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A Harvest Revolution: Movimiento Cosecha

By High Line Art | April 18, 2019

Cosecha, Spanish for “harvest,” implies one fraction in a long, extensive process. A field was fallow then overturned, the seeds were sown, nurtured, grown, and now the benefits are ready to be reaped. It’s a word of labor, often back-breaking, proletariat, and entrenched with a history of oppression. To harvest means also to gather and collect.

Last year, the volunteer-run decentralized immigrant rights organization Movimiento Cosecha collaborated with artist and activist Andrea Bowers on a conspicuous neon installation that read Somos 11 Millones / We Are 11 Million, on the High Line as part of the 2018 High Line Art group exhibition, Agora. This piece, an illuminated double sided sign, drew attention to the undocumented people who bolster the economies of the United States, and the ongoing fight for labor and immigrant rights for the 11 million people who call this country both work-place and home.

Movimiento Cosecha, assert their presence as the “labor this country takes for granted. The single mother, the farm worker, the factory worker, the student. We are all 11 million undocumented immigrants.” There are currently three Cosecha campaigns: The right to licenses in both Michigan and New Jersey, and demonstrating against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ICE-complicit companies.

In the United States, there is a long history of collective organizing by undocumented agricultural laborers fighting for their right to fair harvesting practices. In 1965, the Filipino farmworkers (Marengos) working on table grape farms in Delano in the Coachella Valley of California left their crop and walked out in protest for better wages and living conditions. The strike would become one of the most famous of these labor strikes in the United States: the Delano Grape Strike.

At the time, farm laborers were paid $1.20 an hour (the federal minimum wage was $1.25), there were no portable toilets on the farms, workers were denied proper hydration and food, and housing was typically an unheated, bug-infested shed. There were little to no rights for hospitalizations and compensation for injuries incurred on the job, and no job protections. Child labor was rampant, as was corruption and bribery, and farm owners often gave the hours to those willing to work for even lower wages. That year, the average life expectancy for a farm worker in the Coachella Valley was 49 years, compared to a national average of 70 years.

The Delano Grape Strike was guided by Filipino radical activist and leader of the Agricultural Workers Organization Larry Itliong. Recognizing that there was strength in numbers, Itliong appealed to National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) founders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez to join the strike. For years, grape farmers had pitted Filipinos against Mexicans in an effort to unethically treat both peoples. On September 8, 1965, the two factions voted to go on strike together. A year later in August 1966, the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers, which would go on to consist of over 400,000 members. Itliong, Huerta, and Chavez practiced nonviolent, grassroots protest, including a 300 mile long march from Delano to Sacramento, to fight for better wages, housing, education, and legal protections.

The strike lasted for five years and spread into a national boycott of all grocery stores selling non-union table grapes, including all the way to Long Island, New York. In 1969 in Southhampton, UFW representatives attended a fundraising dinner coordinated by Ethel Kennedy and raised nearly $30,000 for the nearby Riverhead movement to raise the minimum wage for New York grape growers to $2.89 per hour with .10c for hospitalization insurance. The resulting union of these protests, the Eastern Farm Workers Association, became the first group to organize farm workers in Long Island. In 1970, the grape farm owners in the Coachella Valley signed union contracts with their workers, guaranteeing $1.40 per hour and improved living and working conditions, as well as legal protections.

Today there are less than 5,000 members of the United Farm Workers union. Infighting cobbled leadership, and when California Governor George Deukmejian took office in 1980 state farm labor laws were no longer enforced. This meant that many UFW contracts became effectively nulled, and union members were fired or blacklisted from their jobs. However, fights for labor rights continue with new grassroots enterprises such as Movimiento Cosecha.

As a way to continue to highlight the stories of a few of the 11 million people that Movimiento Cosecha is fighting for, they recently collaborated with filmmakers Mario Rosales and Jose Guadalupe Jimenez Jr. to create video portraits of some of their volunteers. These films highlight the importance of the work they’re doing around their campaigns for licenses and resisting ICE, looking specifically at the sacrifices that undocumented immigrants, workers, and families are making across the country to fight for permanent protection for all undocumented immigrants. These films are available on Movimiento Cosecha’s website here and you can read more about their work here.