El Encuentro: Social work students from The Catholic University of America journey to the Mexico border in search of justice, peace, mercy and charity
The Life of a Farmworker
Onion and chili fields stretch as far as the eye can see in the valley of Hatch, New Mexico. This semi-arid agricultural region is less than 80 miles from the US-Mexico border. The valley is surrounded by scrub desert and barren, rugged mountains. It is at once desolate and beautiful. Hatch is one of the poorest areas of the United States, with the vast majority of residents employed as farmworkers. It is also the epicenter of the current national debate on immigration.
During planting season in early spring, and harvest season that begins in late May, hundreds of farmworkers, some U.S. citizens, some documented immigrants, many undocumented migrants, all of Mexican origin or descent, stream out into the fields to tend crops by hand in what is known as “stoop labor.” It is grueling, backbreaking, gritty work that pays little wages and offers no benefits.
Farmworkers are paid by how much they plant or harvest. A break to use the bathroom, eat a meal, or simply to stretch and breathe, is costly to the worker. And so, the farmworkers toil forward down their rows of onions and chilies, planting and harvesting as fast as they are able to move.
Life as a farmworker in Hatch is one of deep poverty, toil and drudgery, poor health, and a shortened lifespan. Where they would earn the equivalent of $5 in Mexico per week, farmworkers are able to earn about $65 a day. In the off-season, there is no work. Annually, farmworkers in Hatch will gross about $12,000.
Yet, for all its despair, it is a better life for the workers than any they could find in Mexico. And so, season after season, the same farmworkers return to the same fields, scratching out their existence at the bottom of the U.S. economy.
Encuentro: Social Work Learning in the Field
On an unusually cold day in March, an unexpected scene played out on the edge of an onion field in Hatch. In the blue-black predawn darkness, two candles flickered on a makeshift altar. Above, a crescent moon hung in a starry night. A priest, Father Alejandro Reyes from Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, called out in the dark to a barely perceptible crowd of men and women shivering in the cold. As Mass was offered for the farmworkers, the sun broke over the crest of the distant mountain, flooding the field with golden light, and quickly warming the people gathered.
Among them, five social work students from The Catholic University of America witnessed the beauty, love, and strength of the farmworkers as they prayed. Following Mass, the students served the farmworkers a breakfast consisting of bean and cheese burritos, juice, and coffee. Then the students followed the farmworkers into the field, where they learned to plant onions and engaged with the workers in an experiential learning journey.
The social work students learned that the farmworkers possessed not only a strong work ethic, but also a strong family ethic. Their grueling work was done, the farmworkers informed the students, so that their families could be fed and housed, both in the United States and Mexico. As Ruben, one of the farmworkers put it, “I am stooped down in the dirt so my children can stand tall on the earth.”
Many farmworkers don’t see their families for months or even years at a time. The border, both the physical one of rugged and unforgiving terrain, and the legal one, with constant threat of imminent arrest and detention, keep undocumented workers separate from their spouses and children. Here, among the unplanted rows of onions, students came face-to-face with economic and social marginalization. The knowledge they acquired in their courses, and values they had acquired in the social work program, was played out in front of them in the farmworkers’ lived experiences.
Hands-On Learning at the National Catholic School of Social Service
The trip to Hatch, New Mexico, was led by Dr. Will Rainford, Dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service, in collaboration with Sr. Ruth Harkin, Director of Graduate Ministry at the University’s Office of Campus Ministry. The social work students spent a semester in a course learning about the life of farmworkers, migration policies, and realities in the United States, and about social work’s role in creating social and economic opportunity for impoverished families in New Mexico.
The course culminated in a week-long immersion trip to the Border Region in New Mexico and Texas. In addition to the encounter with farmworkers, students met with immigration attorneys, attended detention hearings for asylum seekers, toured adult and children detention centers, and met with religious communities serving migrant farmworkers. In experiential learning, students were required to compose reflection essays, journal daily, and write a comprehensive paper exploring social justice and charity for farmworkers.
Dean Rainford stated:
“This is exactly what I love about the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University of America.”
When asked to describe his students and their learning, Dean Rainford beamed with pride. Clearly, he was impressed by the depth of learning and commitment his students exhibited, and their compassion for and solidarity with all they met in their encounters on the immersion trip.
Dean Rainford stated, “This is exactly what I love about the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University of America. Our students care deeply about humanity. They seek justice, peace, mercy and charity for people who are marginalized, dismissed, and oppressed. When our students come here to the border, and encounter people in relationships of learning and serving, it is the best NCSSS has to offer the world! All of our students, not just these five, have dedicated their lives to making this world a better place. As dean, I have such joy in witnessing this and accompanying students on their learning journey!”
MSW students at NCSSS are engaged in helping people achieve their full potential. And their joy in becoming social workers is evident in their commitment to learning and serving.
Michelle Nunez, an MSW student in her final semester of the program, described her learning experience. “In a world consumed in violence, selfishness, and fear, NCSSS has become one of my beacons of hope. It brings me great joy to be surrounded by people that are on the journey towards building a just society. My classmates and professors inspire me daily to be a vessel of change and to respond to the needs of those around me.”
Get Started in Social Work
Get started on your own personal journey when you pursue a career in social work. The Catholic University of America offers a Master of Social Work degree program that just might be the perfect choice for you!