A few years ago, a small group of courageous people worked, fought, sacrificed, and ultimately prevailed in establishing the Friends of Farmworkers House, near downtown Syracuse.
One purpose the house serves is to provide temporary shelter and resources for migrant farmworkers and their families.
Many farmworkers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They live in apartments provided on the farms where they work, which means they are often isolated and have little recourse should they face abuse or become ill. Friends of Farmworkers provides not only sanctuary and succor, but also space to regain emotional well-being and support for those fighting for dignity, justice, and empowerment.
The Friends of Farmworkers House is evolving into a cultural center as well, with a focus on celebrating Mexican and Guatemalan history and culture. It will continue to offer hospitality to those in need but will also serve as a central hub for creative, expressive, communal, and entrepreneurial endeavors.
One of the first of these is Cooperativa Las Comadres . The Cooperativa is a project started by three long-time friends who share a desire to collaborate creatively, revel in the ingredients and dishes that speak to each of home, and work for social change while caring also for their own well-being. Through the Cooperativa they produce monthly meal kits of Mexican and Guatemalan cuisine and a portion of the funds they raise help with the maintenance of Friends of Farmworkers House (also called Casa Slocum, named for the street it is on.)
The Cooperativa’s roots reach into the past, but it is forward looking. It reflects where Rebecca, Arely, and Janet are from, but also where they are now and the future they are making.
Rebecca: “I was born in Atascadero CA. My mom was undocumented and worked in the fields and did other heavy jobs. When I was three years old, we returned to Mexico and I grew up in Tijuana. Mexico will always be my first home—it’s where I have my first memories of friends and family. Those memories are like precious photographs that take me to my roots.”
But with each passing year, New York is increasingly home, she says. This is where she and her husband raised their two children, who are now in their teens, and where, lately, she’s finding much joy hiking and exploring the parks and natural areas. Rebecca, who was instrumental in bringing Friends of the Farmworkers House into existence, has been a powerful voice in causes for economic and immigrant justice for decades. Among her significant contributions, she led regional efforts in the state-wide fight to make it possible for people to obtain driver’s licenses in New York regardless of their citizenship status. She was also a key player in a successful lawsuit to overturn the exclusion of farmworkers from a state law that protects workers’ right to organize without fear of retaliation.
The pleasure of true collaboration was one of Rebecca’s motivations in starting Cooperativa Las Comadres. “I believe in the passion that moves us, and leads us to achieve our dreams. Dreaming is most beautiful when we do it together—work together, celebrate together. We are strongest together—supporting one another and contributing each our best. For me, working like this is more than a job, it’s a necessity to feel alive.”
Arely, who is from Guatemala, has worked in restaurants for years to support her family—a responsibility that has been particularly crucial since her husband was injured. “For me, La Cooperativa is about being with close friends—bringing our families together, and having our own time to talk and cook in harmony.” Also important to her, she says, is the opportunity to bring her culture to people here, in the community she now calls home.
Janet is Guachichil Chichimeca (Indigenous to Northern-Central Mexico) by way of Houston, Texas. She has traveled the world and graduated with a degree in geography from Syracuse University. Janet echoes the importance of honoring culture, “One of my wishes is to inspire young people to continue cooking the foods of their Indigenous roots. My hope is we model pride in cultural heritage and inspire empowerment. I am with the Cooperativa out of choice—not due to lack of opportunities. The three of us are here because we want to be part of this work. We embody autonomy.”
For Janet, the Cooperativa allows her to strike a balance between her commitment to activism for social justice and the rejuvenation offered by a space where she feels free to be herself—a place imbued with happiness and understanding.
The Cooperativa is an expression of home, and home is a place of belonging.
“From the point of view of local Indigenous people, the Haudenosaunee, we are interconnected through land, histories, and foodways” Janet says. “Despite colonial governments recognizing borders and using them to establish dominance over what they call The Americas, when I speak with sovereign Haudenosaunee they recognize Mexicans and Guatemalans as their relatives. We don’t relate as foreigners—we relate as the cousins that we are.”
If you’re in the Syracuse area, keep your eye out for the monthly pop up dinners at the Cooperativa!
Sarah H Griffin is managing editor of The Elephant.