‘A Census of the Invisible’

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Second-year Yesenia Torres recalls several stories from low-wage workers that left an impact on her while she conducted surveys this past quarter. She recalls one story in particular from a female farm worker, who picks and packages strawberries. When Torres asked if she saw any benefits to her job, she laughed and said in Spanish, “They barely let us touch or eat the strawberries.”

For Torres, it made sense that a company wouldn’t let its workers eat the product, but she imagined what it felt like to not be able to enjoy “the literal fruits of their labor.”

“On campus and in Santa Cruz, there are orgs and people who are passionate about healthy eating and being organic, and if you go to Watsonville, there’s a farm — there are people who are harvesting this food that we’re eating, yet they’re getting low wages, not getting benefits and they’re getting minimum wage for 20 years.”

Torres is one of over 100 UC Santa Cruz students leading a multimedia project about the lives of low-wage workers in farming, food-service, construction and other low-wage industries in Santa Cruz County.

Some students conducted over 1,300 surveys and 75 interviews, some analyzed data, others documented the stories through photography and others worked on the creation of a website, all to be presented at “Working with Dignity,” on May 7, at the Museum of Art and History.

Further results and data collected from the project will also be presented on May 7.

According to an MIT study, the living wage in Santa Cruz County for a family with two adults and two children is $24.68, much lower than the $9 minimum wage.

Steve McKay, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Labor Studies, called the project, which has been an equal collaboration between him and the students, “a census of the invisible” — a survey of frequently ignored or silenced voices of low-wage workers and the struggles they face in the workplace.

The project was started in 2013 in collaboration with the California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit legal services organization, the Center for Labor Studies and the Chicano Latino Research Center. It later expanded in 2014 as training for students in undergraduate research.

This quarter, the project focused on Watsonville and the addition of “digital storytelling,” which includes a website with photos taken by students. For third-year Esteban Adame, the project was more than just a class. Adame has been involved for a year and half and the issue of low-wage workers’ rights hits close to home.

“These workers resemble so much of my parents and grandparents from back home,” Adame said. “I put this image of [my family] into these workers and approaching them and interviewing them went smoother.”

The project was a way to build and practice research skills outside the classroom and help students develop their own passions.

After being accustomed to midterms, finals and papers in other classes, Adame said this class was different. What the students discussed in class was applied directly to a project in the field. Working on the project has made him consider pursuing a doctorate or becoming a union organizer.

Yesenia Torres said she gained the confidence to create her own project — a summer camp for youth in Watsonville that would teach them how to create a mobile map related to social justice, enabling them to build on their own experiences while creating it.

“It was real life — we didn’t have that mindset that this is a class,” Torres said. “Everyone had a personal connection to the project and that’s what made it so successful.”

Visit the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front St. on May 7 at 7-9 p.m. as students unveil the two-year research and multimedia project on low-wage work in Santa Cruz County.