In March, Marielena Vega traveled to the U.S. Capitol alongside 20 progressive agricultural groups to represent the Idaho farmworker community during the Rally for Resilience in Washington, D.C.
In her speech to hundreds of attendees, the Canyon County native urged Congress to prioritize climate change policy and protections for farmworkers. She lobbied for those protections in the upcoming farm bill, an omnibus, multiyear law that governs many agricultural and food programs across the country.
“Our farmworker community gets excluded time and time again, and this is something that has never made sense to me because farmworkers provide very essential work here in the U.S.,” she said at the rally. “We don’t want to be overlooked or silent anymore. I will not be silent today.”
Vega attended the event after her colleague, Samantha Guerrero, nominated her to attend the climate rally in Washington, D.C.
Guerrero is a bilingual agriculture and food community organizer at the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils who met Vega during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guerrero said Vega stood out to her because of her connection with Idaho’s farmworking community.
“She’s one of the people that have stepped up and really volunteered her time to our efforts,” Guerrero said. “She has a lot of family that continues to work as farmworkers and even she was working as a farmworker for a while.”
Through her network as a community organizer, Guerrero connected with the HEAL Food Alliance, a multi-sector and multiracial coalition of farmers, fishers, scientists, public health experts and community organizers that advocate for food and farming policies.
Guerrero said she and Vega applied to the food alliance’s school of political leadership to receive training on community organizing, and she later nominated Vega to participate in the program’s lobbying days in D.C. for a climate rally.
“I asked her to be a part because she was connected to the communities that we were trying to reach,” she said. “Over the time that she’s been a member of our organization, I’ve seen her grow from being a shy person to becoming really outspoken, confident and being willing to share her experience about the things that she has overcome and seen.”
From the fields to advocacy, Idaho farmworker activist recalls upbringing
Vega is a University of Idaho graduate and a board member of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils. She was born and raised in Wilder to immigrant parents who are originally from Michoacán, Mexico.
Vega said she was raised among the farmworker community, because from a young age her parents would bring her along during their shifts.
“It was hard to find a babysitter because my parents didn’t know a lot of people, so when I was like 3 or 4, when they were picking apples they were taking me along with them,” she said. “They would put me in one of the apple crates with a blanket and sit me down with some toys and snacks.”
Vega received her first paycheck from farmworking when she was 15 years old. During the weekends and summers in between school, Vega would work alongside her parents, and three of her sisters would eventually follow in her footsteps.
Vega is the oldest daughter out of five children. She has four younger sisters, and three of them are a part of the College Assistance Migrant Program, a federal financial assistance program for students who have farmworking backgrounds.
“It’s been so important to be involved in this work bringing awareness because a lot of people that I know are still in the fields,” Vega said.
Idaho farmworkers are at the forefront of climate change, organizer says
Guerrero said she nominated Vega to attend the rally in D.C. so she would share how farmworkers have to adapt to extreme weather conditions because of climate change and to promote work protections.
“Farmworkers are at the forefront of feeling the effects of climate change,” Guerrero said. “ From having to work super early in the morning to avoid the heat to working under the heat because they don’t want to lose crops, they’re the ones that are still working through all the seasons and feeling the effects of it.”
Guerrero said Vega’s unique experiences represent Idaho’s farmworking community.
“They are the driving force behind agriculture in this state,” Guerrero said. “Without their labor, we wouldn’t be one of the top agricultural states, so the least that we can do is protect them and treat them with dignity and have basic protections for them.”
During her time in D.C., Vega visited the offices of Idaho’s congressional delegation and left information about the resource council’s work.
Vega said she would like Idaho lawmakers to implement policies mimicking Washington and Oregon laws that provide farmworkers with hazard pay for enduring poor air quality during wildfires and offer shade and cooling spots for workers.
The last time Vega did farm work was in 2020. As a former farmworker who worked during summer breaks in between school, Vega said farmworking protections policies would protect people of all ages.
“A lot of people think of farmworkers and forget about the youth in the summer that are working,” she said. “People from college, high school, and middle school are exposed to extreme heat or extreme weather conditions.”
Advocating for undocumented immigrant driver’s license bill
In addition to advocating for farmworker protections on the fields, Vega also advocated for state legislation that would have created a restricted driver’s license available to all people 16 and older residing in Idaho, regardless of their immigration status.
Two years ago, Vega testified in support of the bill during a committee hearing, but the bill died in committee at the Legislature.
During the 2023 session, the Latino advocacy group PODER of Idaho gathered 8,000 signatures from Idahoans across the state to support its Manejando Sin Miedo (Driving Without Fear) campaign, but the bill died when the legislative session adjourned.
Even though her parents both knew how to drive, Vega said she obtained her driver’s license at age 15 and became the main driver in her family.
“I knew I was gonna have to learn how to drive because my parents were undocumented at that time,” she said. “We always knew the risk of driving, and that’s why my parents pushed so hard for me to learn how to drive. At the end of the day, I knew it was my responsibility to get a driver’s license.”
Vega said she spent a lot of time during her teenage years driving her parents and siblings to places, and she knows other families that share similar experiences.
“My parents were always living in fear that they might get stopped and then deported,” she said. “My parents would have been happy to pay for a license. We live here, and this is our home, but it’s just that they were not allowed to do that.”
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