How We Did It: Partnering to spotlight the toxic impact of pesticides on farmworkers

Claudia Meléndez Salinas                                                   Zaydee Sanchez

Farmworkers are among the lowest paid and most exploited workers in the United States, as they often lack documentation to work legally in the country. The work they do is backbreaking and essential; and yet, their working conditions are rarely more than a fleeting thought for most consumers.

When you live in close proximity to agricultural fields, when either you or your family members have experienced firsthand the challenges of the farmworking life, you are often eager to cast a light on these challenges. Last year, we led a collaboration between Environmental Health News and palabra, a publication of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. 

Environmental Health News was seeking to develop more Spanish language content and engage communities who frequently bear a disproportionate burden from environmental exposures. So, we reached out to palabra to develop a three-part series of stories in English and Spanish that would be impactful and accessible to the affected communities. 

The most important sources for this story 

Farmworker activists in the Salinas Valley are among the most dedicated and knowledgeable we’ve met in nearly two decades of reporting on Latino issues. They have a lot of expertise on pesticides, so when it came time to report for the story, we relied on them to point us in the right direction. We also relied on the extensive evidence about the harm that pesticides cause to the environment and people, particularly people of color. 

Studies notwithstanding, reporting on pesticides and the damage they cause is complicated by:

  • The hundreds of chemicals that exist in the market to control agricultural pests 
  • The fact that each pesticide has different toxicity levels
  • The fact that there are different governmental agencies regulating their use, often with apparent contradictory regulations. 

It took months of scouring scientific papers to make sense of the data. Ultimately, the technical information is so dense it’s easy to understand the frustration of people who live in proximity to agricultural fields. They can’t prove they’re being poisoned without data, but the data is nearly non-existent. And the existing data is so difficult to understand that few can make sense of it. The bureaucracy of regulation — determining which agency regulates what — doesn’t help. 

Scientists dedicated to the study of pesticides helped immensely. In addition to their deep knowledge of the data, they also have a long view of the history and politics behind pesticide regulation. Their expertise helped contextualize what Latino activists have been saying all along: that people of color are the most affected by pesticide drift. 

How we tackled this story

We approached this project intending to provide a deeper understanding of two factors. Which communities are most affected by pesticide exposure and to what degree are these toxic chemicals affecting the Latino community? We looked at the data before speaking to people. The cancer rates, developmental delays in children, and miscarriages linked to pesticide exposure were alarming. We decided to speak to as many people as we could to gain a better understanding of pesticides. Editors understood it was going to take time to gain the trust of the communities affected.  

This work entailed travel throughout California’s agriculture communities, speaking with farmworkers, activists and mothers whose health and that of their children have been affected by pesticide exposure. It was emotionally challenging: There were times when Zaydee would sit in her car crying before the next interview or the drive to the next town. One unforgettable interview was with a person in Oxnard who had been diagnosed with cancer. They feared not seeing their children grow up and, though no doctor would confirm his cancer was due to exposure to pesticides, they were certain it was. After all, they had worked as a farmworker for more than 20 years, getting sprayed with pesticides as they picked strawberries. 

Ultimately, this project was eye-opening. The ability to be able to lean on editors with questions and concerns or when we felt stuck in the writing was essential. Palabra editor Valeria Fernandez was a rock for guidance. 

A suggestion for any reporter working on any issue for the first time came from one of our dear friends who once said: “You do not need to have the answers to everything. Go speak to people that have the answers, then you put it all together for the reader to understand.” 

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas and Zaydee Sanchez