Young farmworker speaks out

Published in The Idaho Statesman on Aug. 8, 2000.

Leobardo Morales grew up too quickly.

It happened the year he left Santa Maria Tindu, the small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he was born.

It was the year he left behind his few American-made toy trucks, when he first saw the lights and bustle of a city, when he viewed the deserts, mountains and canyons of his country from the dusty windows of a series of rickety north-bound buses.

It was the year he tucked himself into a ball in the foot well on the passenger side of a small, overloaded car that wouldn’t deliver its human freight to a new life that day. It was the year he first saw the United States, through a tiny barred window in a Border Patrol holding cell somewhere between San Diego and Tijuana.

It was 1989, the year Morales turned 11, the year he started working in the fields of the American West.

“That’s when my childhood ended, when I came here,” Morales reflected recently, safeguarded from those memories by time, his legal residency and the barricades provided by education and a mastery of the language of his new home.

He’s long since been just “Leo” to most — his classmates for one season in Oregon and 10 in Wilder couldn’t pronounce his name. He learned English in about a year, earned A’s through school and got a scholarship to Boise State University.

Now, Morales is getting ready to start his sophomore year of college, though he still works in the fields in the summer. He’s become one of the most passionate and visible speakers promoting farm-worker issues in the state, but his fiery style may not have helped his cause in the Legislature. He’s a young man carrying the burden of great expectations — many hope he will lead Idaho’s growing Hispanic population into the coming century — yet his goals in life and in education could lead him to California or the East Coast.

Morales is living in two worlds, with one foot in the mostly brown fields and the other in largely white academia.

Before he can think about guiding the state’s Hispanics to an empowered and vital role, Leo Morales is working on defining himself.

THE MINIMUM-WAGE BATTLE

Morales stepped into a war that’s been waged since long before his six-day journey to the United States.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the first federal minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — his first attempt was killed by the courts because of an unrelated technicality in a section setting rules on the slaughter of kosher chickens. Farm workers were excluded from the 25 cent-an-hour guarantee, but so were air-transport workers, public employees, construction workers and retail salespeople.

Farm workers employed at larger operations were included in a revision of the federal law in 1966 — they got $1 less per hour than the rest of the protected workers. Changes in 1977 eliminated that lower standard, but anyone working for a small farm still isn’t included in the federal law, which sets the minimum hourly wage at $5.15. Just 13 states have opted to expand the guarantee to farm workers.

The average farm wage, though, exceeded the federal minimum wage about 30 years ago.

In Idaho, farm-worker advocates have been a fixture at the Statehouse for a decade, winning a decision in 1996 to include farm workers in workers’ compensation. It took years of legislative debate, the dogged leadership of then-Gov. Phil Batt and the high-profile auger accident on a cold December day in 1995 that tore Javier Tellez Juarez’s arms off and crushed his legs.

For the past four years, farm workers and their advocates have tried to build on that, grappling with lawmakers and farmers — and the more than 30 of 105 legislators who are both — over whether Idaho should guarantee farm workers the minimum wage. Last year, farm-worker advocates and key supporters in the Legislature, such as Reps. Ken Robison, D-Boise, and Tom Trail, R-Moscow, started a push to create a state license for farm labor contractors.

These middlemen run field crews much like a temp agency provides secretaries. The farmers pay the contractor, who then divvies the money up among the workers and, of course, keeps a profit for himself. It’s too easy, Robison and Trail maintain, for a dishonest contractor to cheat his workers, or to not pay them at all.

THE DISCOVERY OF LEO MORALES

Morales talked about these issues and a few others one evening at his family’s Wilder home. Shaded from the still-hot sun by a leafy tree that looked like it was planted just for that reason, Morales was calm and reflective. He’d spent the day with his family in the fields — he’s on his parents’ work crew, earning $6 an hour gathering onion seeds, shucking corn, and doing other field work he and his relatives can find to do.

The Morales family bought a tiny house on a patch of dirt a few years ago and have since more than doubled its size. Morales lives there in the summer with his parents and six brothers and sisters, but he stays at BSU during the school year.

His T-shirt that day was from a Hispanic youth symposium, and though his sun-darkened skin and wiry muscles betrayed his summer occupation, his wire-rimmed glasses and demeanor gave him the look of an intellectual. These differences define him.

He likes political science and sociology classes: They help him understand how his community developed. He doesn’t like weeding onions: too much bending over. He and his brothers and sisters prefer speaking English to each other, but he’ll talk to his mother in Spanish because she’s more comfortable in her native tongue. He likes to go to parties with his college friends, but he spends far more time attending meetings, doing homework and working with the Progressive Student Alliance, a once-quiet campus group that he’s helped focus and mobilize — the group has raised money and food for farm workers, and several BSU students have since spoken out on minimum wage.

On that warm Wilder night, Morales talked about his political goals — to be a “voice for the oppressed” and a “wake-up call to the oppressors.” Farm workers have become the scapegoat in agriculture, he said, but trade policies and giant farm corporations are doing far more to hurt family farmers than the costs of labor. Though his passion was evident, he was more reserved than he has been when speaking publicly in the past several months.

At a rally this winter at BSU, Morales was red-hot.

“He was angry,” activist and community organizer Roger Sherman recalled. “He was really angry that more of the students who were sitting in the dining hall didn’t come out, didn’t seem interested. It was a pretty amazing thing to watch him. He was able to really speak his anger.”

Morales also showed that fire in a House Agriculture Committee hearing at the Statehouse, telling lawmakers, he recalled, that “You need to do this, and you need to do that.” It was the first time he’d ever addressed a legislative committee, and he said he realized later his accusatory tone might have been counterproductive.

“He was very hard-hitting, very aggressive,” said committee Chairman Doug Jones, a Filer Republican who has introduced minimum-wage bills and served as the moderator of the Legislature’s discussions on them. “The way we operate in committee hearings is not the same as a rally or a community meeting.

“That he was overly confrontational,” Jones added, “probably did not do him any good.”

But Morales seems to have learned from the experience. At a hearing in Burley on Thursday, he was more reserved, even cracking a joke at the start of his testimony. The move put the lawmakers at ease when he could have whipped the largely Hispanic crowd into loud applause — he had just done that at a rally across town.

Sherman, who works with the wide-ranging and left-of-center United Vision for Idaho, first met Morales at a film screening at The Flicks last year. The movie was a documentary about the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, which is close to Oaxaca, where Morales was born. Morales spoke up in a discussion that followed the showing; it was something that stuck with Sherman.

“I remember being impressed with him then,” he said. “Here he is, 18 or 19 years old, and he’s ready to get in the middle of this.”

Morales had been getting involved for years, but for different reasons. He originally set out to pad his resume to get a scholarship to a good college.

“I knew I wanted to go to a university, and if I wanted to go there I’d need some money — I knew that wasn’t going to come from my family,” he said.

Though his parents went to work before finishing even elementary school, they pushed education with Morales and his brothers and sisters. And when speakers told the students at Wilder High School to become “well-rounded,” to participate in extra-curricular activities, Morales was listening.

“I forced myself, so it would look good on my resume,” he said. “I never say no. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”

At some point, he started to care more about his community and its situation.

“I don’t know when that transition happened,” he said, “when I got more politicized.”

He joined a group called Upward Bound as a freshman in high school, and during his junior year, he was summoned to Washington, D.C., when Vice President Al Gore was promoting education and fighting the high dropout rate of Hispanic youth.

He met Gore and was on television, featured in the newspapers.

“After that, many doors were open to me,” he said. “Hispanic leaders started recognizing who I was.”

Longtime farm-worker leader Maria Gonzalez Mabbutt had heard about Morales long before she finally met him.

“He’s the first young man that I’ve come across with the level of passion for fighting for the farm worker,” she said. “He speaks from the heart. In all of this work, I have found very few of us in that category.”

He worked hard on this year’s campaign to register Hispanics to vote, she said. And he was behind the Progressive Student Alliance’s “Trick or Eat” Halloween food drive for farm workers.

Mabbutt, Sherman and the other Idahoans at the forefront of the minimum-wage discussion have high hopes for Morales, though they’re aware he has a lot to learn. Though he’s well-known among activists and in his community, most legislators and many of the area’s farm workers probably still wouldn’t recognize him.

“I think he is emerging as a leader, but I think what he lacks, that other leaders in the Hispanic community have, is that institutional backing,” Sherman said.

But Sherman said Morales is more than a token Hispanic trotted out for press conferences. In fact, Morales can struggle in front of the cameras — at a June rally, Morales had a hard time, Sherman said. The activists and supporters stood behind him, and he couldn’t build energy from the crowd.

“He’s moved by the engagement,” Sherman said. “Not by just speaking to the press — that doesn’t do it for him.”

BEYOND THE SIMPLE ARGUMENTS

Morales is the first to say the real issue isn’t the minimum wage.

Politicians like Gov. Dirk Kempthorne are slow to do anything that might reduce the already shrinking numbers of family farmers. Before the 2000 legislative session, Kempthorne said it was the wrong time to change the minimum-wage rules, as commodity prices and market consolidation drive small producers out of existence.

The Legislature is looking out for the financial interests of farmers — they’ve long been the backbone of the state lawmaking body. The vast majority of farm workers in the state are Hispanic, and the only Hispanic lawmaker ever was former farm worker Rep. Jesse Berain, who served from 1993 to 1995.

The minimum-wage fight has become a rallying point for the Hispanic community, but it has for the farmers as well. While Idaho’s farm workers want to be included in what many see as a protected human right, Idaho’s farmers are fighting to hang on to the protections they’ve long enjoyed.

“There’s a lot of symbolism in this debate,” Jones said.

And most lawmakers are Republicans who generally shy away from government intervention in any business. The Legislature has lost millions of dollars in federal money by refusing to even align state codes with some federal laws. It’s rare when the lawmakers expand on what Congress has done.

Many in the Idaho Statehouse would vote against the very idea of a minimum wage.

“It’s the principle of the federal mandate and minimum wage in general,” Jones said.

But for Morales and Idaho’s more than 100,000 Hispanics, this exclusion is just a symbol of how marginalized their sector of the population really is. This change would be just a step toward inclusion.

“It’s just a humanitarian issue,” Morales said. “Whether we deserve to be protected by the law.”

When he’s at home in Wilder, Morales is reminded why his community has been so silent. After a 10- or 12-hour workday, there’s barely enough time left for his parents to take care of the children and the home.

“You wish you could get involved,” Morales said, “but you’re forced to think: What are we going to feed our family tomorrow?

“Where will we work next week? What if the car breaks down? Can we trust this farmer, this contractor?

“We’re just trying to survive,” Morales said. “In that sense, we don’t have much political power.”

FIRST, LEO MORALES HAS TO DISCOVER HIMSELF

A drive with Morales through his adopted hometown reveals a mix of youthful observations, local history and racial awareness.

There’s the school where he was student body president — his sister has that role now. It’s the second-oldest school building in the state, and one mostly filled with Hispanic students. A new one is being built behind it.

There’s Cheto’s Bar, where the farm workers and their Hispanic neighbors drink. Down the the road, there’s the Furrow Cafe, where the farmers and ranchers meet for coffee every morning.

Though his family lives on the same street, Morales never set foot in the Furrow Cafe until last year, when he spoke to the Chamber of Commerce.

Morales points to a small house across the street from the school yard. His family lived there for a while, but just in the summers — it didn’t have heat. In the colder months, the Moraleses moved to red-brick building No. 46 in the nearby Chula Vista village of migrant housing. Morales is sensitive to the living conditions of some of his neighbors. He talks of cement floors, poor plumbing and rising rents.

“That place that looks like a prison camp?” he said. “People still live there.”

Still, everywhere in Wilder, it seems children are playing and laughing.

“We might be an oppressed community,” Morales observed, “but that’s the thing about the Hispanic community — we strive to be happy.”

Morales is striving for that himself, and he’s looking in both of his worlds.

Since that first American summer when he was a boy, he’s wanted to get out of the fields. But this year was different; the decision was harder. He could have stayed in Boise for the summer — to “work in the shade,” as he calls it — but a few things plagued his mind. Family. Passion. Credibility.

“Cesar Chavez, when he was going through his struggle, he remained in the fields,” Morales said.

Maria Mabbutt thinks it’s a gift, this ability to move seamlessly through two worlds.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy; I think it’s how we deal with it,” she said.

But farm workers don’t resent former farm workers, Mabbutt said, especially when they’re visibly trying to help.

A few of Morales’ Wilder friends have given him a hard time about his academic track, only jokingly, he said. But Morales said his family is supportive of his decisions — even if his mother kind of hopes he stays at BSU, instead of transferring to UCLA, Stanford or Harvard, as he’s considering.

Morales wants to be a professor, and he wants to earn his post-graduate degrees at a top university. He doesn’t want to choose between his personal goals and his hopes to help his people; he’s young enough to believe he won’t have to, and perhaps he’s right.

He doesn’t want to leave his community behind him. He wants to work for farm workers, but also he wants to show them what’s attainable in America, even for a boy who learned English at age 11 and spent much of his childhood with his hands in the dirt and the sun on his back.

“I want to bring others with me,” Morales said.

Postscript: In 2015, Morales became the executive director of the ACLU in Idaho.

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