two younger brothers. He was 13 years old at the time. In 2014, he became a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era initiative that shielded an estimated 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who arrived in this country before the age of 16 from deportation (that population number has been disputed by President Trump, but as of July, 2018, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service reported 703,890 DACA recipients in the program). Ivan says DACA enabled him to secure financial aid to go to college and find work in the professional sector. 

On September 5, 2017, DACA was rescinded. The decision is currently being challenged in federal court, but the future of the program is unclear.

 Here, Ivan talks about his arrival in the United States 15 years ago, his passion for food and nutrition, his career aspirations, and concerns about the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric and policies toward undocumented immigrants like himself.

This conversation that has been condensed and edited.

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Ivan: My family—my parents, my younger brothers, and me—came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2003. There weren’t jobs back home and my parents decided to bring us here to make a better life for us.

The first time we crossed into Arizona, and we walked for five days. We ran out of food and water, and my parents worried we might die of thirst. A border patrol agent found us, gave us water, and we were deported. The second time, we crossed into California and had better luck. After a couple of months there we moved to Florida, where there was more work and where we have family. My dad found work in construction and my mom in a nursery.

It was difficult to assimilate at first, to learn a new language and get used to a different culture. I didn’t speak English and didn’t understand what was going on at school.

“Most consumers [don’t] understand how much we depend on undocumented labor.”
I took cooking classes in high school. I loved experimenting with different flavors and creating something with my hands, and I knew it would be useful for finding a job at a restaurant. One of my teachers, who knew about my undocumented status and that I might not be able to afford college, suggested I join a culinary program at a nearby technical school.

I graduated from high school and from the culinary program at the same time and eventually found a job in a hotel restaurant. I worked through a staffing company. The restaurant pays the staffing company, which overlooks that you’re undocumented. Most of us who worked for the staffing company were undocumented. I earned minimum wage but had the chance to work with great chefs and learn their techniques.

Before DACA, my options were very limited. There wasn’t a lot of hope for the future. I lived in constant fear of being deported.

I applied for DACA in 2012 but didn’t get [deferred action] status until more than a year later. I was able to get my driver’s license and got a car. Things were looking up, and I was thinking more about my future and what I could do with my life.

I enrolled in college—with DACA I was eligible for in-state tuition—and realized that I’d always worked in kitchens because without papers that’s all I thought I could do. I changed my major to nutrition. After seeing a few documentaries—What the Health was one of them—I began to see [the origins of] misunderstanding surrounding labels. And I realized that, as a chef, [I] was giving people food that was really bad for their bodies. I felt remorseful and that I needed to do something about this. Then I learned about the world of GMOs and pesticides, and thought that whether or not I individually had an impact, I could at least help people.

“From that moment I felt my life was in jeopardy.”
I now work as a community facilitator at a community garden in Apopka, Florida. Most of the farmers here are from rural areas in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Working here is a way for them to get back to their roots and teach their kids their values and about where food comes from. Back home, most of them didn’t use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or herbicides. They didn’t realize that by American standards their way of farming was considered “organic,” they were just farming as they always had. And we grow things naturally here, without the use of chemicals. In my role here, I meet with farmers, coordinate what days people work, source seeds, and spray the garden with non-chemical pesticides.

After college, I’d like to work as a nutritionist at a sports facility and eventually open my own farm-to-table restaurant.

When Trump first announced his candidacy, calling Mexicans rapists, my family thought he was a joke. When he became the official candidate for the Republican Party, we realized this was actually serious. That we might be in trouble.

I stayed up all night watching the election results come in. I couldn’t believe Florida—with its large Hispanic population—voted for Trump. I cried that night. From that moment I felt my life was in jeopardy. My future in this country, everything I’ve worked for, all my dreams and expectations, were shattered. It’s a nightmare.

A lot of us [DACA recipients] have built lives here. We’ve bought cars and some of us have bought houses. We pay taxes and contribute to the economy. And our personal information is out there. [Editor’s note: DACA applicants were required to submit personal information, including addresses, fingerprints, and photos, to government authorities.]. A lot of people are nervous that immigration officials might come for them and take their parents in the process.

Since the election I’ve become more politically active. We’ve been working with a lot of grassroots nonprofits, and [in 2017], a group of us went to Washington to meet with congressmen and congresswomen and senators. It was mostly Democrats and a few Republicans who came out to meet with us. I participated in Apopka’s May Day march, rallies, and local workshops for DACA recipients on when and whether to renew our status. (Since January of 2018, existing DACA recipients have been permitted to apply to renew their status. But those who never had DACA status are no longer eligible to apply.)

Many restaurant workers are undocumented. The lower you go in the food industry—if you go into the fields, for example, you’re going to find very few who were born citizens picking crops. And the vast majority are undocumented. I speak from experience: I worked in the fields in high school to pay for school supplies. It’s hard work, I couldn’t keep up.

I don’t think most consumers understand how much we depend on undocumented labor. [In the United States], we spend so little on food compared to the rest of the world and that’s largely because of the people who work in the fields and get paid five cents per pound of tomatoes they bring in.

*Ivan asked to be identified by his middle name.

Are you an immigrant to the U.S. who works in food or farming? We’d like to hear your story. Send us an email at editors@newfoodeconomy.org.

Danielle Renwick

Danielle Renwick is senior editor of explorepartsunknown.com. Find her on Twitter @daniellerenwick.

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