New book: Growing Up Powerful!

Sign up for updates and more!

Lupe Gonzalo: Sowing Seeds of Change

Lupe Gonzalo left Guatemala in 2000 and found a job as a farm worker in Florida. After struggling with low pay and abuse, and seeing her fellow workers suffer in the hot sun without water or time to rest, she became a leader and a voice for farm workers’ rights.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Katie Lopez with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Gina Gotsill. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Sandra Manwiller. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Lupe Gonzalo was born in Guatemala in 1980 in a little village high in the mountains called Loma Linda. In Spanish, “Loma Linda” means “lovely hill top.” It’s a special place where colorful birds sing in the trees and rivers zigzag through lush, green forests. Many people who live in Loma Linda are farmers; they grow and harvest coffee beans in the fertile soil.

Lupe grew up in a big family with eight brothers and sisters, plus lots of cousins, nieces and nephews. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but they supported each other in any way they could. Lupe always had someone to play with — she loved to be outside, digging in the dirt, jumping in mud puddles, dribbling a basketball or swimming in the nearby river. Loma Linda was a great place to be a kid.

But Lupe’s school in Loma Linda only went up to the sixth grade. She wanted to keep on learning, so for two years she walked a long, mountainous road to a different school. Lupe had to cross multiple rivers to get there, and when it rained, the waters would rage through the land. Sometimes it rained so hard that everything – dirt, plants and rocks – just slid down the mountainside! 

Going to school was just part of Lupe’s day. As a kid, she spent many hours helping her family in the fields — preparing the land, taking care of the coffee plants, and harvesting them. It was hard work, gathering baskets full of ripe berries and then extracting the coffee beans. But Lupe loved being alongside her family, feeling the earth under her and smelling the chocolatey beans in her hands. Life in Loma Linda was so peaceful and calm.

And yet…Lupe felt this urge to explore more of the world. She dreamed of being a teacher or a professional basketball player. She needed to see new horizons and plant new seeds; and she wanted to earn enough to help support her family. Even though she hated to leave her home and everyone she loved, she felt like she had to see what else was out there and who she could become.

Lupe came to the United States in 2000. She didn’t know anyone there, but she’d heard it was a land of opportunities and she was eager to start her new life. 

The first job Lupe found was picking vegetables in Immokalee, Florida. She was relieved to be working and making friends, and she felt proud of her strength and independence.

But something about Lupe’s job did not feel right. Or really, many things.  

Lupe started each workday at 4 a.m. She went to a parking lot where buses were waiting and asked, “Is there work for me today?” If the answer was yes, she’d be on the bus by 6 a.m. 

Lupe and the other farmworkers in Immokalee waited on the bus for hours until the dew dried on the plants. Around 10 a.m., they were each given a bucket and told to start working. She had to work fast, picking vegetables and filling her bucket. Once it was brimming, she ran to a large truck where a man emptied her bucket and put a ticket inside. Then she ran back to the fields to keep picking. And back again to empty the bucket and get another ticket. Over and over again.

Lupe and the other farm workers picked vegetables in the hot Florida sun all day long. They were so thirsty, but there was no fresh water around for them to drink. And there was barely any shade — just that blazing sun, beating down on their bodies as they dragged their heavy buckets. Some workers fainted from the heat. Supervisors yelled at them all day, pushing them to work faster!

At the end of the day, Lupe was exhausted. Her skin was covered in a film of smelly green dust. It was a mixture of mud, pulp, and chemicals that were being sprayed on the vegetables. Still, the workday wasn’t over. Lupe had to hand over whatever tickets she’d collected to be counted by her supervisor. Then, she’d be told how much she earned for the day. And sadly, it was never very much. 

Lupe had worked so hard all day in the hot sun! But after all that, she barely made enough for a meal and a spot on the crowded trailer where she and the other farm workers lived.

That wasn’t even the worst of it though. Sometimes Lupe and her fellow farmworkers didn’t get paid at all! And sometimes, they were even abused. It made Lupe feel terrified and trapped. If she spoke out, she might lose her job. No job meant no money, no food, no shelter. So many workers stayed quiet about the abuse and harassment. It seemed there was nowhere to go, and nobody who’d listen.

Could this really be “The Land of Opportunity”? How would she ever save enough to send some home to her family in Guatemala? And what about her hopes of teaching or being an athlete?

Lupe knew that she and the other farm workers deserved a better life — they were human beings, and their work was essential. She knew that this was not a healthy way to live or to work. Most of all, she knew she had to speak up or nothing would change.

Lupe found out about a group in Florida called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW. The CIW was investigating how farm workers were being treated – they’d knew about the terrible pay, about the workers who were suffering with no water or shade, or even feeling threatened and had even helped to investigate cases of workers being held in modern-day slavery. So the CIW went into the community to talk to their fellow farm workers, and invited them to meetings where everyone could speak freely about what was going on.

How many of you have felt scared or unhealthy while on the job?

How many of you have spent a full day working and not gotten paid?

It was awful for Lupe to see how many people were being mistreated, but it was also a relief to know she wasn’t alone. Finally, farm workers had a place to talk about the hardships they were facing! Lupe started going to CIW meetings more often. She learned what they could do if they were abused, or if their wages were stolen. She also was introduced to “The Fair Food Program”,  which was the program led by the CIW to get big companies  to pay more for fruits and vegetables so farm workers could get fair wages and treatment. 

Lupe was so inspired and emboldened by the CIW and the Fair Food Program. Clearly, the only way to make life better for farm workers was to talk to the grocery stores and restaurants who bought the fruits and vegetables they picked. And Lupe was ready to spread the word.

She traveled with the CIW from Florida to Boston, Massachusetts where she marched with her fellow activists, demanding that two big grocery store chains join the Fair Food Program. The streets of Boston were alive with energy and excitement! There were tents and music and people raising their protest signs high in the air. Lupe was thrilled to see so many people join in their fight. Her cheeks were red with excitement. And from the cold — it was the first time she’d ever seen snow!

After that memorable trip, Lupe jumped into activism with a full and hopeful heart. Speaking out for human rights felt like her new calling. She kept marching and organizing. She even led protests and spoke in front of large audiences across the U.S. about farm workers’ rights.

“We are human beings, we are women, and nobody is going to keep stepping on our dignity!” Lupe declared.

She felt her voice getting stronger and clearer. When she spoke, people listened and took action. And the CIW and Fair Food Program grew with her, expanding their influence, even helping workers overseas!

Lupe continues her mission of standing up for farm workers’ rights to this day. She remembers what it was like to barely have enough to survive, to trek through the mountains to get to school, and to be scared of harassment at work. She is proud to dedicate her life to teaching — not in a classroom, but in the fields. She teaches farm workers how to fight for their rights. She teaches people who’ve never worked in the fields to respect where each piece of food originates.

It’s so easy to bite into an apple or drink a glass of milk without ever thinking about where it came from or how it got to your table. But Lupe urges us to really think about it.

“Food doesn’t come to the grocery store by magic,” she says. “It comes from people. It comes from farm workers.” 

Lupe has seen the beauty and the bounty of the land, and the way humans affect everything that happens on this planet — from unfair wages to climate change. Still, she believes that everyone has the potential to make this world a brighter, kinder place.

It starts with a seed and well-tended soil.
It starts with sturdy hands and a deep appreciation for the earth.
It starts before dawn, tilling and fertilizing, watering and harvesting.
It starts with rebels like Lupe Gonzalo.