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The daily struggle

Everyday resistance in the feeding and agricultural labor of Mexican migrant farmworker mothers in North Carolina
La Lutte Quotidienne : résistance quotidienne dans l'alimentation et le travail agricole des mères migrantes mexicaines travaillant dans l'agriculture en Caroline du Nord
Emilia Cordero Oceguera


Previous research on migrant farmworkers’ resistance efforts in the US focuses on collective organizing but often fails to adopt an intersectional lens that considers farmworker women’s everyday acts of resistance. This study looks at Mexican farmworker women’s resistance in response to the call by scholars for more nuanced portrayals of migrant farmworker’s struggle. Immigrant women of color and low-wage workers have mothering experiences marked by intersectional oppression that shape their food labor. I argue that farmworker mothers engage in everyday acts of resistance via their food labor in their agricultural work and at home feeding their families. An intersectional lens provides an essential perspective on the systemic transformations needed to improve farmworker’s lives in the US.

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1At home, migrant farmworker women who are mothers are responsible for feeding their children. At work, their labor in agricultural fields, nurseries, and greenhouses contributes to feeding society. However, despite their vital role in our food system, the majority live and work in substandard conditions and the general public rarely recognizes the significance of their labor. Migrant women make 28% of the agricultural workforce in the US (NCFH 2018) and 55% of migrant farmworkers are parents (NAWS 2015-2016). Thus, most migrant farmworker women are mothers. Their food labor, both at home and in the fields, represents the historical experience of mothers of color in the US (Caballero et al. (ed.) 2019, Hill Collins 1994, Segura 1994) by challenging the binary conception that home and work are two separate spheres of life. Like many women of color, migrant farmworker mothers resist oppression through food practices –such as growing food in home gardens or cooking recipes from their hometowns—that uphold their human dignity in their everyday lives (Abarca 2006, Mares 2019, Williams-Forson 2006). Yet, research on how farmworker mothers resist oppression is not present in the literature (with the exception of Seif 2008 who addresses collective political resistance). And few studies focus on how their particular mothering experience shapes their food practices (for exceptions see Mares 2019 and Meierotto and Som Castellano 2019). To address this gap in the literature, I show how Mexican migrant farmworker mothers—who live at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, citizenship, and class oppression— enact everyday resistance via their food labor in both their agricultural work and at home feeding their children.

2My research responds to the questions: Do Mexican migrant farmworker mothers resist oppression? If so, how does their experience as mothers of color who do food labor inside and outside the home shape their resistance? To address these questions, I use interview data from Mexican migrant farmworker mothers that live in Hartnett County, North Carolina. I find that farmworker mothers resist every day in ways that are at times unconscious, unplanned, and unnoticed but give them agency and empower them as undocumented migrant women, allow them to self-define, self-express, and self-value their cultural identity, and provide them with feelings of joy that give meaning and dignity to their lives.

3In this paper, I first review the literature on how everyday resistance, food labor, women of color mothering, and intersectional oppression contextualize the experience of Mexican migrant farmworker mothers. Next, I describe my research methods, and present the case studies. I argue that Mexican farmworker women in the US express resistance through their food labor in three distinct ways: 1) by highlighting the impact of their labor as mothers and farmworkers; 2) by reproducing food practices that are culturally and ethnically significant; and 3) by feeling contentment and joy when they work in the fields. I conclude that an action-oriented intersectional lens (Hill Collins 2000) describes the agency of Mexican migrant farmworker mothers and their food labor with nuance and complexity to further visibilize their struggle with systemic oppression in the US and support the need for social and institutional change.

Literature on everyday acts of resistance, foodwork, and mothers of color who resist intersectional oppression

4Women are rarely central in the prominent studies on migrant farmworkers in the US (Estabrook 2011, Gray 2013, Holmes 2013), and neither are the ways they resist gender, ethnicity, citizenship and class oppression, or their experience as mothers (Nakano Glenn 1994). There is a need for research on how farmworker mothers’ resist intersectional oppression through their everyday feeding and agricultural labor by enacting “small but significant acts of defiance” (Mares 2019:88). And for a perspective on mothering and food labor that centers mothers of color who work within the food industry and decentralizes the normalized experience of middle-class white women in the US.

5Studies by feminist scholars of color focus on the ways Black, Indigenous and People of Color resist the intersections of everyday oppressions (Hill Collins 2000)—like speaking Spanish to signal their cultural identity (Ochoa 1999), talking back after a xenophobic comment (Hooks 2014), or enjoying cooking within a racist environment (Avakian 2005, Blend 2001, Williams-Forson 2001). Everyday resistance can be unplanned and go unnoticed (Evans and Moore 2015) and it is not overt, collective or organized (el-Khoury 2012), but it is always significant, meaningful, and effective (Hooks 2014, el-Khoury 2012). It allows enactors to express freedom (Counihan 2009: 114), empowerment, and agency (Avakian 2005), and help them maintain and value their human dignity and sense of self and celebrate their self-value and self-definition (Beoku-Betts 1995, Williams-Forson 2001). Caballero et al. (ed. 2019: 10) also stress that working class women of color navigate motherhood while resisting systemic and institutional oppression through “everyday tactics or acts”.

6At home, the food practices—or foodwork—of migrant farmworker mothers are a gendered form of care work. Cairns and Johnston (2015) define foodwork as the labor of procuring and preparing food for yourself and others –like shopping, cooking, and cleaning-up— and the mental and emotional labor needed to carry it out. Although foodwork can be “burdensome and oppressive” for women (DeVault 1991: 232), it is simultaneously meaningful and rewarding and a “source of […] power and identity” (Cairns and Johnston 2015: 20). Scholars associate the foodwork of women of color to burden, oppression, inequality, and subordination (Avakian 2005, Beoku-Betts 1995, Counihan 2009), but also to agency, empowerment, authority, control, and resistance (Abarca 2006, Avakian 2005, Beoku-Betts 1995, Counihan 2009, Williams-Forson 2001). Moreover, Beoku-Betts (1995) and Abarca (2006) discuss foodwork within communities of color as a necessary and transformative form of family and community care.

7Foodwork research, largely based on the experience of middle-class white women, finds that mothers disproportionately perform food labor and experience pressures to nourish their families (DeVault 1991, Cairns and Johnston 2015, MacKendrick 2014). Some studies find that poor mothers of color have more difficulty living up to these expectations because they cannot access basic resources and society stereotypes them as uncaring or uninformed (Elliot and Bowen 2018, Fielding-Singh 2017). But research shows that they do invest in nourishing food for their families and make choices based on health expectations (Bowen et al. 2019, Cairns et al. 2013). Although these studies include low-income women of color, they do not center on the particularities of their mothering experience and how these shape their food labor.

8Some studies tangentially address the feeding practices of migrant farmworker mothers in the US. Mares (2019) discusses how Latina dairy farmworker mothers and their male partners in Vermont cope with food insecurity by growing food in gardens and cooking dishes from home. Meierotto and Som Castellano (2019) examine Latina women farmworkers’ food provisioning strategies in Idaho. And Williams (1984) explores the cultural significance of Mexican women’s food practices in migrant worker camps in Texas. These studies overlook how the food and mothering practices of women of color shape each other. The particularities of these practices, that differ from that of middle-class, white women in the US, define the food labor of mothers of color. Thus, I propose the term “food labor” instead of “foodwork” to refer to the feeding work women of color who are low-wage workers within the food industry do at home and at work.

Research Methods

9This case study centers on four Mexican farmworker mothers in rural North Carolina. In March 2019, I contacted two participants through a farmworker support organization in Harnett County and, using snowball sampling, also reached out to two of their acquaintances. Esperanza (36 years old) grew up helping her grandfather grow corn and squash in their family plot in Morelos. She is a mother of two toddlers and has been in the US for 18 years. Arminda (55), mother of a teenage daughter, left the coast of Guerrero where she worked in the melon fields since she was a child, 24 years ago. Lorena (34), who had never done agricultural work until she came to the US 18 years ago, is also from Guerrero and is mother to a newborn and a teenager. Isidra (30) is mother to three young kids, she is from the Chiapas highlands, where she tended to her family’s coffee field along with her sisters until she came to the US 12 years ago. All the women had long time male partners who they referred to as husbands, but not all of them were officially married. To learn about participants’ citizenship status –being aware that it is sensitive information among migrant communities in the US-- I asked if they were able to go back to Mexico and they all said no. Thus, they all let me know they were undocumented. The four women had worked in agricultural fields, nurseries, and greenhouses growing tobacco, sweet potato, and other vegetables. I conducted one non-structured, in-depth interview with each participant and provided a $25 compensation to each as an act of appreciation and acknowledgement for the value of their time and labor. Although monetary compensation is contested by some social researchers (see Hondagneu-Sotelo 2014), in this case, it represented an intentional contribution to participant’s precarious household economy. All interviews were in Spanish, lasted 1-2hrs and were voice recorded. I transcribed them, used pseudonyms to protect participant’s identities, and applied grounded theory to analyze the data (Charmaz 2006) allowing themes to emerge. I color-coded the transcripts line by line and then for broader themes, including “gendered practices”, “eating in the fields”, “enjoyment”, “cooking”, “perception of gendered work”. Finally, I selected representative quotes of the participant’s collective experience. I use intersectionality as a methodological tool to understand participant’s experiences through the tenants of oppression, relationality, and complexity (Misra et al. 2021).

Case study: Mexican farmworker mothers in North Carolina who enact everyday resistance through their food labor

10Mexican migrant farmworker mothers in this case study confronted intersectional oppression through acts of everyday resistance expressed in their food labor. Living at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression – cisheteropatriarchal, white supremacist, and capitalist—created specific limiting circumstances for these women (Misra et al. 2021 Hill Collins 2000). They faced gender, ethnicity, citizenship, and class oppression doing feeding labor for society and their families, being undocumented migrants within a racist society, and working for low wages in the US food system. They expressed everyday resistance to these forms of oppression in three distinct ways: First, participants highlighted the impact of their food labor as working women providing a service for their families and society simultaneously. Yet, they struggle with childcare, with the sole responsibility of care work, and with exhaustion after doing hard physical labor. By making these affirming statements women showed agency and empowerment in their mothering experience yet expressed lack of resources and support. Second, they reproduced food practices that were culturally and ethnically significant. Participants said they cooked dishes from their hometowns, grew specific ingredients at home, and sporadically sourced food from the fields where they work. These practices allowed them to self-define, self-express, and self-value their cultural identity in a society that discriminates against them, based on their ethnicity and citizenship status, and denies the significance of their labor. Third, they talked about feeling contentment and joy when they worked in the fields. Participants discussed sharing food with others during their lunch breaks, chatting among workmates, and a general feeling of distress and distraction from their daily home routine when they went to work. These instances of celebration fostered dignity and provided meaning to their existence as they navigated gender, ethnic, citizenship, and class oppression.

Nuestro trabajo es importante”. Mothers who do work at home and in the fields

11Isidra’s daily routine begins by caring for her kids. Like Isidra, participants described daily routines centered on care and feeding tasks that piled up when they went to work. They emphasized that even when their food labor –at home and in the fields—extended to a 24-hour routine, they found ways to make it happen. Thus, they struggled through the “double-burden” (Ontiveros 2002) of being both providers and caregivers, while doing hard physical labor in a male-dominated work environment. These aspects of their daily life represented gender oppression, but they also challenged the binary male-as provider-female-as-caregiver gender dynamic representative of middle-class white women experience in the US (Hill Collins 1994). Consequently, Mexican migrant farmworker mothers who are caregiving providers expressed that their work in the agricultural fields, nurseries, and greenhouses, affected their performance at home while their child-care responsibilities shaped their work experience. They spoke about struggling with childcare support, with solely assuming care responsibilities that affected their work performance, and with exhaustion after a straining workday that impacted their caregiving. Participants discussed these instances as a burdening struggle, but they resisted by highlighting the significance of their food labor for their families and society and expressing agency and empowerment in their self-perception (Abarca 2006, Avakian 2005, Counihan 2009) within a society that denies their value as caregiving mothers who work.

  • 1 All interview quote translations are done by the author of the paper.

12Immigrant farmworker mothers struggle finding reliable childcare (SPLC 2010). Like most, Esperanza found it hard to secure adequate care for her two young daughters every time she went back to work. Sometimes she did not go to work because finding someone to take care of her daughters was difficult. But if she organized her schedule, she found time, “es lo que batallo, pero si yo me acoplo a mis horarios sí me voy” (that’s what I struggle with, but if I organize my schedule, I do go1). Missing work also meant she lost income for the day: taking care of children and going to work is a hard compromise. Their role as mothers, many times, forces them to prioritize performing care-tasks for their children over gaining an income to provide for them. This is a compromise that their male counterparts do not have to make, because childcare is not regarded as a male responsibility.

13Most mothers said they were solely responsible for childcare responsibilities, affecting how they performed as farmworkers. Like Isidra’s and Esperanza’s daily routines, Arminda’s day began by dropping her children off at day-care. “Me levanto para alistar las cosas para llevarlos a ellos [los hijos] a donde los cuidan” (I wake up to get the things ready to take them [the kids] to where they take care of them), Arminda said. She recalled times she had to take the kids to the doctor and risked the day’s pay by asking to get off work early. She affirmed, “Ya ve que es duro, y siempre es uno como mujer, por que el marido no” (You know it’s hard, and it’s always the woman, because the husband doesn’t). Arminda struggled with the responsibilities of being a mother who worked. For her, this meant doing care tasks that her husband did not. In the fields, men and women are expected to perform the same physical tasks-- crouching up and down for hours at a time to clean tobacco plants or carrying 5-gallon buckets of harvested sweet potatoes-- and are paid the same meager wages, yet women are burdened by the added responsibility and expenses of childcare. Her role as a working mother, who was both a provider and a caregiver, inevitably shaped her food labor in the fields making it harder for her to perform like her male coworkers.

14The women worked in a physically demanding job where needs and limitations overlooked by employers led to extreme exhaustion, making caring and feeding tasks at home difficult. Reflecting back on the physical burden she endured for four years working in the sweet potato fields, Arminda said, “no sé cómo los aguanté por que llegaba exhausta a mi casa, mis hijos me decían, mami vamos a caminar, lo que yo no quiero es caminar, por que caminamos todo el día” (I don’t know how I endured it because I came home exhausted, my kids would tell me mami lets go for a walk, and, the last thing I want to do is walk, because we walk all day). The physical strain participants endured at work affected their mental and physical condition when they were at home performing care tasks for their families. This experience differs from that of farmworker men who face similar physical exhaustion but generally do not perform care tasks at home. The food labor women did in the fields shaped the caregiving they could barely do at home burdened by physical exhaustion.

15Participants recognized that the strenuous food labor performed in the fields and at home, was important for their families and society in general. As she reflected on her double-burden, Lorena highlighted the difference she perceived between her role as a mother and worker versus her husband’s: una como mujer tiene uno sus hijos[…] por que el hombre, nada que ver con uno, […] el hombre trabaja y llega a su casa, en mi caso, de mi esposo, el llega, no más come, a ver televisión, en cambio uno de mujer, va trabaja, que cocinar, que limpiar, que lavar, […] que ver los niños, […] entonces digo yo, no es para menos la responsabilidad de una mujer” (as a woman, I have my kids, because the man, has nothing to do with that, the man works and gets home, and in my case, with my husband, he arrives, just eats, and then watches tv, on the other hand, as a woman, I go and work, cook, clean, wash, watch the kids, so I say, it is not [to be taken] for granted the responsibility of a woman).

16She firmly stated that her work as a mother included working in the fields and doing care work at home for her family. Lorena did not talk about changing the gendered dynamic she observed at home, but she resisted a submissive role by highlighting that her work mattered and sometimes even more than her husband’s. For Arminda, her work as mother and farmworker was doubly important. On one hand, it provided a service to society, “al trabajar uno contribuye a que se llegue a los productos que uno trabaja” (one’s work contributes for others to have access to the products). On the other, it served her family at home, “el trabajo en la casa, es importante por que es cuando uno hace de comer, a mis hijos” (the work at home, is important, because that is when one makes food for the kids). Arminda highlighted her food labor was significant and valuable in her own life and for society. By affirming this she resisted the normalized notion that migrant farmworkers are unskilled and replaceable and that women’s foodwork at home is inherent to their gender.

17Participants struggled with gender oppression when they confronted the double-burden of being mothers who were providers and caregivers. Procuring childcare for their kids when they were at work, taking sole responsibility of caring tasks that interfered with their workday, and dealing with physically demanding tasks at work that produced exhaustion at home, were a few examples of this oppression. Although migrant farmworker men face oppression as underpaid workers, they generally do not face the double burden that is carried by women farmworkers marking a significant difference in their gendered experience. Participants resisted by highlighting and affirming the value of the everyday work of being mothers and farmworkers. Even if they did not have the agency and power to change the gendered dynamics they experienced at home, being aware of their condition and valuing their food labor was a first step towards change.

Echar tortillas”. Mexican women who grow and cook food from back home

18Cooking for her family was a priority for Armida, even when working in the fields. She made sure to share her culinary heritage with her daughter by teaching her to make staple dishes—like tortillas, rice, and salsa. As a Mexican undocumented woman living in the US, Arminda felt the oppression of a racially hostile society. Two-thirds of the 3 million migrant farmworkers in the US were born in Mexico, and over half of them are undocumented (Legal Aid NC 2017). They are targets of immigration policies (Brown and Getz 2011) that make their essential work invisible (Mares et al. 2017). One way Arminda defended her dignity was by upholding her cultural food practices (Williams 1984, Blend 2001). She found agency in practicing her culinary knowledge, as have many Mexican women living in the US (Abarca 2006, Blend 2001, Counihan 2009, Williams 1984). Arminda resisted by finding joy and connection in her cooking practices, and passing on her culinary knowledge, in a context that denied her value as a mother (Elliot and Bowen 2018, Fielding-Singh 2017, Hill Collins 1994), a farmworker (Entralago 2021, Sbicca et al. 2020), and a migrant (Mares 2019). The women resisted by cooking dishes from their hometowns, growing specific ingredients at home, and sourcing food from the fields where they work. These everyday acts of resistance allowed them to self-value and self-express their cultural identity (Beoku-Betts 1995, Blend 2001, Williams-Forson 2001, Williams 1984) in a country that devalues their existence. These acts were not necessarily conscious (Williams-Forson 2001), but they reproduced the notion of la lucha (struggle) and the need to live fully and with hope regardless of suffering, moving pa’lante (forward), that is present in the daily lives of many Latina women in the US (Isasi-Diaz 1996).

19Isidra was aware that as an undocumented Mexican immigrant, she was not welcomed in US society. She heard how “Donald Trump critíca mucho a los Hispanos, que son matones, violadores” (Donald Trump criticizes Hispanics, saying they are killers, rapists). But she added, “no se dan cuenta que por uno hay frutas y verduras, por que uno es la que lo cosecha, nosotros somos hispanos los que andamos pizcando” (they don’t realize that because of us they have fruits and vegetables, because we are the ones who harvest them, it’s us the Hispanics, the ones picking [the food]). Isidra understands her role in US society and its complexity. On one hand, she heard the then-president say undocumented Mexican immigrants were a risk to the United States. On the other, she was certain her work planting and picking fruits and vegetables was essential for the society that discriminated against her. She lives in the tension between the racial hostility she encountered daily and the burden of having a low-wage, physically straining job while trying to provide for herself and her family. Enacting cultural food practices is a way these women resist this tension.

20All participants shared that their food labor involved cooking recipes from their hometowns. When Esperanza talked about the food she ate for lunch at the tobacco fields, she made sure to highlight that, “las tortillas de mano me gusta hacerlas frescas para que tengan mejor sabor” (handmade tortillas I like to make them fresh so that they have a better flavor). Tortillas, a Mexican staple, are a symbol of resiliency for migrant women in the US that reproduce their cultural identity (Blend 2001). By making hand-made tortillas, Esperanza self-valued and self-expressed her cultural food identity (Williams-Forson 2001) and established that as a migrant in a new country food is a source of resistance (Espiritu 2001).

21Arminda made “aporreado”, a dry meat dish from her hometown in Guerrero, on special occasions. She hanged the meat on a hook to dry, fried it, added an egg coating, and served it with red or green salsa. Back home, she never ate this dish because her mother could not afford to buy meat. For these women, food insecurity was a constant threat in Mexico (Carney 2015), and now in the US they enjoyed dishes that they could not access before. Cooking food from home did not represent an idyllic reproduction of cultural heritage, but a complex connection to the life they left behind and a symbolic value representation of the life they lead in the present. For Esperanza and Arminda, cooking a dish from a place they hold close to their hearts, and they might never see again is a way to resist the dehumanization they experience everyday as undocumented migrants.

22Making traditional food –like hand-made tortillas and aporreado—is very labor intensive (Pilcher 1998, Rodríguez-Alegría 2012). Surveys show Mexican women spend more time cooking than women in other countries and the gender gap in domestic labor is larger in Mexico than in other countries (OECD 2020). However, feminist migration scholars find that moving to the US often alters gendered expectations and divisions of labor among Mexican migrant families (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994, Schmalzbauer 2014). Importantly, scholars like Abarca (2006), Williams (1984), and Counihan (2009) show cooking and other forms of food labor are not just a form of oppression, but also provide agency and power, allow creativity, portrait dignity and reaffirm cultural identity. Mescoli (2020: 50) even argues that food practices help migrant women define their selves and the interactions they have with others helping to shape their identity. When Arminda described how she cooked aporreado, her eyes lit up, and she sounded pleased to say it was original from her hometown in Guerrero, but she has made it with the ingredients she found in North Carolina, thus expressing creativity, and affirming her cultural heritage. Similarly, Esperanza was proud to say she makes hand-made tortillas, a culinary staple and delicacy, for her own lunch –not for her husband or her kids, but for herself—, which showed agency in her cooking practices and portrayed power and dignity in her food choice. For both women, these food practices also help define their identity in the US.

23Most participants grew their own ingredients to make dishes from their home countries. Some dishes required ingredients that were not easily found in grocery stores or were more affordable to grow at home (Mares et al. 2017). One season, Isidra grew strawberries and had enough to share with her neighbors. She was also successful growing chili, cucumber, melon and tomato. Esperanza was very practical and threw rotting tomatoes on a patch of soil, to grow tomatoes and make salsa. Saving seed from the previous harvest helped Arminda improve her chili selection, “si nos gustó un chilito del año pasado dejamos unos y los amarramos y los alzamos y echamos la semillita y la sembramos” (if we like a chili plant from the year before, we leave it there and tie them and hang them, then we open them and throw the seed and plant it). By growing their own ingredients these farmworker women were assuring their access to culturally appropriate foods (Mares et al. 2017, Mares 2019). And they were putting their agricultural knowledge into practice (Peña and Mares 2011) within their household. Shaping their own cultural food practices with the means available to them is a way they resist an anti-immigrant narrative that does not acknowledge their food labor as workers and mothers.

24Sometimes, women found the ingredients they needed in the fields where they did farmwork. Esperanza talked specifically about “flores de calabaza” (squash flowers), a delicacy for several regional Mexican cuisines. Her friends working the squash fields asked growers for permission to harvest them, los americanos no las comen y cuando hay un field lleno de flores las amigas que trabajan ahí piden permiso para cortar” (the Americans don’t eat them so there are fields full of them and the friends that work there ask permission to cut them). Sweet potato, squash, and cucumber were other foods the women could access for free or at a reduced fee if they asked their employers. Although the women were not directly defying authority by asking permission to harvest food from the fields for their own consumption, —like the Mexican and Jamaican migrant farmworkers in British Columbia who reappropriated farm produce as an act of resistance (Cohen and Hjalmarson 2020)—it was a way they connected back to the product of their work and accessed the cultural foods they value most. Accessing culturally appropriate foods through alternative means is a direct way to resist a food system (Peña and Mares 2011) that does not cater to their needs.

25Participant’s descriptions of their food labor at home –cooking specific recipes from their hometowns, growing certain ingredients at home, and sourcing food from the fields—were examples of everyday resistance against ethnic and racial oppression. These daily practices were ways in which the women connected back to their cultural heritage (García et al. ed. 2017). They allowed participants to uphold their existence in a US society that consistently dismisses their human worth, as undocumented immigrants and farmworkers. As working mothers of color, participants resisted systemic racial discrimination by reaffirming their cultural identity, self-defining, and self-valuing it, and regaining their human dignity while finding hope within struggle. Cooking, growing, and acquiring food that reaffirms their cultural identity is an explicit act of resistance in a society that condemns their existence.

A mi me encanta trabajar”. Farmworker women who find joy in their work

26Esperanza struggled to describe a time she enjoyed farmwork. Backbreaking work is not generally a pleasant task. As low-wage workers within the food industry, migrant farmworker women face social class oppression. The annual income for a farmworker family in North Carolina is $14,000, 35% less than the national average (Legal Aid NC 2017). Women earn substantially less money than their male counterparts—the gender wage gap is $5,000 (Entralago 2021)—while facing sexual harassment (Morales Waugh 2010) and reproductive health risks (Golichenko and Sarang 2013). Yet, participants discussed sharing food with others during their lunch breaks, chatting among workmates, and feeling destressed and distracted from their daily home routine when they went to work, as moments of joy and contentment at their workplace. These moments were acts of everyday resistance because they allowed women to celebrate daily interactions and to create meaning and foster dignity in their lives (Blend 2001, Counihan 2009, Williams 1984, Williams-Forson 2001).

27Participant’s workdays were marked by burdens they encountered routinely. Esperanza thought that getting paid $8.50 an hour was not enough for the physically backbreaking work she was asked to perform, tiene que estar uno agachado todo el día cargar los botes hasta un carro […]el bote está muy pesado y […]se cansa uno mucho” (you are crouching down all day long and have to carry the containers to a truck, and it’s very heavy, one gets very tired). She also complained about chronic waist pain from crouching to cut the squash. Arminda was concerned about the heat strokes, “se siente uno mal, te mareas, sientes como que quieres devolver, te duele tu cabeza” (you feel unwell, dizzy, you want to vomit, your head hurts). Her workday was hard because the overseer’s did not provide breaks during the day or drinking water for the crew. Lorena found it very difficult to have no access to suitable bathrooms during the workday, especially “uno que es mujer, y quiere ir al baño, y ya ve no hay baños, y cuando andamos en nuestros días pues es muy difícil” (as a woman, when we want to use the bathroom and you can’t go, and when you’re having your period, that’s very hard). She also observed how pesticides affected her health when the fields were getting sprayed and she was working, sometimes she felt like she would not make it through the day. Together, these circumstances show the oppression women farmworkers face as undervalued low-wage workers within the US food system.

28Yet, participants created moments of celebration throughout their workdays. Eating and sharing food during their lunch break was an activity the women described as joyful. With no access to tables and chairs where to sit and eat, or a microwave to heat up their food, they were forced to find shade and sit on the ground. Esperanza always brought tacos for lunch because she could eat them cold. Isidra did the same thing. She preferred to bring tortillas and taco fillings like scrambled eggs with green beans, Mexican beef stew, rice, or beans. Echoing the experience of all participants, for Esperanza, lunchtime was the most joyful part of the workday. She described how the women shared food with eachother,“nos juntamos todas y hacemos una rueda y cada quien llevamos lo suficiente como para convivir con los demás […] Y es bonito”(We all get together and we make a circle and each one brings enough to “share” with others […] And its nice). Participants thought the conditions in which they ate lunch were not adequate, but they perceived the act of eating together as pleasant. Moreover, by sharing food with each other they experienced joy, while simultaneously, creating community and bonds of conviviality (Williams 1984, De la Peña 1981).

29Chatting as they sat on the tractor planting sweet potato or while they ate lunch together was another instance participants enjoyed about their workday. The general themes of Esperanza’s chats during lunch revolved around work activities and family, “si la planta está bonita, si está feo, o que la silla se mueve, […], me preguntan cómo están mis hijos, o cómo van en la escuela” (whether the plant is looking nice or ugly, or if the chair [on the tractor] is wabbly […], they ask me how my kids are, how they are doing at school). The women also talked to each other while sitting on the tractor. There, Arminda specially liked to chat with coworkers she had known for some time. They talked about their kids and the upcoming birthdays, “a veces [hablamos] de los niños, de la escuela, te acuerdas que va a ser el cumpleaños de fulana” (sometimes we talk about the kids, school, there are times you remember it’s someone’s birthday). Chatting during their workday allowed participants to engage with one another pleasantly as they learned about each other’s families and daily lives outside of work. This interaction provided their work with meaning and significance beyond the burden of strenuous tasks (Hooks 2014, el-Khoury 2012).

30Participants expressed enjoying their work also meant feeling distracted, destressed, and relaxed from their daily household routine. Lorena explained that at work she got distracted from being at home, “por lo menos se distrae uno, estoy ganando y me estoy distrayendo, en la casa está encerrado, no más pensando en su familia” (at least I get distracted, I’m earning [a wage] and I’m getting distracted, at the house I’m shut in, only thinking about the family). Participants shared a general feeling of being entrapped at home in a daily routine and overwhelmed by household concerns. Like Isidra who felt that at work she could “respir[ar] un poquito más” (breathe a little more). Or Arminda who admitted that being at home all day stressed her out and that was why “me encanta trabajar” ([she] loves to work). Participants pointed to a complex meaning construction when they described their work as joyful and physically burdensome. Although their farmwork involved strenuous tasks, it also provided them with an escape route from the daily worries of their home life. Thus, they acknowledged its positive significance and the human dignity it provided.

31The women in this case study were low wage workers in a male-dominated environment doing physically straining work that was made invisible by the US food system. They discussed the circumstances that made them feel like undervalued workers. Yet, by engaging in moments of pleasure and joy—when sharing food with workmates, chatting during the workday, and feeling destressed from everyday routines at home— they were resisting oppression. They were also doing it by practicing agency to disrupt their overwhelming home routines and disengaging from their daily worries by working, and by constructing meaning, building community, and valuing their human dignity.


32In this study, I look at three ways in which migrant farmworker mothers enact everyday resistance through their food labor at home and in the fields. Acts of everyday resistance –like highlighting the significance of their work as mothers and farmworkers, enacting food practices that connect them to their cultural background and sense of identity and having moments of joy throughout their workday—provide Mexican migrant farmworker mothers with agency, feelings of empowerment, a way to self-express and value their cultural identity, and with feelings of joy and celebration that foster their human dignity and give meaning to their existence. And they allow these women to confront the intersectional oppression they experience as working-class, mothers of color who are immigrants in the US.

33These findings suggest that the Mexican migrant farmworker mothers in this case study enact everyday resistance to confront intersectional oppression. Their lived experience moves away from the generalized depiction of men’s experience in the farmworker struggle. And it adds nuance to the portrayal of migrant farmworkers in the US. The intersectional analysis I presented highlights the existing relationality between resistance and oppression in these women’s experience as food laborers. Moreover, it points to the complexity that exists in their description of their lives as women who are mothers, migrants, and farmworkers. Their life is not miserable or joyful, it is a complex combination of both. Finally, these findings point to the particularities of women of color mothering in conjunction with their food labor, at home and work, and the ways these practices shape each other. This analysis suggests that Mexican migrant farmworker mothers enact intersectional resistance to gain agency in their everyday lives over the conjunction of oppressions that shape their lived experience in the US. As an action-oriented framework, intersectionality shows how these women can transform their reality in everyday ways as they continue to feed their children and a mostly oblivious US society through their food labor.

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1 All interview quote translations are done by the author of the paper.

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Electronic reference

Emilia Cordero Oceguera, The daily struggleAnthropology of food [Online], 16 | 2022, Online since , connection on 18 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Emilia Cordero Oceguera

Sociology, North Carolina State University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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