When you hear the word “Christmas,” certain images may spring to mind: houses framed in twinkling lights, gingerbread men, hot chocolate, maybe a Mariah Carey tune, and, of course, Christmas trees.
But behind the tinsel and ornaments is another Christmas story—one of a migrant farmworker putting in 14-hour days to cut down those trees. That migrant worker may come from anywhere in the world, but out in Western North Carolina, he is most likely a Mexican man who has arrived alone on an H-2A visa to work during a grower’s busy season and send money back home.
His days are long, so he relies on microwaved meals or fast food to eat. He doesn’t speak English, so he isn’t aware of helpful community resources, and he labors under deeply ingrained stigmas around his physical and mental health.
To top it off, he’s probably only making around $11K a year.
H-2A migrant workers travel back to their countries between seasons, but there are seasonal farmworkers—many undocumented—who reside here permanently with their families, harvesting watermelons and strawberries in the summer, Christmas trees in the winter, and filling the gaps in between by cleaning houses or working construction jobs.
North Carolina relies on 150,000 of these farmworkers to carry out its agricultural operations, which account for one-sixth of its economy. Less than 20% have health insurance or workers’ compensation, which is alarming given that farm labor is one of the top three most dangerous occupations in the U.S., and the fatality rate for farmworkers in North Carolina is higher than the national average. Heat, exposure to toxic pesticides, bad nutritional habits, and poor living conditions are just some of the dangerous challenges farmworkers and their families face.
This is what makes the work of organizations like Vecinos so vital. Serving eight counties in western North Carolina, Vecinos offers integrated care services to a population of about 800-1,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers, as well as many more uninsured, low-income adults within those communities.
Executive Director Marianne Martinez says the health care needs of the farming population in western North Carolina run the full gamut, from dental work to chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
“There’s a need for health education. There’s a need for access to healthy food. There’s a need for bilingual, affordable care,” she says.