In the summer of 2020, a small group of courageous people established the Friends of Farmworkers House in downtown Syracuse.
One purpose the house serves is to provide temporary shelter and resources for immigrant farmworkers and their families.
Many farmworkers come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and have neither American driver licenses nor the means to get independent housing. 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 the history and culture of Central American countries. 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 Las Cooperative 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 Las Cooperativa they produce monthly meal kits of Mexican and Guatemalan cuisine and the funds they raise help with the maintenance of the Farmworkers House (also called Casa Slocum, named for the street it is on.)
The Cooperativea’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.” she says.
But with each passing year, New York is increasingly home, she says. This is where she and her husband raised her two children, who are now in their teens, and where, lately, she’s finding much joy hiking and exploring the parks and natural areas. For decades, Rebecca has been a powerful voice in causes for economic and immigrant justice and she was instrumental in bringing the Farmworker’s House into existence.
The pleasure of true collaboration was one of Rebecca’s motivations in starting Las Cooperativa Las Comadres. “I believe in the passion that moves us inside 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, Las 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, a native of Texas who came to Central New York after living and studying in several countries, echoes the importance of honoring culture. “One of my wishes is to inspire young people to continue cooking the foods of their roots. I hope we can model pride in cultural heritage, and empowerment. We do the Cooperativa out of choice, because we want to. 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 the native Indians, the Haudenosaunee, we are all intertwined by the land,” Janet says. “Despite the fact that colonial governments recognize borders and use them to establish dominance over what they call The Americas—the territory of the island of the turtle, from the tip of the north to the tip of South America—when we talk to the local indigenous Natives, they recognize us as their relatives. Not foreigners, but as the cousins that we are.”
Sarah H Griffin is managing editor of The Elephant.