Ethnographic Movement Methods: Anthropology Takes on the Pesticide Industry

This March 2016 marks the 4th year anniversary since Arysta LifeScience–the manufacturer of the soil fumigant methyl iodide–voluntarily retracted their toxic product from the U.S. market, claiming poor sales in California and a desire to pursue market opportunities elsewhere in the world.

You can find my most recently published article in the open source Journal of Political Ecology. It describes how I merged the methods of cultural anthropology with the methods of environmental justice in the movement against the toxic soil fumigant pesticide, methyl iodide. There is still much more that needs to be done on this front, as now fumigant cocktails–mixtures of approved fumigants that have not been tested or evaluated for potential harms to health–are in routine use in California agriculture.


In a few weeks, I will travel to the strawberry fields of San Quintin, Baja California Norte, Mexico, to see if I can “follow the chemical” south of the border, and also to contribute my ethnographic and organizing labors to transnational farmworker organizing efforts. For the past year, farmworkers in San Quintin have been striking and organizing on account of low pay ($6-7/day US for 10-12 hours of work), hostility and threats from supervisors, sexual harassment, rape, and racism in the fields, child labor, poor housing conditions, indentured servitude, and toxic exposure.


The primary target of the organizing is the largest berry marketer in the world, Driscoll’s, and one of their main suppliers in Mexico, BerryMex. In the following video, my compañera Gloria Gracida, and I discuss (in Spanish) the similarities that berry farmworkers face on both sides of the border. Gloria is of the Alianza de Organizaciones Municipales, Estatales, y Nacionales por la Justicia Social (Alliance of Regional, State, and National Organizations for Social Justice), which recently became sanctioned by the Mexican government as an official independent labor union representing farmworkers.

Striking farmworkers in Washington State and San Quintin, Mexico are asking people all over the world to #BoycottDriscolls and to demand better pay, conditions, and treatment for farmworkers. This is the first major agricultural boycott since the grape strike over fifty years ago. Will you follow their lead, and join the movement?

The struggle continues…la lucha sigue.

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Dr. Dvera and her compañero, Hashid, flyering at La Guelaguetza, Fresno, letting Central Valley farmworkers know what’s been going on in San Quintin, Baja California Norte, Mexico. Our interactions with Fresno farmworkers prompted some folks to share their own stories of labor violations and exploitation on farms. Despite thousands of miles of distance, the issues are interconnected.



A cocktail recipe for public health disaster

My most recent op-ed, published in the Monterey Herald:

For many who work and or live in agricultural communities in California, the ubiquity of pesticides in everyday life perhaps seems normal or natural. This is the case for fumigant pesticides.

Fumigants are the most frequently used pesticides in California. They sterilize the soil of all life forms that live beneath and around the surface. They are applied, sometimes alone and sometimes in cocktail combos before growers plant the crops that dominate our landscapes, that have come to shape our regional cultures and identities — from tomatoes to strawberries, the stuff of ketchup, salsa, jam and aguas frescas. They are often branded as essential to the economy by pesticide manufacturers and grower-shipper companies.

But what (or who) else is essential to agriculture in the Valley? Los jornalero/as agrícolas y sus familias (farmworkers and their families). Tomatoes and strawberries are some of the perks and joys of California agriculture. But what are the hidden health costs of growing these regional staples with heavy reliance on fumigant pesticides? How do they affect los organísmos, the bodies of farmworkers and their families, who are exposed at work, at home, at school and at play?

According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, farmworkers have a life expectancy of merely 49 years, compared to 78.8 years in the U.S. general population, and upward of 80 years among Latinos in the U.S. in general. How is this happening? Clearly, the so-called Latino Health Paradox — which argues that Latinos live longer despite facing great socioeconomic and health disparities — does not apply to farmworkers.

I am a cultural, medical and environmental anthropologist. I have researched and worked with farmworkers in agricultural communities in Central California who, in response to all my questions about their lives and stories, have been posing really important questions about the effects of pesticides on their health. A recently released UCLA report, “Exposure and Interaction: The Potential Health Impacts of Using Multiple Pesticides,” written by health scientists who are leaders and pioneers in their fields, provides some scientific validation to farmworkers’ concerns.

The 44-page report begins to assess what happens to human and environmental health when fumigant pesticides are applied in chemical mixtures. It concludes that exposure to these mixtures, which are commonly used in strawberry production, for example, increases the possibility of DNA mutations and thus reduces the body’s ability to repair itself. This is very troubling, especially when it concerns farmworkers, as they face a number of occupational, socioeconomic and environmental health disparities.

In my own work I have observed that many farmworkers and their children are dealing not only with multiple exposures to many different kinds of pesticides, but also stress, discrimination and segregation, deportation and family separation, forced displacement, food insecurity, abysmal housing conditions, and other kinds of physical and psychological occupational injuries. These likely also have synergistic effects that exacerbate farmworker health disparities in combination with lifetime chronic pesticide exposure. Other studies demonstrate that exposure starts even before one is born, en la matriz, in the womb.

During my research I met a farmworker couple who had worked in the strawberry fields for over 20 years before their backs wore out and other diseases set in. Between the two of them over the course of less than 10 years, they experienced three kinds of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, depression, and chronic pain and fatigue. Home health care nurses I’ve met during my research inform me that they travel throughout Central California providing specialized care to babies and young children with severe birth and developmental defects. Men in their 40s and 50s hobble down Main Streets in California agricultural towns using canes and walkers, trembling with neurological deterioration. These and other health disparities are all implicated in the UCLA report.

Perhaps most concerning is that pesticide cocktails may damage the human body’s very unique ability to heal and repair itself when ill or injured. The farmworker metaphor for all of the processes described in the report is el organísmo. Literally translated, el organísmo means organism, but also refers to the human body and its relationship to the outside world — to the environment.

What is happening to el organísmo? What is it like to live with all of these diseases on top of farmworkers’ economic and social marginalization? How are people coping?

Ultimately, do farmworkers’ lives matter? We absolutely can find ways to grow strawberries and tomatoes for salsa and ketchup without compromising and sacrificing nuestros organísmos. Farmworker community health has to be a priority in California. Farmworkers’ lives matter more than their immediate roles in generating economic wealth.

We need to apply what we’ve learned from this report to work toward ending the untold suffering endured in farmworker communities in part as a consequence of chronic pesticide exposure, and living with and dying of a multitude of terrible diseases. We must change how we study and regulate fumigants and other toxic pesticides and also how we grow food. DPR needs to do its job and protect workers and children from the dangers of pesticide mixtures and their interactive effects. It will take some cultural shifts, but it is not impossible.


Teaching the First Generations

Dvera's first classroom debut: a workshop for Pajaro Valley middle school students, Dream Conference, 2011

Dvera’s first classroom debut: a workshop for Pajaro Valley middle school students, Dream Conference, 2011

At Fresno State, where I work as an assistant professor of anthropology, students come from diverse backgrounds. We often use the term “first generation” to describe students who are the first in their families to attend a 4-year college; however, many others experience other sorts of “firsts” during their time here. Some are first generation immigrants, while others came into the world in other countries and moved to the U.S. as children and identify as being part of “generation 1.5.” They are “neither here nor there”–neither part of the U.S. or their countries of origin, stuck between two worlds, as Pat Zavella describes the experiences of migrant workers in her book based in the Pájaro and Salinas Valleys of California.

Teaching Anthropology in 2014: hosting a group of Pajaro Valley high school students and their farmworker parents at Fresno State: the first generations.

Teaching Anthropology in 2014: hosting a group of Pajaro Valley high school students and their farmworker parents at Fresno State: the first generations.

For others, it is the first time they are exposed to worlds, directly and indirectly, beyond California’s Central Valley: a key agricultural production zone, once a long green swath that stood out on the map and now drought-browned and water starved. It is often overshadowed by the coastal cities. A friend of mine upon learning that I would be moving to Fresno, remarked that I would now be a “flat lander.” She said this in jest, but it carries a derogatory connotation: implying a lack of wisdom or an inability to thrive in unfamiliar conditions.

My students contemplated the drought, and many other layers of social, economic, and ecological inequality and vulnerability in my Fall 2014 section of Anthropology of Health, Illness, and Healing (a Medical Anthropology course). For some, this was the first time in their college careers that they had to conduct research–from coming up with a question or problem, to finding sources and collecting data through interviews and participant observation, to reading and reviewing ethnographies from start to finish. It proved a challenging semester, but I was also impressed at my students’ enthusiasm to explore something new semi-autonomously.

All students picked topics that are deeply personal to them. Several have family members with type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases and struggle communicating to doctors in languages asides English: Hmong, Spanish, Punjabi, and Mixteco. Others work in health care settings as medical assistants, aides, and technicians. Some come from environmental justice communities, where fracking, hazardous waste disposal, pesticide exposure, and air and water quality issues shape everyday life, and health. Some, who upon arrival to college aspired to be medical doctors are now studying to be nurses and physicians assistants: their spirits dampened by their struggles to keep up with rigorous science coursework and in some cases teachers who actively discourage them from pursuing these paths, at a time when health care providers who can relate to their patients are urgently needed. Some triaged their time between school, minimum wage jobs, and care work for sick and dying family members.

Life experiences are the core substance of anthropology. My students bring their stories into the classroom, into my office, and into the public sphere as some plan on sharing their findings with health care providers and community members. One of my students missed class to drive his mother to a doctor’s appointment an hour and a half away from home. Another gave birth to her first child in the middle of the semester. Several shared with me their personal and family stories of drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, prompted in part by our reading of Angela Garcia’s book The Pastoral Clinic.

Anthropology is not just for anthropologists; it is, as Barbara Myerhoff remarked “equipment for living.” Students experienced sparks of recognition, developed empathy for people whose life stories are markedly different than theirs, and made connections between anthropology and their other fields of study. This is a desired outcome; however, it happened differently than it does in other anthropology classrooms. This is especially significant, given the fact that many if not most of my students and their families are living through many of the themes we read and talk about: not in the abstract theoretical lenses that we are encouraged to develop, but in real life.

Anthropologist Angela Jenks observed similar patterns while teaching community college students in South Central Los Angeles, who have a lot in common with my students in the Central Valley. One of the major challenges, akin to Jenks’ classroom, is helping students get beyond “individualistic explanations for inequality, blaming themselves, their families, and their communities for the poverty and suffering they experience” (from Jenks 2014 Making the Familiar Strange, Anthropology News). This is true even when presented with theories of structural, symbolic, and normalized violence and even (perhaps even especially) when the examples we use to illustrate these concepts and frameworks come from their own backyards.

Still, through their struggles in class discussions, students’ lives, observations, and testimonies became the foundations from which we engaged the concepts, theories, and applications of medical anthropology. I would like to share excerpts of their research projects here to celebrate their scholarly accomplishments, to highlight their efforts at thinking more deeply about very local and personal issues, and to show passers by and prospective students what more is to come from an emerging critically applied medical anthropology focus at Fresno State.

In the coming weeks, we will share students’ one-paragraph project excerpts, some of which are linked to the complete papers.

Biting the Hands that Feed: Watsonville’s Latest Sacrifice Zone

McDsWatsIn English, y en Español (abajo).

Co-authored by Guadalupe Sanchez, Laura Florez López, Gabriel Gonzalez (Pájaro Valley youth, high school students, and community leaders), and Dvera I. Saxton, with assistance from Elizabeth Gonzalez (PhD candidate, UC Santa Cruz), and translation by Ramiro Medrano.

We submitted this to the Register Pajaronian for publication as an opinion editorial. Hopefully, they’ll publish it, too. We encourage all who are able to attend the Watsonville City Council Meeting TODAY (October 14th) in the evening to demand and urge that they reconsider their decision to approve the establishment of a third McDonald’s franchise at a spot on Union St. in historic downtown Watsonville. 

Biting the Hands that Feed: Watsonville’s Latest Sacrifice Zone

It is true that the City of Watsonville faces great financial difficulties. Some on the City Council and elsewhere in the community are arguing that Watsonville needs to attract businesses like McDonalds, In-and-Out, and other chains, as a means of generating tax revenues. After the City approved the re-zoning of the proposed spot for the McDonald’s on Union St., residents have come together in many ways, forming community groups, petition sites, and a Facebook group, in protest of this short-sighted decision. We anticipate a strong presence on Tuesday, October 14th at the City Council Meeting, as residents will speak out against the decision to allow a fast food restaurant to locate in Historic Downtown Watsonville.

For-profit fast-food enterprises will only leave the city and the community more economically, socially, environmentally, and physically vulnerable.

The immediate need for cash to bail out the city should not take precedence over the health of youth and working class people. Indeed, in prioritizing the McDonald’s as a means to generate revenue, the hidden costs will trickle down to those who already suffer from grave health disparities, ranging from obesity and diabetes, to asthma and food insecurity. The debt will be displaced, and a new sacrifice zone will be made.

Even if California raises the minimum wage to ten dollars an hour, the part-time jobs offered by fast-food chains do not pay enough to support families, or to sustain the dreams of youth. Fast-food jobs rarely offer health care or other benefits,.

The proposed site for Watsonville’s third McDonald’s is within walking distance of 2 high schools (Watsonville High and CEIBA), Cabrillo College, a Youth Center, and several very low income communities such as River Park, Mona Lisa, and the Riverside Apartments. Oftentimes, students and poor people are judged quite severely for the food choices they make, yet little is done at the community, city, county, or state levels to support their health and wellbeing.

What has been done is often youth-driven: community gardens at and near schools like Renaissance High, the establishment of a new chapter of the California Grange at the fairgrounds led by the Future Farmers of America, the Watsonville Bike Shack which has been in operation for almost eight years, the creation of a youth coffee house and tutoring center at Youth Now, the development of a youth tech incubator, and research-driven efforts to provide healthier food options for students by Jovenes Sanos.

Upon hearing news of the proposed new McDonalds, a student who attends Cesar Chavez Middle School remarked “they don’t even serve real food.,” Another student attending Watsonville High School remarked “Why do we need another McDonald’s? There are two in Watsonville already.” The youth have the answers; even though they cannot vote, the City Council has a responsibility to listen to their voices. It is on their bodies and wellbeing that this financial gamble is being taken.

It is not just the food that McDonald’s would serve that is a threat to the community’s health. Fast food establishments with drive-ins also mean more emissions and poorer air quality. While few people attribute poor air quality to the obesity epidemic, it is linked to asthma: a disease that affects many young people and their families in the Pájaro Valley. If kids can’t breathe, they can’t go out to play. If there is heavy traffic on already congested roads, this too affects their quality of life.

The scientific literature also links emissions and poor air quality to heightened risk for and exacerbation of existing cardiovascular disease. Research and clinical practice also observe connections between diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, also known as the metabolic syndrome, which are all also linked to the consumption of fast foods. These diseases create a great social and financial burden on the community and for the health-focused organizations that do their best to help.

As youth, we have other ideas and aspirations. These do not include desires for more fast food restaurants as a part of our visions for the future Please join us at the City Council meeting on Tuesday October 14th to urge the City Council to think outside of the Happy Meal Box and to explore alternatives that will move the city towards financial stability without sacrificing the health of the community.


Mordiendo las manos que alimentan: La más reciente zona de sacrificio en Watsonville

Es verdad que la ciudad de Watsonville lidia con grandes problemas financieros. Algunos representantes políticos y otras personas en la comunidad argumentan que Watsonville necesita atraer a empresas como McDonald’s, In-and-Out, y otras cadenas de comida rápida con el fin de generar impuestos. Después de que la ciudad aprobó cambiar la zonificación del lugar que se ha propuesto para establecer un McDonald’s en la calle Union, residentes se han movilizado en varias maneras, formando grupos comunitarios, creando peticiones y un grupo de Facebook para protestar en contra de esta decisión errónea.

Estos tipos de empresas lucrativas y de comida rápida solamente dejarán a la ciudad y comunidad más vulnerable económica, social, y ambientalmente. La necesidad inmediata de dinero para aminorar el problema financiero de la ciudad no debería tener precedencia sobre la salud de los niños, jóvenes, y clase trabajadora. Inclusive, al dar prioridad a McDonald’s para poder generar más ganancias, los costos escondidos poco a poco caerán a los miembros de la comunidad más vulnerables, quienes algunos ya sufren de problemas de salud, tales como obesidad y diabetes, hasta asma y malnutrición. La deuda se desplazará, y una nueva zona de sacrificio se creará.

Aun si California alza el salario mínimo a diez dólares la hora, los trabajos de tiempo medio que ofrecen las empresas de comida rápida no pagan lo suficiente para apoyar a las familias o los sueños de nuestros jóvenes. Son escasos los trabajos de comida rápida que ofrecen seguro de salud u otros beneficios.

El sitio propuesto para el tercer McDonald’s en Watsonville está a una corta distancia de las preparatorias Watsonville High School y Ceiba, del Colegio Cabrillo, la escuela de adultos, el centro para jóvenes Waldo –Hoularis Youth Center, e innumerables viviendas de bajos recursos en las comunidades de River Park, Mona Lisa, y Riverside. Muchas veces juzgamos severamente a estudiantes y a gente de bajos recursos por sus decisiones alimenticias, mas sin embargo muy poco se hace a nivel comunidad, ciudad, y estatal para apoyar su salud y bienestar.

Lo que mayoritariamente se ha hecho ha sido liderado por jóvenes: jardines comunitarios y escolares en escuelas como la preparatoria Renaissance High School, el establecimiento de una sucursal de la Granja de California en los terrenos de la feria liderada por el grupo juvenil Future Farmers of America, la organización Watsonville Bike Shack que ha estado operando ya por casi ocho años, el establecimiento de un café para jóvenes y centro de tutoría en la organización no-lucrativa Youth Now, y la creación de una incubadora tecnológica para jóvenes como Digital NEST, al igual que campañas para ofrecer mejores opciones de comida saludable por parte del grupo Jóvenes Sanos. Un estudiante de la secundaria Cesar Chavez dice, “ni si quiera sirven comida verdadera,” al enterarse sobre la aprobación de un nuevo McDonald’s. Los jóvenes tienen las respuestas, y aunque no puedan votar, el concilio de la ciudad debería escucharlos. Se está apostando el bienestar de nuestros jóvenes.

No es solamente la comida que sirve McDonald’s la que amenaza la salud de nuestra comunidad. Restaurantes de comida rápida con autoservicio (drive-thru) también significan más emisiones de auto y peor calidad de aire. Aunque pocas personas atribuyen la calidad de aire a la epidemia de obesidad, la verdad es que está ligada al asma: una enfermedad que afecta a muchos jóvenes y a sus familias en el valle de Pájaro.

Si los niños no pueden respirar, no pueden salir afuera a jugar. Si hay tráfico pesado, esto también afecta nuestro estilo de vida.

Literatura científica también liga emisiones de auto y mala calidad de aire al alto riesgo de enfermedades cardiovasculares. Investigación y práctica clínica también han visto conexiones entre el diabetes, la obesidad, la alta presión y enfermedades cardiacas, también conocida como el síndrome metabólico, las cuales todas están ligadas al consumo de comida rápida. Estas enfermedades crean un gran peso social y financiero en la comunidad y para las organizaciones de salud pública que hacen lo que pueden para ayudar.

Todos los que hemos trabajado con la gente más vulnerable y marginalizada – los trabajadores del campo y los jóvenes – hemos tenido el privilegio de escuchar las tantas historias de lucha, sobrevivencia, resistencia, y los sueños de un futuro mejor. Esto es cierto especialmente en lo que los padres quieren para sus hijos al igual que las aspiraciones de los propios niños. Nunca hemos escuchado a la gente expresar la necesidad de más restaurantes de comida rápida como parte de las visiones del futuro.

Hay modelos de desarrollo que no requieren el sacrificio de nuestra salud por la seguridad económica. Queremos animar a nuestros representantes en el concilio de la ciudad a pensar diferente y explorar alternativas que nos puedan fortalecer económicamente sin sacrificar la salud de la comunidad.



Sucked Dry: Examining Drought and Privatization from California to Mesoamerica

10703914_10152266808897391_5642298719802173673_o (1)The Beehive Collective is launching a tour in California, focusing on the politics of the drought. Below are the dates and more about the tour.

“Sucked Dry: Examining Drought and Privatization from Mesoamérica to California”
California is in the midst of a historical drought, the most severe the region has had in the last 500 years. This water crisis has devastated resources, with several communities facing the prospect of running dry. A number of projects advocating infrastructure development such as the BDCP and Prop 1 have been proposed as solutions for the state, but are they truly in the interests for all? What are their impacts to our drying rivers and reservoirs? Fisheries and communities? Drawing inspiration from struggles against large-scale infrastructure projects throughout MesoAmerica, the Bees will take you on a visual journey touching on the local and the global struggle for control and protection of water. (tour in partnership with Javier Padilla Reyes from Restore the Delta)

20- San Francisco
21- Berkeley / Oakland
22- San Jose
23- Santa Cruz
24- Monterrey / Paso Robles / SLO
25- Santa Barbara
26- Los Angeles
27 – Los Angeles/Orange County
28- San Bernadino
29- Bakersfield
30- Fresno
31- Davis

1- Redding
2- Sacramento (to finish Vote No on Prop 1 campaign tour)
3- Stockton

An Injury to One…Under the Valley Sun

En route home from the small farming city of Huron–located on the agriculturally intensive westside of Fresno County–I met an injured farmworker. He sat in a plastic lawn chair outside of a store, clasping a plastic yogurt container in his hands. He had accumulated what looked like about $5.00 in bills and some change.

He also held a tattered piece of cardboard with a message written in multi-colored block letters etched in magic marker, pen, and pencil. My compañeras and I had pulled over to have lunch at a taco truck after a long morning distributing soaps, toothpaste, and other supplies to drought-displaced farmworker families. As we ate our tacos and burritos and quenched our thirst with water and soft drinks, I strained through the bright sun and distance to read his sign. He noticed the attention and intention of my eyes, and purposefully re-angled his sign towards me.

His message implicated the workers’ compensation system, his lawyers, doctors, judge, former employer, as well as a farmworker advocacy organization, as all having committed a fraud against him. This is often what lawmakers, lawyers, doctors, judges, and employers say about injured workers who are trying to follow through with their cases to get what they need to heal, survive, and move on. Injured workers who seek out workers’ compensation (and many don’t for numerous reasons) are accused of malingering, of trying to milk or manipulate the system, of defrauding and wasting state funds, and of laziness (e.g. trying to get out of work).

It is a lot of work, in and of itself, to keep up with a workers’ compensation case, and the permanent or partial disability payments are based on a percentage of your salary. An average farmworker salary is not enough to live on, let alone one reduced or eliminated following an injury.

His head hung low, sustaining his energy in the intense mid-day heat (it hit the low 100s today), sweat beading around his face and neck, and his hands and flip-flop-exposed feet featured cracks and callouses. I asked him what had happened–what was his injury?

While working in a lettuce field, an irrigation sprayer hit his body with what he thought was just water. He soon realized that something was terribly wrong. A chemical burn developed along one side of his body and he experienced other symptoms. He lifted his shirt to show me a stark discoloration that stretched about 18 inches up his torso. “My body has never quite felt the same…I can feel it inside.” His movements overall were ginger and delicate–uncomfortable. Community environmental monitoring and sampling of waterways and irrigation canals in the Valley have shown disturbing results.

Water–a substance we associate with purity, freshness, and clarity and that we routinely use to irrigate crops and quench our thirst–was contaminated by an unknown source (pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, run-off from industry?) caused this campesino harm. Water is vulnerable to contamination as are farmworkers. Despite an array of seemingly progressive protective policies on the books, little is done to ensure the conservation of water or of farmworker lives, and the spaces in which the two routinely intersect in symbiosis.

Interestingly, farmworkers often reflect on their bodies using the concept of el organísmo. This was clear in the narratives of campesinos from the 1930s, uncovered by Linda Nash, who described how they felt following exposure to agricultural pesticides to a government agent charged with studying their health. This is not merely a translation of the English word “body.” It is a metaphor describing the interconnectedness between all living things within the body and outside of it. It is a popular and ecologically- and socially-rooted model of health in that it originates directly from the people who are most impacted by contamination and injury resulting from hazardous industrial practices and socio-economic systems.

As a medical anthropologist, I have studied farmworkers’ experiences with injuries, the state policies that govern workers’ compensation, the biomedical and employer practices that are used to evaluate injured workers’ bodies and in turn their moral and economic worth, and the limits of and harms caused by purportedly progressive policies. This one injured man is waiting under the sun for a kind of justice that cannot come from the law alone. What would it mean to folks like this man who I encountered waiting for justice under the Central Valley sun, if we moved away from mainstream and legally mandated definitions of health, disease, and injury, and towards more ecological and social ones?


South Central Farm in Jeopardy

Guest Post by South Central Farmers of Los Angeles:


A South Central Farmer enters the plot. Photo by Leslie Radford.

Eight years ago last month, Los Angeleños demanded their city step up to the burgeoning environmental justice movement in a citywide protest that centered on the small, working class Central Alameda neighborhood and its South Central Farm. The protest culminated in thousands of people from the Westside to the Eastside and from South Africa to Oaxaca rallying against overdevelopment, industrialization, anti-immigrant sentiment, and commercial food monopolies. It was a spontaneous occupation five years before Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Los Angeles. On a fourteen-acre plot in a poor neighborhood, hundreds of people pitched their tents on the South Central Farm for three months, and thousands of visitors, everyday people and famous ones, from around the world made pilgrimages to the Farm. It ended on June 13, 2006 when sheriffs raided the Farm, bulldozed the food and trees, and arrested 44 people. The Farmers pledged then that, although displaced, they would continue the fight for the neighborhood people’s right to grow fresh food.

Between now and Thursday, July 17, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission is asking for public comments on the environmental impact of moving a garment factory and three trucking centers to the still-undeveloped Farm site. Last August, dozens of Farm supporters jammed a City Planning Commission meeting and demanded the EIR before development could begin. That turnout forced the City to reassess its position and require an Environmental Impact Report and public comment.

Emails in support of preserving green space for the Central Alameda neighborhood should be sent to Srimal Hewawitharana at, who is overseeing the EIR for the Planning Department, and cc’d to The subject line should include “Re: Case No. ENV-2012-920-EIR, AA-2012-919, DIR-2013-887-SPR/ Proposed Construction of Four Industrial Buildings.”

The City needs to be told that, just as wealthy and gentrified neighborhoods deserve green space for growing and supporting natural habitat, so do poor neighborhoods. No neighborhood in Los Angeles should be subject to the devastation that further industrialization will bring to the Central Alameda neighborhood. Here are issues that could be raised to the Planning Commission.

-Fourteen acres of green space will enhance property values in this neighborhood hit hard by the housing crash, while trucks, loading and unloading twenty-four hours a day, will further devalue already devastated property values, forcing homeowners and renters out of their homes.

-The proposed distribution centers will add over two thousand addition truck trips daily to the narrow streets adjacent to the neighborhood, creating a traffic nightmare for local drivers and dangerous streets for children.

-The trucks will add air pollution not only to a nearby schools, a recreation center, and open-air markets, but will exacerbate existing air pollution across the region, already contaminated by long-haul trucks along the Alameda Corridor and by the nearby city of Vernon.

-The trucks will contribute substantially to noise pollution in a neighborhood that already suffers with the noise of hourly train traffic along the Blue Line and approximately 10,000 car trips and day.

-Twenty-four hour shipping operations will require twenty-four hour lighting, a significant reduction in the quality of life for the neighborhood.

-As replacement facilities for existing business operations, this project holds little hope for any meaningful new jobs.

This is the time to call on the City to celebrate its residents’ struggles for a green and livable Los Angeles. The South Central Farm has a long history of struggle for environmental justice that needs to be celebrated, not irredeemably erased and paved over.

-The destruction of the Farm follows an historical Los Angeles trend of displacing Mexican and Central American peoples that began in the Mexican-American War of 1848 and continued through the displacements at Chavez Ravine (now Dodger Stadium) and the Cornfield, an indigenous Tongva site converted to a state park and tourist center.

-In 1987, the people of the Ninth District defeated the City’s plans to convert the land that became the South Central for use by a massive trash incinerator called the Lancer Project.

-Following the Rodney King uprising, Mayor Tom Bradley ceded the land to the people. The City sold it to the Harbor Department, which issued a permit for farming and put the land under the administration of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. By 1994, the people in the neighborhood were clearing the land and growing food.

-The Farmers cultivated over 100 identified species of plants, including fruit trees, medicinal plants, cacti, protected black walnut trees, and other species native to historical Mexico. The trees on the Farm were considered so significant that they were transplanted to the South Central Tree Collection, an exhibit at the Huntington Library. Unusual fauna for urban dwellers included bats and red-tailed hawks. On the Farm was a Central American and Mexican seed bank, destroyed in the raid on the Farm. The fourteen-acre habitat should be restored, not paved over.

-The Farm, its creation and its destruction, sparked appreciation of the contributions of populations from south of the border and awakened Los Angeleños to the need for an environmentally sound city. In its wake, the City has instituted 350 school gardens and the right to grow food on easements, farmers’ markets have seen an explosion in popularity and dozens of new ones have opened in every area of Los Angeles, and L.A. now has a functional system of bike trails and trains.

The South Central Farmers have now twice disrupted city plans to industrialize the Farm. In 2008, the Farmers organized the neighborhood to demand an Environmental Impact Report before building a Forever 21 sweatshop on the land, and the demands of that EIR ended that project. Last year, the City again prepared to build on the land without an EIR, and the Farmers once more mounted a campaign for an EIR. That EIR too, could end the industrial development and force the City to recognize the Farm again. The South Central Farm is the center of environmental justice for all of Los Angeles, both as a much-needed green space for a working class neighborhood long ignored by the City and as a symbol of a new Los Angeles that acknowledges that all its residents deserve the right to grow food and live in a healthy environment. It is time, again, to save the Farm.

Following Strawberries, Following People


Teacher and student compañero/as and the anthropologist, demonstrating against the toxic pesticide methyl iodide at Watsonville City Hall, November 30th, 2010.

In August 2010, when I set out to start doing research for my doctorate, I literally followed a box of organic California strawberries from the Whole Foods at Tenelytown in Washington, DC, where I was a graduate student at American University, to the Pájaro Valley: located on California’s Central Coast. I sought to explore the social relationships, health hazards, and political economies and ecologies that enabled those strawberries to be made, and to reach me 2000 miles away on the East Coast.

A commenter on one of the grants I received to do my research cautioned that I would not be able to build trust with farmworkers; they were too vulnerable and would be unwilling to participate. It took about 3 months for me to start building relationships with folks, having fumbled through the first few interviews (now I know that interviews aren’t always the best way to collect ethnographic data). I felt overwhelmed by the power dynamics and networks on the agribusiness and policy side that I needed to navigate to do my research.

Perhaps that grant reviewer’s comments served as the push I needed to persist through the first several months of getting acclimated in a new place and getting to know new people. I immersed myself in as many aspects of Pájaro Valley life as I could and ended up with a powerful network of research participants, who I refer to in both my academic and public writing as my compañeros/as: Spanish for companions, partners, or comrades.

In The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology, Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes about the transformation of her relationships with research participants. In the Brazilian shantytown that is the focus of her book Death Without Weeping, Scheper-Hughes had once worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer building social movements and child day care facilities. Upon her return 20 years later as an anthropologist with a PhD, in full research mode, her companheiro/as (Portuguese for companions or comrades) insisted that they all continue on with this work, even though Hughes, at first, insisted that she could not: that she was there now as a researcher and not as a comrade. This was not acceptable to the community: if she was to continue working there, it would have to be “on their terms” (Scheper-Hughes 1995:411).

It is from this experience that Scheper-Hughes learned to balance her research obligations and the moral and ethical commitments she had to her companheiro/as. And so she split her time between ethnographic research and community work, losing some things, like respect from some elites, and gaining others: namely, a stronger sense of how anthropology can be made morally and politically relevant in the public sphere and in the lives of the people we work with.

I had read Primacy of the Ethical about a year or so before I left for the Pájaro Valley. I must have carried it in my subconscious, as the links between Scheper-Hughes’ experiences and my own did not surface in my mind until after I had defended my dissertation. As much as I wanted to–on a moral and ethical level–participate in anti-pesticide activism and support the immigrant communities where I was working, I hesitated, at first, to get involved. I worried about how it would affect my ability to study the power structures of agribusiness.

In reality– participating in activism, and engaging in the lives of farmworker families, combined with some clever (and with informed consent) Yes-Men (or Women)-like research at agribusiness and pesticide conferences, invited private meetings with farm lobbyists, and public hearings and forums—proved to be very ethnographically rich and rewarding. Below, I describe some of my ethically grounded and engaged strategies for conducing research on farmworker health, injury, and pesticides.

I knew it would be unlikely that I would have access to farm fields, so I took up gleaning with the local food bank where I could observe farmworkers at work from a distance. I would also watch farmworkers from my car as I drove down country highways and back roads. Even from this distance, I could observe the rhythms and patterns of farm work, and the propensity of pesticide use. During one gleaning visit to a field of edible but unmarketable romaine lettuce, I witnessed three different kinds of pesticides being applied on three fields within a mile of one another. Actual farmworker crews were also present in the adjacent fields that day. So often, my field notes begin as I took a deep, sometimes exhausted, breath, and got into my car.

I introduced myself to the Watsonville Brown Berets–a Mexican American and Chicano/a youth community organizing group–and the local teachers’ union. Upon learning about my project and interests, they asked me to help them on their campaign against the toxic soil fumigant pesticide, methyl iodide. I used my skills as a bilingual anthropologist to help with farmworker, public, and policy maker outreach and to mentor and teach research skills to high school students who took the campaign on as their high school graduation project. While some thought this work would taint my research, I was able to maintain reflexivity, working as an applied anthropologist to understand community tensions around pesticides, to understand how farmworkers experienced pesticides, and to advocate for policies and decisions that would support environmental health.

I accompanied a friend to a labor camp where on Thursdays, older retired farmworker residents read excerpts from the bible; I ended up teaching English literacy classes there for a few months, before scheduling conflicts with the property management made it too difficult. I’ve kept in touch while I did postdoctoral work in Boston. A Christmas-time phone call revealed that some of the residents there are dealing with multiple kinds of cancer on top of other chronic diseases like diabetes and depression. That particular camp is surrounded on all sides by strawberry, lettuce, and raspberry fields, which are routinely sprayed and gassed with pesticides. Many of my compañeros at that camp have lived there for over forty years.

I attended a wintertime craft circle at a local church, where a nun provided a safe space for farmworker women and children to knit, embroider, crochet, and make crafts. Wintertime starts out with many festivities such as El Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and Christmas and the arrival of Los Reyes Magos (3 Kings) a bit later, but eventually, the economic and social depression of being without work sets in. The women in this group gradually opened up to me. I re-learned to knit (and have since forgotten again), and also discovered that many of them could no longer work in the fields due to severe musculoskeletal injuries sustained while working. Also troubling was the fact that many of these women were around my age or younger. I celebrated my 28th through 30th birthdays in the field.

I twice volunteered with a non-profit organization focused on occupational safety in agriculture at their annual conference. There, I introduced panelists, helped interpret paperwork for Spanish-speaking attendees seeking continuing education credits and safety certifications, and observed growers, foreman, farm labor contractors, pesticide applicators, and other industry officials, researchers, and policy makers as they attended sessions and socialized during golf tournaments, elegant lunches, and a casino night. I listened to presentations and to audience questions and comments, which gave me many insights about how people responsible for managing farmworkers perceived occupational health and safety policies.

During my postdoc, I also attended a pesticide conference, where I listened to scientific presentations on the latest breakthroughs in the long-haul effort to replace toxic soil fumigants with other toxic soil fumigants, slightly less toxic pesticides, or biological controls. To my surprise, the leadership, government agents, and university researchers I engaged with over the 3-day event seemed pleased that I was there to listen, and at times, even tickled. I am trying to understand how different people within the sphere of pesticide use and development understand health, safety, and the science of harm. These field sites are sometimes scary for me, as I am very much out of my element amidst chemists and commercial pesticide dealers. But I enter them because I feel a responsibility to understand how these systems and logics work and in turn how they shape the health of my compañero/as. My whiteness and academic credentials have, thus far, granted me access to these spaces.

I met indigenous farmworkers through relationships with Migrant Education and a gardening project a few towns over from Watsonville. I befriended one Triqui woman and her children who eventually became my gardening partners. There, I learned through the kinesthetic act of doing: digging in the dirt, hauling hoses, planting, hoeing rows, and yes, more weeding, all syncopated with discussions about food, the science of corn, beans, and squash, what the garden was like back in Oaxaca, and of course, all of life’s struggles, troubles, and joys, too.

The teenage children of my farmworker compañeros have asked me for help with their homework, scholarship, and college applications, for advice about love and relationships, if I’ve ever used drugs and alcohol. I don’t always know what to say in response, and am not always at ease with taking on the role of an older sibling, cousin, aunt, or comadre or madrina (co-mother and godmother, respectively).

But all of this–from the evolution of our relationships, from the first hesitant encounter with a white stranger to the development of fictive kinship, to using anthropology’s tool box to build solidarity and power in social movements–is part of the primacy of the ethical. It is about investing as much of oneself as possible with those who invest so much of their time, energy, and trust in me, the anthropologist, and doing so in a political way. Changing the dynamics of our relationships to one another in the context of ethnographic fieldwork is one place to start. I followed that box of strawberries back to California and also followed the people who enabled those strawberries to be made and shipped. I listened to the “primacy of the ethical” whispering in my subconscious rather than following narrow definitions of what anthropology is and is not, and what anthropologists do and do not do.

In the end, our work on the methyl iodide campaign led to a great victory, as the manufacturer pulled the product’s registration with the Environmental Protection Agency. How has the primacy of the ethical guided your work and life? What are the potentials of anthropology to engage and create social and political change?

From Coast to Coast: Water in Crisis


Flyer for the first Central Coast Farmworker Appreciation Day: organized by Salinas Valley youth in honor of their community.

What follows is a variation on a speech I gave at the first Farmworker Appreciation Day: an event organized by youth in Salinas. It was a cold cloudy day, and I’m not sure I’m a good speech giver. Nevertheless, it is a useful bilingual drought education resource for high school and college students. 

Between 2010-2013, I lived in Watsonville, CA, learning from farmworkers and their children and working towards my doctorate in anthropology: the study of human beings. Last year, I lived in Boston, MA, working and doing research about how to use science to achieve social and environmental justice. I think that my colleagues also learned a lot from what I shared with them about the people of the Pájaro and Salinas Valleys.

While I was living in California, some farmers showed me ways of growing food that are healthy for workers and the environment. But, the truth is that many of the crops grown in California are terribly irrigation intensive. If we do not learn new and less water intensive ways to grow food, we are not going to be able to ensure a safe, healthy, or profitable future.

On the East Coast, where I am originally from, right now, there is plenty of water for drinking and irrigating crops. But, even though the rains are plentiful, our water is in danger. In my home state of Pennsylvania, they are putting chemicals in the earth in order to extract natural gas, a process called fracking. Some communities are already too sick and physically and emotionally weak to confront these fracking companies, which promise jobs but inevitably leave folks without life or livelihoods. Fracking has come to California as well, and people on the Central Coast are working hard to stop it.

All over the world, many communities lack drinkable water, and are at risk of losing water. Logging to make lumber, papercattle grazing lands, and palm oil plantations, also contribute to global droughts and water insecurity. Regions of the world that were once forests are now deserts. This is also happening in the U.S., and in California as well.

Having moved to the Central Valley, I think about water and the drought daily. I worry about how it affects my farmworker friends and their precarious survival. While still in Boston, I started collecting articles from electronic newspapers, and now I have an archive of over a hundred, and counting.

Drought relief funds from Governor Brown and the CA Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are only a bandage. The human injuries caused by the drought will keep festering if we don’t work collaboratively to conceive and create new models of growing food and living in California. We already have a lot of knowledge—we just need to realize and actualize it.

While many privileged consumers enjoy strawberries, salad, and other foods year round, their production comes with big human and environmental tolls. It is a fact that California agriculture consumes 90 percent of water supplies. On the coast aquifers are contaminated with salt water.

And, it is not new information that California’s economy has long been based on the intensive extraction and abuse of human and natural resources: since the construction of the missions, the gold rush, the establishment of irrigation-intensive agriculture, and the intensification of oil and gas extraction. There is no irony in the fact that some people are taking advantage of the drought to look for gold once more in the Sierras, or to use the drought as an opportunity amidst the high rates of unemployment to promote fracking or intensive ground water pumping as an easy solution to our economic problems. They want us to think that there is no other way, but this is not true.

We keep treating the planet and water like an unlimited bank account or like a casino. In the Central Valley, where I now work as an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University Fresno, some farmers have been slow to change their water use practices; they are afraid that in the near future we wont have enough to be able to keep cultivating crops. Their livelihoods are in jeopardy, but we are not stopping to think, what else do we have to change. With intensive pumping of water, scientists have observed more earthquakes, and now the Sierras to the east and west are growing while the Valley is sinking. In addition, there is a lot of denial and misunderstanding about the relationships between global climate change and, the current drought and future vulnerabilities.

All of these things scare me. I am scared to now live in a region with a severe water shortage and where there are communities with severe contamination of wells and reserves. On the Central Coast, the communities of Springfield Terrace in Moss Landing and the San Jerardo housing cooperative outside of Salinas, have contaminated water. It is a serious issue for farming towns throughout California.

We need to be scared and to get angry to find the strength, inspiration, and will to confront these challenges, which are both local and global. I remember when I was doing my doctoral research, some farmworker friends told me that they had migrated to California because they did not have enough water or resources to sustain their gardens and farms. We need to see how everything is connected: hunger, poverty, migration, economic crisis, contamination, health, and this drought. Any proposal or action has to incorporate these links to be effective.

The drought is not just a natural disaster. Water in California has a history. Our current water vulnerabilities are partly the result of decisions made by people in positions of power. People in the past did not put limits on water consumption in the name of economic development and growth. The problem cannot be resolved by changing our personal consumption of water alone, but by all means, we need to care for and conserve water at home and elsewhere.

As the poet, teacher, and activist June Jordan, who was also the daughter of immigrant parents, once said: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Young people in the Pájaro, Salinas, and Central Valleys have achieved great things, from banning pesticides to creating peer-to-peer networks that educate one another about reproductive and environmental health. This work is inspiring and impressive. Keep meeting up, making space at school, at the library, at your homes, preparing and eating food together, discussing problems, doing your research, sharing knowledge, and applying it to your causes and struggles. ¡Adelante! Onward! To build another world!


Entre 2010-2013, vivía en Watsonville, California, mientras que estaba estudiando para mi doctorado en antropología—el estudio de los seros humanos. Siempre voy a estar agradecida con las familias campesinas de los Valles de Pájaro y Salinas, que me invitaron a sus hogares y vidas y que me enseñaron mucho, compartiendo sus experiencias conmigo. El año pasado, vivia en Boston, trabajando y aprendiendo como usar la ciencia para apollar y lograr la justicia social y medio ambiamental. Creo que mis colegas en Boston aprendieron mucho de lo que compartí con ellos sobre la gente de los Valles de Pájaro and Salinas.

Mientras que estaba viviendo en California, algunos rancheros me mostraron buenos modelos de cultivar comida sin dañar la tierra, sin lastimar los trabajadores, y sin perder tantos recursos naturales. Pero, la verdad es que si siguen así, no nos van a poder asegurar un futuro seguro y sano.

Porque ahorra, vivo en el Valle Central, pienso a diario en la sequia. Me preocupa como está afectando a mis compañeros campesinos, y su sobrevivencia. Mientras que estaba en Boston, empecé a colectar artículos de los periódicos electrónicos—y ahora tengo un archivo de casi cien artículos, y sigue creciendo.

Por la costa este, la región de donde soy originaria, ahorita, hay bastante agua para apagar la sed y para regar las cosechas. Pero, también allá, mientras que la lluvia se cae del cielo, el agua está en peligro. En mi estado natal de Pennsylvania, están echando químicos en la tierra para sacar el gas natural—un proceso que se llama la fracturación hidraulica o fracking. Algunas comunidades ya están demasiados enfermos y físicamente y emocionalmente débiles para confrontar esas empresas, que les prometen trabajos pero les dejan sin vivencia y con enfermedades graves. Ya llegó la fractura hidrológica a California, y hay gente por la Costa Central que están trabajando para pararlo.

Por todo el mundo, muchas comunidades carecen agua potable, y están en riesgo de perder el agua. La tala de arboles para hacer madera, papelcria de ganado, y plantación de palma para la extractión de aceite, también contribuyen a las sequias mundiales. Hay áreas del mundo que eran bosques vivos, y ahora son desiertos. Esto ya está pasando en los Estados Unidos, y aquí en California también.

Los fondos del gobernador Brown y del departamento de agricultura solo son como una venda. Las heridas humanas causadas por la sequia se van a seguir ulcerando si no trabajamos juntos para desarrollar soluciones e ideas diversas y para crecer nuevos modelos de cultivar y vivir en California. Ya tenemos mucho sabiduría—nada mas, tenemos que fijarlo y actulizarlo.

Mientras que muchos consumidores privilegiados están disfrutando la fresa y la ensalada por todo el año, aquí estamos pagando un gran precio humano y medioambiental. Es cierto que la agricultura en California consume 90 porciento del agua fresco. Ya estamos mirando que las reservas subterráneas de agua fresco están contaminados con agua salado del mar.

Ni es nueva información que—por lo menos, desde la llegada de los españoles y luego los colonos—la economía de California había basada por la extracción intensiva de recursos humanos y naturales: con la construcción de las misiones y la fiebre del oro, y el desarrollo de la agricultura industrial y la extracción de petróleo y gas. No es tan irónico que con esta sequia, alguna gente está tomando ventaja de la oportunidad para buscar oro de nuevo en las montañas al este, o usar esta oportunidad, cuando muchos no tienen trabajos seguros, a proponer la extracción de gas como una solución económica. Pero, estos no son las únicas ni las mejores soluciones a nuestras problemas. Quieren que pensemos que no hay otra manera, pero no es la verdad.

Siguimos tratando la tierra y el agua como un banco con reservas interminables, o como un casino. En el Valle Central, donde vivo y trabajo ahorra como profesora en la Universidad Cal State Fresno, unos rancheros están bombeando el agua de la tierra demasiado rápido, porque tienen miedo que en un futuro muy cercano, no vamos a tener suficiente agua para seguir cultivando. Sus viviendas están en peligro, pero no nos estamos parando para pensar, que más tenemos que cambiar. Con la inyección de agua contaminado para sacar el gas natural, y el bombeo de agua, los científicos han observado mas terremotos, y que las Sierras al este y oeste están creciendo y el valle se esta hundiendo. Al mismo tiempo, hay mucho rechazo de las realidades graves del cambio climático, la sequia, y los vulnerabilidades del futuro.

Todos estos hechos me dan miedo. Tengo miedo de vivir en un región donde hay una falta de agua tan grave. Donde hay comunidades que no han tenido agua potable por décadas porque han bombeado y contaminado los posos al mismo tiempo. Por la Costa Central, el ranchito de Springfield Terrace en Moss Landing, y la cooperativa de vivienda San Jerardo al sur de Salinas tienen posos contaminados. Es una realidad bien grave par alas comunidades rurales de California.Necesitamos tener miedo y sentirnos enojados para encontrar la fuerza, la inspiración, y las ganas a enfrentar estos retos, que son locales y mundiales. Recuerdo que cuando estaba haciendo mi proyecto con algunos compañeros campesinos, me informaron que algunos de ellos migraron a California por no tener suficiente agua ni recursos para sostener sus milpas y ranchos. Entonces, todo se liga: el hambre, la pobreza, la migración, la crisis económica, la contaminación, la salud, y este momento de sequia. Cualquier propuesta o acción tiene que incorporar estas conexiones para ser efectiva.

La sequia no es completamente un desastre natural. El agua en California tiene una historia. Nuestras vulnerabilidades tienen raíces, en parte, por las acciones de personas en posiciones de poder. Ellos no pusieron limites por el consumo de agua en el pasado–en el nombre del crecimiento y desarrollo económico. No vamos a resolver este problema solo por cambiar nuestra manera de consumer el agua, pero de todos modos debemos cuidar y conservar el agua en nuestros hogares y otros lugares.

Como dijó la poetisa, maestra, y activista June Jordan, que creció en la ciudad de Nueva York y era la hija de gente inmigrante: “Somos nosotros mismos a quienes hemos estado esperando.” Los jovenes de los Valles Pájaro, Salinas, y Central ya han logrado cosas muy grandes, desde la prohibición de una pesticida hasta la creación de redes educativas entre los compañeros sobre la salud reproductivo y medioambiental. Son trabajos inspiradores y impresionantes. Que siguan reuniendose, haciendo espacio en las escuelas, las bibliotecas, y en sus hogares, preparando y comiendo comida juntos, discutiendo los problemas, haciendo sus investigaciones para recoger información y emprender sus planes, compartiendo la sabiduría nueva y la que ya tenemos, igual que lo que han hecho y logrado hoy. ¡Adelante! ¡A edificar otro mundo!