Stephen Lee & José Padilla (CRLA) on the Complex Issues Facing Farmworkers in Our Food System

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UCI Law Prof. Stephen Lee & José Padilla, Executive Director, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. explore the plight of farmworkers in the U.S., the challenges of educating the public about this plight, and how public service work can become a lifelong commitment.

Recorded in conjunction with the UCI Law event March 11-12, 2016,
Establishing Equity in Our Food System

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Image of Jose Padilla, Stephen Lee in recording booth


Stephen Lee Stephen Lee, Professor of Law
Expertise: Administrative law, immigration law


José Padilla José Padilla, Executive Director, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA)
Expertise: California’s farm worker and rural poverty communities, migrant education, civil rights, voting and language rights

Podcast Transcript

[Narrator] Welcome to UCI Law Talks, presenting bold perspectives on law from the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Joint the conversation on Twitter @UCILaw, #UCILawTalks

[Stephen Lee] Welcome to UCI Law Talks, I'm Steven Lee, a professor here at UCI Law School and I'm your host for this episode of UCI Law Talks. Our guest today is Jose Padilla. He is the executive director of the California Rural Legal Assistance. We're here to talk about the topic of equity and justice in our food system. Welcome, Jose.

[Jose Padilla] Thank you for inviting me.

[SL] Pleasure to have you here. For the benefit of our listeners, who may not be familiar with your organization, would you mind saying a little bit about what it is exactly that CRLA does.

[JP] California Rural Legal Assistance was started in 1966, part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The idea then was that, obviously, the idea was that poverty could be eliminated. As we well know that ideal will always be there in this country. The idea was that that war if wasn't going to eliminate poverty it could give access to the poor to civil justice systems.

So the idea was that in those day, that poor people were very much impacted by civil laws but they had no access. On the criminal side if there was a public defender system, there could be access as a matter of law. On the civil side there was none. This was the ideal, the idea that poor people in this country could access the courts as part of that war on poverty was where it started.

It was started then through OEO, so CRLA, its founders thought, "Well, why don't we do a legal aide for the rural poor in California." Interestingly, the founder was a corporate lawyer out of O'Melveny and Myers, by the name of James Lorentz. He thought that in rural California, in just the same way the wealthy could secure powerful corporate council to represent its interest that the rural poor could also have corporate council representing its interest.

He pulled together, not only lawyers but also community organizers to form the first board of CRLA in 1966. So CRLA had then had as its founding board, people who know Cruz Reynoso, first Latino Supreme Court justice of the California Supreme Court. Justice Reynoso was on that first founding board. The union organizer Cesar Chavez, was on the founding board Dolores Huerta was on the founding board. The Filipino organizer that called a first great strike in the state in 60s, Larry Itliong. Was on that board.

So CRLA begins with the idea that you can have access to civil legal aid in rural places through a corporate law firm. When CRLA began with ten neighborhood offices, from the south in Imperial County where I was born and raised all the way up north, north of Sacramento. The idea was that in those neighborhood places you could have offices where poor people can go in secure their right.

[SL] I was wondering if you could expand on the particular nature of the challenges facing farm workers. So obviously there is a whole history of struggle across industries in the United States but I think that the farm workers struggle is unique. Why was it CRLA was necessary to serve those particular needs? What was it that needed to be addressed?

[JP] The interesting thing about when CRLA began, CRLA began with the idea that even among the rural poor, actually among the poor within the poverty communities, there would always be those who were more impoverished, there were always going to be those who were more hidden, who were more afraid. The idea that when you start dealing with the poor that you can help those communities that were more difficult to reach became a standing principle for us. So, that when we began the idea was, of course, we're going to serve all the rural poor. We're going to help those who are unemployed. We're going to help all of those who are on welfare, We are going to help all of those who are tenets in housing.

All of that was traditional legal aide work, but then they said, but in rural there are some who are a little more impoverished and those are the farm workers within the poor. So it began early on, CRLA began with realization that we had to be serving the ones that were going to be more on the margin.

Interestingly over time that idea that you're going to serve the individual worker, the individual person and the individual family. Then you’re going to step back and ask the question, in these impoverished communities, who are more segregated? Who are more discriminated against.? Who? Then you answer that question and it leads you to serving different communities within the rural poor.

And so, conceptually, so then what happened was when CRLA then started serving, remember the farm worker was more impoverished in the general rural poor population. Since that time, over time, it has lead us to look at very distinct issues with that concept of mind. We were the first legal aide to look at sexual harassment among farm worker women within farm worker, within the farm worker sector.

The farm worker community women suffer differently. The idea that women are sexually harassed, it's not an idea, it's the reality of sexual harassment in agriculture. We began looking at it. Why? Because we understood that within agriculture, the power dynamics were such that if male supervisors could take advantage of women workers, they would do it. That's just ... it's a reality.

The idea that within that farm worker community, there may be those who are discriminated against in Mexico and when they come here, they're discriminated by Mexican supervisors the way they're discriminated in Mexico, led us to for example, work with indigenous worker. One quarter of California agriculture is picked by indigenous workers who come from Guatemala, Oaxaca, we have helped them differently because within that sector they also get discriminated against.

So CRLA has always that part of that ... and farm workers have always been there because they are part of that. That in the AG sector, they're the ones that are the most marginalized there. In California agriculture again, it started off as an ... it was not Mexican, that labor force began African American, poor white, Mexican and over time because of the migration has become more and more and more Mexican.

In our communities where we were raised, there were also Asian farm workers.

[SL] You mentioned the Filipino farm workers.

[JP] Filipino farm workers in our communities, they ... it was interesting. Chinese farm workers, Chinese communities on the border were very real on the Mexican side. We would see them also coming into our county on the border. The idea that you use the immigrant workforce when it's needed, you bring them in to do the work. The hardest work.

For us by the time we got into this kind of justice work, we have always looked for within that rural poverty community, we deal with all then we deal with those who are suffering differently. We've also gone into LGBT issues because we see with that community there's a different discrimination against that person or student et cetera.

[SL] One of the things that's really interesting about what you're saying is that within the agriculture industry there's this hierarchy that exists. People think that those are just Mexicans who do the work. They talk about that category as if it's a homogeneous group but actually it a very heterogeneous group. As you mentioned, even within that there's a hierarchy between whites and Mexicans, who are Spanish speakers, and then the indigenous population. Of course along other axis as well, namely sexuality and LGBT identity.

There's this other element to your comments that are really interesting as well because it speaks to this larger story of agriculture exceptionalism. That, you know, low wage work is difficult, and we're going to provide some protections but even the few protections we provide to other workers in other industries were just going to not apply to farm workers.

To what extent ... it just strikes me that some of the things that are even challenging from your prospective is just the sheer geography of rural protection. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to represent people in communities that are separated by dozens, hundreds of miles, as opposed to restaurant workers who are all living within this condensed community? What is it like to represent people in this really rural community.

[JP] Well, you're totally right at geography. It presents another issue of access, as a problem. It's a challenge and in rural places, you're right. Sometimes it's ... In instances, for example, we have been in downturns and the CRLA board of directors thinks that we need to close certain offices because resources aren't there.

Somebody on the border will say "But wait a minute, Jose, isn't it true that if we close the El Centro office, that community of 30,000 poor will not go 80 miles to a legal aide office in Coachella or Riverside." The reality that you have to be in that space and stay in that space in order to provide service is critical. For us, one of the things that we understand is that once you pull out of particular communities like that, that are real isolated like that. They will never get access.

So, interestingly, within our network, we have kept 20 offices in existence. Even when it means there will be one lawyer serving 30,000 poor people. Let me give you a sort of ... Let me step back, and talk about disproportionality of burden. When we're talking about access and how it differs when you're talking about urban, rural or your talking about lawyers in the country.

Let me give you some statistics, that I'm not going to be good at this, but some people think that there are too many lawyers in this country. Why do they say there are too many lawyers in this country? Well because when you really look at the numbers, I've seen number that say that for every 300 American residents there's a lawyer, for every 300. When you look at the state of California and you talk about the work that we do. The civil legal aide lawyer, you then start seeing numbers that say that for every 10,000 person in civil legal aide in the state of California, there's one civil legal aide lawyer.

When you look at rural, you look at some of my places, I've had one offices where you'll have one lawyer to 35,000 when we can't afford the second lawyer. On average in rural community, one attorney to 18,000 poor people and then you look at the farm worker, it's one attorney for 25,000 farm workers.

So once you start getting into access you start seeing things like that, but what does that mean? It means that when you end up in a space that's so geographically difficult to serve, you start to stay there because in those communities, if you’re not there, they will never get the access. So I've been in situations where my board of directors said "Jose, you have to keep those eight offices open with one attorney until we are able to add the second and the third lawyer. But it talks about how difficult it is to be able to try to serve those communities that are so isolated.

There's another aspect of isolation and I heard it time and time again during the symposium. That's talking about the access given to the immigrant worker that is not documented.

[SL] Here you're referring to the Food Equity Symposium that ...

[JP] The Food Equity Symposium that you asked me to learn from and thank you very much for that.

It was such an honor for me to be a part of it because I started listening and hearing how incredible work is being done globally but also the different kind of work that's being done by folks with urban gardens. The students were talking about Santa Ana, the work that's being done here, talking about how professors are working with people on homelessness issues. At the same time, they're using those experiences and bringing scholarship to it. But for me it was very inspiring to see all of that being done here at the UCs.

One of the things is the whole notion of who's going to serve that undocumented worker. The reality of it is that in California agriculture, we say that 50 percent of the workers are not documented. One of the professors said that in some sectors it's 60-70 percent. That worker, even though that worker can be hired to do work in agriculture, to do all that at the very bottom rung. That worker cannot be represented by organizations like ours because of the politics behind it. I've always said, and somebody else mentioned, one of the students mentioned, that poverty's political.

The reality of it is that yes, it is. So even though the big AG sector can hire that worker, it doesn't mean that when you're providing a civil legal aide lawyer to help in securing access to the courts for that worker, that the federal government will allow it. That's one of the big challenges that we have been engaging now since the mid 90s late 90s. That's why it's so, so important for people to educate that community who wants to do well by these justice issues.

[SL] So as a problem solver then, it becomes really important, selecting the right kind of paradigm for solving the problem. So one paradigm would be the sort of immigration frame that you talked about. I think all the statistics that you mention sound right to me and it confirms what I've read on my own.

But then the other frame is the one that brought you to our conference, which is the food justice frame or food law frame. That frame, consumers have played a really important part. As you know you can't ... you can visit Yelp without consumer reviews, and you see people on social media deriving all sorts of status and pleasure from their food that they consume. I guess, in recent year social justice advocates have been trying to inject labor conditions into that discussion. I mean, I think the most obvious example would be the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, really trying to inject farm worker conditions into the consumer mindset.

So I guess one question I have for you, Jose, is you've said in the past that if you eat, you should care about those workers who are paid slave wages. That seems right to me, but to what extent is a problem one of the public not knowing about farm worker exploitation. To what extent is the public knowing but not really caring about farm worker exploitation?

[JP] I think it's both. I think that there is going to be a ... part of the public that believes that in this country that the people who feed us deserve to have access to courts, but also to find their justice. There are some people who believe that when ... our founders said, or people put on those monuments that justice was for all. Some people actually believe that all means all but there will be some that don't believe that way.

I think that there is the need to be educating the consumer all the time because there will always be those who you can reach. There are going to be those who just don't believe that, or do not care to understand who was, who touched that tomato they ate that day. They don't care to think, who was the woman who cut the flowers at that orchid place that ended up on their table. It's going to be that consumer, who for them this is not for them, but it doesn't mean that we don't continue educating all because at some point you will find, I think consumers who will look at these justice issues and think that they can make a difference.

To me, what's amazing is that effort but the Immokalee workers challenging those consumers in Florida to think about the things in the tomato industry. That worker was working under these conditions, that woman farm worker was suffering sexual harassment in these ... this is a condition of that work. And if our consumer can think that when they're shopping in that store and something is labeled as being ... Have an equity label, that they will buy there and if it doesn't have that label. I think that that is possible.

I think that you the scholars study that, whether it is or not, but I think the effort to teach about what lead to that onion on that plate. What led to the lettuce on that plate and to think that there were workers who touched that lettuce. Who then put it on that crate. That got on that truck, that ended up in that market that ended up on that plate. When somebody can put that there and say "You ate this." But why don't you ask about the worker at the other end.

[SL] Exactly.

[JP] That is the challenge that we all have and I think it's an incredible challenge. But I think it's a challenge that we all engage, including the scholarship.

So today at the symposium conference, I was so inspired by the idea that scholarship is talking to the organizer, is talking to the community that's trying to figure out how they eat helpfully. I just think that's what scholarship ... I think that's what the university is about in its ideal.

It's not above the community. It is the community. For a public institution to say that it's going to invest in that and it's going to pay attention to the scholarship and to the people who are out there working trying to change the inequities there. They are looking at it globally and then you're looking at it locally. I think that that's very inspirational in the leadership. You here are exhibiting ... Now that I realize what you're doing I am inspired by the idea that we here can feed the world if we do it right, but in feeding the world that we don't forget that there is a justice to be done as we feed the world.

[SL] The justice element I think is important because I think for a number of years people, many people, just assume that changing the food system was a matter of presenting information to the public. Nutritional information, so if you think about changes in law, the Affordable Care Act, one of the most significant changes was that it required many restaurants, chain restaurants to disclose the caloric content of their food menu items. So that people would then not be inclined to eat food that will increase the likelihood of heart related disease.

Of course that doesn't at all get to these other ideas of justice and the way in which people invested in buying these certain types of food. Just to give you an example, people love farmers’ markets, people go to farmers’ markets all the time. There's a great one here in Irvine. People ask, well is it organic, what sort of pesticides were used. I've never once heard, well who picked this or what is your employment structure or do you provide adequate housing.

I think a part of this is this agrarian ideal exist in this country, where people love farmers. They're sort of folk heroes in this country, folk heroes that we want this romanticized family picking this food. Of course that doesn't at all represent the reality of the farm industry, which is very corporatized and massive and inviting all the problems and generating all the problems that your organization tries to address.

Actually, with that, let me transition with that because many of our listeners are law students and aspiring lawyers. One of the things that's interesting about your journey into this work has been that you graduated in 1978 from UC Berkeley and you've also said that it was either going to be the UFW or CRLA that you join. You've been at CRLA for 40 years almost.

So can you think back to 1978, and I guess for our students out there, did you ever once have the thought "Maybe I should do something else"? Or was it just unambiguous to you that this was what you were destined to do?

[JP] For me I started with the idea that there was a responsibility for many of us who were the first generation to get into the universities and then to go on to these professions. I understood that I had been blessed in that way that my grandparents suffering as farm workers, my father having been a migrant farm worker, had given me the opportunity to go to these prestigious schools. Stanford, Berkeley. Having understood that, I thought my responsibility is to give a little something back and it was a very simple idea that I had. I'm going to give five years back to the rural community that raised me.

So I thought I'm going to take my lawyering skills that I learned at Berkeley and I'm going to go and put them into Imperial County where I was born and raised and that's what I did and my goal was to do five years and I will have been done with my obligation responsibility. Sometimes life doesn't turn out that way, when you end up in those spaces. To make a long story short, I ended up thinking that I was leaving, my wife and I were getting ready to go to Los Angeles. I was going to be either rich lawyer, practice immigration law and I became the state director, with my wife's permission of course.

But the idea was that, I walked into that space thinking, well I can continue to do the work that I was only going to do for five years but I can now do it for another five. It became my life's work, but it never was intended that way. I learned something a long, long time ago. I tell law students this. There are two times in your life when you make decisions that are not based on something that you’re thinking. When you fall in love, you make your decision from the heart and at that point where ever that takes you. Works or doesn't work, it doesn't matter. You followed the heart.

When you make your decision about what you're going to do with your life, there's so many things that make you think, I am going to go to work over there, because I think I need that for prestige. I need it because of compensation, or money. At the end, now I realize that life decision, you also make it with your heart. Whatever happens next, at the end of that journey, that legal journey that justice journey, you'll look back and say, "You know what I followed my heart." And you were true to that truth of yourself.

It's, interestingly enough, what happened to me. I kept on thinking I'm only going to do another year and I said "Oh, two years." And now it's been, you're totally correct, professor, that it's nearly 40. But, I don't look back, it was and I don't even say it preordained. I just said "You know what, I began this. I learned the distinction between being a worker, legal access and giving the worker justice. I learned that difference and I wouldn't do it the same." It's one of those things, it's very difficult for students today, given how costly it is to get a legal education, to be able to do what some of us have done without that burden. We didn't have the same burden.

On the other hand, wherever you end up, you can always give it back. I was listening to law professors here, who had, were doing their scholarship now, but that hadn't been doing work with Friends of Farm Workers, Georgia Legal Services, and they did their work and I'm sure they struggled, and yet here they are doing scholarship work.

The point is you follow that passion that you have and law can take you to incredible places and I think that's all I did. I followed that and I was lucky to have a partner who allowed me to do that.

[SL] So you mentioned economic cost, the cost of going to law school but there are emotional cost too. I think in a lot of ways your life represents the exception because for a lot of lawyers in social justice organizations, the burn out rate is very high. So I was wondering, over the course of these nearly 40 years, you must have encountered a lot of lawyers under your supervision who feel that burnout and they come to you and say "Jose, I need to go do something else."

In that moment what do you say to that lawyer? Do you try and persuade them to stay and inspire them? Or do you just sort of give them the blessing and say thank you for everything that you've done?

[JP] When a lawyer is, and I've had those lawyers come to me, and interestingly many of them will come very apologetically. Almost as if they feel they've let you down. Very recently, there was a lawyer telling me she was going to resign, for a lot of reasons, personal reasons, I've always just said thank you, because not everybody will work in this space and be able to do it for a long period of time. The lawyer who can give me three years, they're not giving it to me, to our communities, three years, five years.

I always tell them that at some point, we'll see each other again. I run into lawyers who have left me, some of them come back, but I've met lawyers who have done work for us in these places, where they're making a difference.

There was a lawyer who had worked for us who had been doing water work in another space, came in a did water work for us at the legislative level.

A couple of years ago, I, two years ago, I was down in Riverside County. We had done work on this incredible case on a Native American reservation where these farm workers were living in horrendous living conditions. Federal case, we win the case, we'd been working with the county and county lawyers. Riverside County had just done this incredible mobile home park and I was there for the inauguration of the mobile home park. There was a lawyer for the county talking about this great thing they had done, and I thought that was great, and mentioned the fact that, even though the redevelopment funding from California had dried out and they were almost going to stop that project, somebody made a decision to give them the money.

After we're done a went up to that lawyer, I said "Excuse me, what exactly happened"? He goes "I don't know exactly what happened but there was this person working in the governor's office. I think her name was Martha and she said, Oh, I think we can take care of your situation." They ended up with the special funding to hook up this mobile home park to the infrastructure of this nearby community so that this mobile home park can have water.

That person had worked for me a number of years before. She was now in the governor's office and remembered that work. That community was able to secure all of that money because she never forgot why she had been doing this work. You never know when you're going to find people who leave you and they end up in these places and they still will have an opportunity to give back.

So to me, I always tell young law students or lawyers, at some point in time you will have the opportunity to give it back. One day you will be asked by a CRLA lawyer if you can represent those 30 undocumented workers that we can't represent, as we're representing one or two. People will be in those corporate law firms when they will be making decisions about decision about where does that money go. They'll remember "Oh I remember when I was at the UC law school, heard somebody say that I could play a role, my law firm is going to give that money to ..." Then it can be to a legal aide in their community.

There will always be places for us to play those roles, but I think that notion that a lawyer can be, can do good out there in the world, around justice issues. That's important to be taught at the law school, that we all have to be part of that society. The lawyer can do those things. I think that that's part of the ethics that law school should teach.

[SL] On of the things that's really so apparent about you, Jose, whenever someone hears you talk, is that you’re endlessly enthusiastic, upbeat, optimistic. You exhibit all those traits despite the fact that working conditions for farm workers are still as difficult and frustrating as they were 50 years ago, when CRLA was born of the War on Poverty.

Has there ever been a time in the last 40 years where you just felt like I can't get through this. Then how did you get through that?

[JP] I'm going to say first, we're the most investigated legal aide in the United States. Actually, I say that as a badge of honor because when you get involved with the kind of work that we get involved with, you ... it becomes political work. I tell people that when I go through all those federal investigations, when I was force to testify in front of subcommittee in congress. Sometimes you don't think there's anything left. Different people will find different ... inspiration in different ways.

Sometimes interestingly, I will find it in a place like this. I will remember a young person, like a high school girl talking about passionately about why they're trying to do good health, good food, justice in her community. I will think about … that's why I'm doing it. Sometimes I close my eyes and think about the client that I helped to save a home when that client knew that they had lost the home. I remember closing my eyes, I think I remember Eladio Salas crying to me and saying "I knew I was going to lose my house. What troubled me was my best friend was the one selling it to me" And I won him his house and I can close my eyes and remember that.

Sometimes when I have nothing. Sometimes you think about the suffering your parents went through. Sometimes you find religion. I've told people that I've found religion really fast when I think of I've lost faith. Then I throw it up in the air. Once in a while I'll slip in a prayer and I always believed that if you're doing justice work from the heart that you will always find an inspiration or a reason why to continue.

To me sometimes ... we showed the video today. Every time I see that video and here that farm worker man saying "I didn't do this for me, I did it because of my child. I thought that by doing this my child would have a healthier life." Every time I hear that man's voice, that's why I do it. Because I want to hear it again. I've seen that video 30 times, and every time I hear that voice I said "That's why I'm doing it." Because there will always be suffering, it's a question of when you listen. It's a question of when you're paying attention, say "Now it's my turn to do something about that."

Sometimes you carry those faces with you. That's not something coming from me. That's Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi had once said that when you're in doubt about decisions you have to make in your life, you close your eyes and you think about the first person you've ever seen in your life and you ask yourself will my decision impact that face that I carry with me? In my 40 years of work, I carry the one face of that one man, who was in that office, who was going to lose his house and at the very, very end of the day CRLA was there and the man ended up with his home and I can close my eyes and I can still see his face.

It's just that because in this justice work you will find that inspiration. Sometimes it will the colleague next to you. Sometimes it's with the next worker coming in and say "You know why I did this? It was not about me. It was because I wanted another worker to be defended and be ... and find justice the way you found justice for me." That one will carry me for a month.

Sometimes I'll have a paralegal who'll call me up, Jose, This woman who I just saved her home. She wants to thank you, I listen and the woman thanks me, that'll carry me for a month. Sometimes you will find the inspiration from people you've helped. You'll find it from young voices who are inspired to be justices workers just like you are. They believe in food justice, right here in your community.

I listen, I go "I can do this, I'm inspired by that young person." Sometimes I come into these conferences and I say "I want to be inspired." All I need to do is go to those two voices or those two young, that 17 year old, that young woman who said "I was shy, but no more." I look at that, I go "You know what ...

[SL] Amazing,

[JP] There's going to be another generation of people believing in justice the same way that we do. Then they came to a law school and were given a voice, to teach us not to give up. That is inspiring, so I want to thank you for having given that space at this university. For that voice at the same time that you're giving the voice to the scholarship, the same time that you're giving the voice to the organizer. That to me is what these spaces are for. For the UC to invest resources into that, that's what universities, public universities, should be about.

[SL]  Jose, I want to think you for spending sometime here to educate us and share your thoughts on food justice and the legal profession. We'll end right there but I hope that you'll come back and spend some more time with us here at UCI law.

[JP] Well if I get invitation I think I might. Thank you very much professor, I really enjoyed what you're doing, but I want to come to learn more.

[SL] Thank you very much, Jose.

[Narrator] Thank you for joining use for UCI Law Talks, produced by the University of California, Irvine School of Law.