Below the Radar Transcript
Women, Work, More: Migrant Women & Transnational Loving — with Evelyn Encalada Grez
Speakers: Alyha Bardi, Melissa Roach, Kathy Feng, Evelyn Encalada Grez, Readers of Migrant Women Quotes
Please note, the names of migrant women within this transcript are pseudonyms, and do not reflect the real names of those who originally spoke these words.
[soft guitar music]
Alyha Bardi 0:14
Hello, I’m Alyha with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. You’re listening to Women, Work, More, a Below the Radar series looking to make work — work for women, across varying life stages & social intersections.
Melissa Roach 0:35
This series features sporadically intertwined soundclips from women workers, sharing their lived experiences of the issues discussed in each episode.
Kathy Feng 0:44
For this episode, we hear from Evelyn Encalada Grez as she speaks about migrant women and their experiences with transnational loving, the pains that often accompany migration, and the ways that these women enact resistance.
Alyha Bardi 0:56
We also hear from numerous migrant women whom Evelyn has encountered and interviewed as part of her research. These quotes came from Evelyn’s transcribed interviews and are voiced by readers in both English and Spanish. Please note, this episode does not feature the original voices of these migrant women to maintain their anonymity. We hope you enjoy the episode!
Alyha Bardi 1:20
Hello, everyone, welcome to Women,Work, More a special series of Below the Radar. I'm really glad that you could join us. For this episode, I'm very happy to have Evelyn Encalada Grez with us today. She is a transnational labor scholar, community labour organizer, Co-founder of Justicia for Migrant Workers, and assistant professor from SFU's Labor Studies Program. Thanks for being here Evelyn.
Evelyn Encalada Grez 1:45
Thank you so much for including me in this really important endeavour.
Alyha Bardi 1:51
So Evelyn, wondering if you could begin by introducing yourself and your background as a labour scholar and community organizer.
Evelyn Encalada Grez 2:01
It all started by actually being a part of a working-class family. I grew up with issues of exploitation. Issues with my parents - every day talking about all of the challenges that they had in their factories, while working here in Canada. So I grew up with those struggles. But I didn't always have the language to explicate everything that was happening to my parents and to our family. And over the years, I had all of these questions about inequality and social injustice and all of those longings, and that ended up taking me on to this long journey into academia. But I've always been an activist, too, I've always been really concerned about social justice, because my family's from South America, from Chile. We left during the military dictatorship. And for many of us, in the global south, we don't have the luxury to be objective, we always have to decide many times who side we are on. So when I was quite young, I had a political position. And, and then in high school, I also got the chance to go to the Dominican Republic to reflect on the 500 years of conquest of the Americas. And that's when I realized that all of these, these values that my parents imposed on me, were actually my values too. And I decided thereafter seeing and hearing from so many people that convened in the D.R. at that time, that I wanted to dedicate my whole life to social justice. And I've always wanted to work in Latin America — I was completely seduced with the idea of going back to Latin America, because it's very painful to be displaced. And we go through many years of our lives, wondering where we belong, when we are uprooted from the countries that we were born. And then when we are in a different context, like Canada, we're always made to feel foreign. Those of us who are racialized many times we are asked all the time, ‘no, where are you really from?’ So I had all these issues about belonging. Like I said, I always wanted to go to Latin America. And I ended up getting an amazing internship to work with Central American organizations that worked with export processing zone workers, that the majority were women. I spent about six months with all of these incredible organizations that were working with workers that were so exploited by global capitalism, but they were doing amazing work, coming up with different organizing models. And I worked all over the region. So Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, I saw so much, I learned so much from the women, from everything that they shared — all that their plight. And then after that internship, I got a call from one of my dear friends Chris Ramsaroop. And he asked me if I was available to go to the farms, in this place called Leamington. And that brought me into the world of migrant workers. And we started building all of this momentum, and a movement was formed. And I realized that I live in Canada now, and I couldn't just leave migrant workers just like that after developing all of these relations of trust, because it takes a long time. And being in contact with the migrant community, I realized that I had the responsibility to also challenge Canada with its mythmaking about how benevolent it is. And you know, now that we see Canada making headlines for all of the unmarked graves, all of that is coming more to the fore. But at that time I would hear so many people speak about Canada in a certain way. And they were — well to this day, a lot of people too are shocked when I tell them about migrant workers. But for me, I get shocked when they get shocked, because Canada was built on settler colonialism and exploitation and genocide. And none of these processes are new. And all of that the work that I do with migrant workers, brought me into the importance of Labour Studies. And through Labour Studies there's so much that you can analyze, but mostly for me, it's about stepping into how capitalism coerces people, bodies, spirits, and so that's my main entry point. And, and then from there. I, as an activist, it's about developing projects for social justice, to change the coercive systems that regulate our lives.
Alyha Bardi 6:37
In your answer, Evelyn, you spoke a bit about how you came to work with migrant farmworkers in Leamington. And I'm kind of wondering if you could speak a bit more about how your research focus came to be on Mexican migrant women, specifically, as they forge transnational livelihoods?
Evelyn Encalada Grez 6:57
Well, I primarily started working with Mexican migrant men because men are the majority in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Because they are seen as the ideal migrants, the migrants that are able to leave the home and provide for their families, they could be the breadwinners outside of their families. But since I've always wanted to work with migrant women, or women from Latin America, knowing how women are so marginalized in many parts of Latin America, I was still seeking exactly where the women were. And I started to meet women in the farms, little by little, but it took a while. And when I was with them, they just transported me to a completely different world that I hadn't seen before with migrant men. Because when I was with migrant men, it was mostly all about politics in a very narrow dimension, or a very narrow way to see politics and to see forms of resistance. And then, in the world of women, I was able to connect more with women in a more emotional, intimate way. And they brought me more into their emotional worlds. So we would be in their farms and there would be food, there would be tortillas, they would tell me about all of their longings, all of their angst about being women and mothers that couldn't be with their children. They told me about transnational loves, and the way that their whole lives are basically compartmentalized according to seasons. And depending on the season, it determines who they are with, and it determines if they can continue on with an intimate relationship or not, because many times they are sent to a completely different province. They don't have any control over that. So I started seeing that there was much more to the world of migrant workers, beyond you know, just advocating for labour stoppages, or advocating for better housing conditions that — also women I was able to see all of the multi-dimensional ways that migrants are so challenged in order to forge a living. And through migrant women, I also saw how they have to completely organize their whole entire households, and lives and roles as as mothers. All of that had to change. In order for them to be able to come to Canada, and provide for their children and their immediate family. Because many women, they were responsible not only for their children, but also their parents — to support them, or support their sisters, or support other people in the family that perhaps were going through, for instance, health issues.So it takes a whole family, a community of family, to reorganize themselves. And I also found it quite revealing to see how migrant women they had to, they were here in Canada, but also in Mexico constantly. They were in constant contact with their children. So they were all over the place. And it showed how migrant women continue to do the care work. And so they were in Canada doing productive work, productive labour, but also reproductive labour, but across borders. And the fact that migrant women are such a minority in these programs, they're about 3%. They fluctuate from 3% to 5%. But I haven't seen the numbers escalate more than that. It had also a lot of consequences for the resources and services that they couldn't access, because if anything was developed in a particular community, it was all developed around the prototype of a male migrant worker. And so many migrant women would tell me, “no salimos en la pelicula.” Which means we're not in the picture. So in my work I wanted to visible-ize them more so, and exclaim and proclaim through their words and their stories, their humanity, and how migration and migrants are very complex human beings. So we have to look at, in complete context, and see how exactly they are challenged in their lives as being migrants. And in this case, quite precarious migrants, migrants that are considered low-skilled, migrants that could be sent home at any point. Including migrant women, I've documented cases of migrant women who were sent back to Mexico, because their employers discovered that they were pregnant. Which is a complete violation of human rights. And this other project that I was a part of through the University of Guelph, called World Women Making Change. That team that dealt with Caribbean women, primarily Jamaican women, they also found that before Jamaican woman got onto a plane to Canada, they had to take a pregnancy test, before being allowed to come and work here. But throughout the years, many women told me when you're pregnant doesn't mean you're sick, it means you still have to work, it means you still can work, it means you need to work in order to provide for your children — the ones who are here and the one that you are expecting.
[crows cawing, transition]
… when my boss found out … she asked me [about the pregnancy] and I was honest with her, that I was indeed pregnant. And so, she said that … that it was ok, and that she would send me back to Mexico. And so, fifteen days later, so after four months and fifteen days, she sent me back to Mexico.
[crows cawing, transition]
Alyha Bardi 12:48
That’s such an expansive answer, and when you speak about these things where women have to reorganize care before they leave, or how controlled their bodies are — this leads me to my next question, which is that you’be spoken of migrant woman workers as a destabilizing threat in terms of gender, class, heteronormative sexualities and family structures within your research. So do you mind breaking down what you mean by that?
Evelyn Encalada Grez 13:16
Okay, so Mexican migrant women that I've witnessed over the years, are breaking all of these social norms - from Mexico, in their communities, their villages. For instance, a lot of women are not even able to go to the market by themselves. They have to go with their children or another man in the family. But here they are completely going against all of those gendered norms, and getting on a plane, and they are the main breadwinners of their families and going travelling quite far away. So migrant women who have never got onto a plane, they're going against the grain completely. And doing things in their family that sometimes men haven't done, or haven't been able to do. So they become breadwinners, and then that gives them more power over their household back in . And, at the same time, when they're here, they're bound to very coercive and exploitative labour conditions. But through them, I also got to see the way that they assert themselves within all of these layers of exploitation. So in a context where your employer controls your every move, migrant women would tell me about their employer saying that they shouldn't get involved with any men. Also, some women in a particular state in Mexico, they were being forced to sign a contract where they would state that they wouldn't get involved with any men here in Canada. Particularly know many Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program. So their bodies and sexualities are controlled so much so. And then within that context, loving and asserting desire, and being human as in being sexual, and in many cases — was a form of resistance. So I saw that. And also, these programs are very coercive, but these programs do facilitate the travel of people from the global south, that would not necessarily be able to come here as a skilled worker, or as an international student. So they do provide some mobility, but it's quite restrictive mobility.
But look, it should be like that … I mean … at the labor ministry, they tell you not to get involved with the other male workers, and don’t go to dances, and don’t go out, be careful. Because if someone writes you up then, it’s not good. So we don’t do those things. We don’t. Absolutely not…
Evelyn Encalada Grez 15:56
And so I saw that also, that Canada has still a very male-centred and heteronormative or hetero type of immigration programs, they still reinforce certain gender norms through all of these programs. And that goes to the level of the actual employers. Employers have all of these ideas of what a woman's body is more appropriate for. And for instance, in Ontario, a lot of women are hired to work in the selecting of tender fruits, because a lot of employers think that women have more of a gentle touch. And then they will hire Caribbean workers to be out on the fields, because they also have gendered and racialized ideas of what they are best suited for. And so all of these biases, and ideas of who can do what work — they completely feed into immigration policies, and it determines who is able to come to Canada, and for how long. So for instance, in the peach and plum industry, and for the type of work that women are brought in for, it's a very short contract. So then they end up also making less money, because they are only hired for a short period of time. So that goes against also the equality and the equality that they should have, or equity that they should have with men, to be able to make more of a living and have contracts that are longer. And also because there's such a minority of women in the program, they have to hold on to their contracts. Very much so, because if they lose their contract, or if they're not renamed by their employer, they may not be able to come back to Canada at all. But in these layers of coercion, I saw that, yes, women defy many gender norms, they engage in their own forms of resistance. They also turn to one another for love, support, with men, with other women. For instance, a lot of the women would also feed migrant men. So they were also doing the care work that way. After work, they would cook for themselves and cook for other men who they were taking care of, or they were their partner. So there's just all of these economies, and all of these processes happening. More than just picking cherries. So that's what I wanted to visible-ize. And that's what I try to unpack in my work. And then I'm still also unpacking. As I move along with my research, especially now, I've been moving along to looking at how the pandemic has impacted migrant workers. I want to know more about what happened behind the closed doors of quarantine, with migrant women and migrant men as well.
Alyha Bardi 18:52
And having brought up your recent COVID research, do you want to speak about that quickly, or about any organizing that you have done recently with migrant workers?
Evelyn Encalada Grez 19:02
Now, because of the pandemic. Well, it's been quite a challenging time, personally, politically, academically, I've had to be really careful with going to the farms. Because here in British Columbia, there was a case of two migrant workers from Mexico that were sent back for having received visitors from an organization, that is similar to the organization that I co-founded, which is called Justice For Migrant Workers, or J4MW. And so the last thing I wanted was to place any workers in jeopardy of losing their jobs. And this is a constant, when we're always out there, doing our work, whether it's research or organizing, or a combination of the two, that is always a fear and a possibility. But also being Latinx myself, many times I could just say, "oh, I'm the cousin." And employers will have no idea. And they won't ask any questions, because they have no idea — like all of the countries that you know within Latin America, and then I get a pass. And then interestingly, they will never think “oh, she's a professor at SFU.” Because I don't come in the body of a professor, or what the mainstream sees what a professor looks like. So but I use that to work to my advantage. So I can be in those spaces that I really want to be in, which are community spaces, the farms, the workplaces. And then when I go to workers’ home communities too, I speak the language and I could go with them all over the place, the market, even cemeteries. So I could go in and out of those spaces because of my Spanish fluency. So you need to use all of that in order to do your work and be with people, which I really miss. But I did start my research with migrant workers in the context of the pandemic, but it's been really challenging. And all of this we have to write about, because migrant workers don't come here to Canada with their laptops. Or I can say “oh, lets have a Zoom meeting.” Right? And so I've had to use WhatsApp, which is so used in Latin America. But then I've had to do interviews, in bits and pieces. And then I had a community worker from Here BC, who helped me set up a Microsoft Teams focus group. And what I've seen is that migrant workers have had to learn a lot of digital tools that they didn't learn. But they have primarily just their phones. And I've also seen some, still, a part of Justicia [for Migrant Workers], a lot of migrant workers that I've met throughout all these years, they still contact me. I've maintained contact with them all of this time. And so I've been taking notes of the issues that emerge for them. So a lot of my research is also based on an autoethnography, of what I have seen, and what we have been doing also through Justicia [for Migrant Workers], to support migrant workers and to demand more structural change. Because particularly in the province of Ontario, where the majority of migrant workers are concentrated, there were all of these horrible outbreaks. And to this day, we still hear of more deaths among migrant workers, because there was just like, all this confusion among governments of who was responsible for what. And then workers had to quarantine, in their bunk beds, or in their housing units, that for years, we've all been talking about how they're completely inadequate, and inhumane. And how could any government officials or employers expect workers to be safe, in a time when we are supposed to be out keeping our distance, and socially and physically distancing. And then workers are crammed into small spaces, it was a disaster. And the first few workers that died, were from Mexico. So for me, this research about the pandemic has been really important, but so challenging, because it's been hard to access the community in the way that I'm used to. And so I'm really anxious and excited about getting out there to the farms again, but I've been really curious about how workers have fared during this time with conflicting information, or with policies that have been changing all the time. And they're the ones that have to make sense of everything while they live in rural communities, and they had to have COVID test before getting on a plane here. But then also that puts them in more of a risk to get COVID, because they had to travel to all of these clinics and places to get these tests. So that meant that they were with more people on the way there. So it's just been horrible. And also some of the migrant women have been telling me that, you know, during quarantine that they were making bread. And I thought wow, you know, that says so much because, a lot of folks were getting into making bread in suburbia, and I thought that they would be making more tortillas. And so I want to know more about that. What exactly did life look like in quarantine? Where they were more isolated and disconnected from the wider community because many employers impose more strict farm rules, and limited mobility of migrant workers during the pandemic.
Alyha Bardi 24:29
Yeah, that's very interesting. And it sounds just very nuanced — all the different ways that COVID has impacted the lives of migrant workers, whether it's during the migration process, or during their time here in Canada. I think moving back to previous research and how you mentioned transnational loving, could you describe what that encompasses and how migrant women assert their sexual agency in these relationships of transnational loving?
Evelyn Encalada Grez 24:59
Okay. I feel like I'm back at my dissertation defence. [both laugh] Great question. Yes, so women love their children, and then they fall in love in Canada. And so they are driven to migrate because of the love of their children, because of that responsibility to provide for them. But they're also driven by desire, because another love is waiting for them in the context of Canada. And throughout the years, I've heard many women say that when they come to Canada, they become princesses again, they become courted again. And so it's like they are reborn as women, because they become desired by other men. And then the women in Mexico — a lot of the women are stigmatized, because they are single moms, and they are known — Kerry Prebisch wrote a lot about this, the late Kerry Prebisch. That they are seen as — women that failed at building a heteronormative and solid family. And so, through these programs, they escape some of that. But then they're stigmatized when they get back as well, like they're seen as loose women, because they left Mexico — but they left for obviously, very important reasons. And so when they come to Canada, they get a chance at love again, if they were stigmatized in their home communities — here, they are not. But then there's the other layer that a lot of the migrant men are already married. So one woman in particular said,
Vidas que no nos coresponden. (We live lives that do not correspond to us).
Evelyn Encalada Grez 26:44
They live lives here, with transnational love, that is all temporary, because it will just last a season, most likely. It's very hard to continue on with a relationship when you can't even see each other in Mexico, because the person that you love is in another part of the country, and Mexico is huge. And then you get sent somewhere else. You both get sent to different parts of Canada. And so then there's a lot of pain and separation that way. But women by the very act of loving and in asserting their sexuality and Canada, when their employers, and also the Ministry of Labour in Mexico is telling them not to, is a form of resistance. But I also don't want to reduce their agency to just sexuality, the fact that they get on a plane, and defy this split between the global north and global south, by asserting the right to mobility — that in itself is a form of resistance. And defying the stigmas back in Mexico is a form of resistance too.
All of the pain we feel is to make us stronger and instead of making you weaker it will strengthen you.
Son amores de Canada, lo que pasa en Canada se queda en Canada. (They are Canadian loves, what happens in Canada stays in Canada).
Alyha Bardi 28:08
So, kind of going on that strain of transnational loving, what do you mean, of migrant woman's experiences of precarious love and casualties?
Evelyn Enclada Grez 28:28
I came up with the concept of transnational casualties to point to the costs and the pains of this transnational life. Because women are here, they are able to become the breadwinners of their families, but they lose a lot too. They gain a lot and they lose a lot. They lose seeing their children growing up. They sometimes are resented by their children, because their children, cannot comprehend or do not want to comprehend, and they're quite a lot of pain because they cannot be with their mothers. And they feel abandoned. And many times they will have all these other mothers to take care of them, the grandma, the next-door neighbour, the tía — the aunt. But a lot of children, they resent their parent for leaving. And so that's a source of pain for migrant women. And many times, in the farms, we will talk about the issues that they had with their children and how their children were straying away from their responsibilities that they had in the household. You know, to do their homework, to tend to the animals in the village, things like that — and they were drinking. And so they were having a lot of issues of that sort, and then the grandmas, the other mothers, were also having the difficulty of figuring out how to take care of the children in the absence of their moms. And many times they wouldn't tell everything to the migrant women here, as to not worry them. So I saw that part of transnational casualties are omissions — that there's secrets on both sides of the migration spectrum. So that way the migration is not interrupted, because everybody needs the wages from that migration. And there's — migrant women and the non-migrants that are part of the same migration spectrum, they don't want to worry each other. So they all basically manage migration in their own ways. But also, transnational casualties are about how some women are never able to get through to children about why they left. And what I saw, too, is that some children, they get married quite young. So that way they can form the family that they wanted, and that they were longing for. But then what ends up happening is that they end up becoming the next generation of migrant workers, because they need to provide for their children. So that's like a precarious cyclical migration pattern that I see, continuing on. You know, within the same group of migrant workers. And transnational casualties to have migrant women being in Canada, and having their children die in Mexico and not being able to be by their side. So there's a lot of gains. But then there's a lot of losses. There's a lot of pain. And one migrant woman, I have her words in my mind. She says, “we go to Canada destruidas.” We leave to Canada destroyed. Because their heart is completely broken, having to leave. But once they're here, they have to constantly give themselves strength to continue on. And there was another migrant woman whose words also continue to resonate with me. She says, “yo tengo que poder.” That's one of the things that she said to herself when things got really difficult, which means, I just have to be able to do it. So there's a lot of resilience and strength. But I don't want to also celebrate resilience because it fits so well into neoliberal disciplining, where we have to focus on is dismantling the systems that coerce, hurt, pain, traumatize, exploit, people in the first place. And what I also wanted to do in my work, is to point to the internal resources that women have through generations. I rather point to that, than this term resilience that for me, right now, it's like a dirty word.
Well, it has been a good change … a different change. Why? Because … in the first place, my family has a house. Hmmm … when I first entered the program, I didn’t earn as much because the [exchange rate for a] dollar was 6 to 1. But, I still felt like I was earning a lot of money, to pay for school, their clothing, and food. And the truth is that it was a positive change for my family and me. Eh … maybe it was a big sacrifice, because you give up [spending time with] your children, because they are left without a mother … I can’t help them with their homework … or take them to school. But, you are left with the satisfaction that they are eating well, and that they are dressing well …that you have the means to provide for them [and to live in] the home they deserve. I got used to it over the years because it was really hard at the beginning, in the first year. It was hard because I left a four-year old child behind, who needed me and … perhaps … how do I say this … I was complacent, or I was ok because [the children] stayed behind with my mother.
Yo tengo que poder (I just have to be able to do it).
And as a mother, the first thing that you ask is, “Did you eat son?” “Yes mom.” “No mom.” “Go eat.” “Don’t forget to eat.” “Do your homework when you get home from school.” “Don’t leave a mess in your room.” Or, don’t do this. Or, don’t do that. In my case, I tell them, “Listen to your grandmother when she talks to you.” “Don’t go out. If you go out, take care.” “Look out for cars”. So these are the things you tell them because you think about them, and they need to be said. I remember that during my first few years … maybe from the first to the third year since I started … I had dreams about my son. And I dreamt he was drowning in a river. And in my dream … I saw him … in the water like this. And I was standing in the water. And I … I was screaming, but I couldn’t grab him. I couldn’t get him out of the water. And I was just looking at him through the water, lying at the bottom. And the first thing I did when I woke up was … hmmm … I went downstairs to call. “Mom, how is my son? Is he ok?”. And no one told me anything then. No one said anything until the eight-month contract ended and I went back. And I was talking to my mother and she began to say, “I am going to tell you something that I did not want to tell you before. Your son could have died”. And I asked why. And she said, “because he almost drowned in the river”.
Alyha Bardi 36:20
Yeah, I know very much what you mean about resilience — it requires there to be things wrong within systems, and tells people to have to overcome these problems, rather than working to solve these issues that really shouldn't be there — but like you said, are there, because of neoliberalism, capitalism, and the like. And this form of resilience in particular, with women having to leave their children, the level of pain and loss is one that I think many, including myself, cannot even begin to imagine.
Evelyn Encalada Grez 36:57
Yeah and I have like my field notes, from when I was living in Mexico. And then it's amazing, like stories that are formed because of these precarious structures. So I also came up with the term transnational storytelling. So I try to tell the story of women going through life here in Canada and Mexico. But all of these stories are given form by capitalism, by the agribusiness in Canada, by labour policies, by immigration policies. So there's a context to all these stories, and I forgot to mention too, that throughout the years, I've had to support women whose husbands, or former husbands, or former partners, have wanted to take their children away from them, because of the fact that they were here in Canada. And then at that point, it becomes so complicated to work with them, because there's no transnational social workers. Right? So I've had to get creative. And luckily, I have some networks in Mexico with human rights organizations — but it just shows how women are completely abandoned with all of these systems. And also when women were going through that, how can they be at peace, and showing up to work every day? So they would go through a lot of emotional turmoil. And this turmoil, they would have to just carry on, because they had the responsibility of providing for their families. And they had all of these dreams of, of building a home for themselves, because a lot of migrant women and their mothers would tell me the importance of having your own home. To have a place where you could die. To have a place of your own, where you didn't have to pay rent. To have a place of your own, where you can maybe grow beans in the backyard or corn, so that way you just had something to get by, to sustain yourself. So migrant women, many times, they have to go against their very selves in order to reach those dreams, in order to stay afloat, in order in order to survive. Especially now during the pandemic. Because in Mexico, there wasn't anything like the CERB. Not that, you know, that was sufficient — but there's a limited welfare state, or no welfare state. And so the only way to survive was to ensure that they could come back to Canada, and many women didn't come back, and some of them are trying to get back. And in the past, some women who haven't been called back to the same farm, have been able to come here as tourists, but it has been very few. And I remember one woman in particular, one year, she was really upset, because she wasn't called back to the farm where she worked out for so many years. But she found a way to get herself to Canada anyway. And I remember her saying, “I am illegal, and I love it.” She said, “soy ilegal y me encanta.” [laughs] But that was her way of saying, you know what I'm gonna show up anyway, and here I am. So that was a form of resistance. And of course, I have issues with the term ‘illegal,’ but she was saying it in a empowering way. And throwing the illegal word back to the legal system, or the immigration system. And by now, women cannot do that, if they even try, they cannot, because Canadian borders are closed. And so life for women in rural areas has been even much more complicated, now more than ever.
[people talking in the background, transition]
Estoy illegal y me encanta!
I have to keep doing this because I stay here to help my children and my parents. Because for me, my personal satisfaction comes from the fact they have something to eat.
You have to be strong. Always, because if… you are strong and brave then you will find that success in life! And we all believe… all the women here and in Mexico, we all believe that we are… That we are the queens, and we are warriors, and that we are strong …
[people talking in the background, transition]
Alyha Bardi 41:01
And one of the last questions that I'm going to ask you, is you ended your recent essay, Contestations of the Heart by writing, “building a social justice project with migrant workers and other precarious workers across across the globe, requires fighting for not only the improvement of material conditions, such as wages, housing, health and safety legislation, but also for effective rights. Principally, the right to feel and be fully human.” So how do we get there? What is the core fight?
Evelyn Enclada Grez 41:37
All of that just gives me goosebumps, [laughs] because — first, I want to say that I was taught that when I was working in Central America. In particular, in Honduras. I was with this one particular organization, CODEMUH, they worked with workers as whole human beings. And of course, you know, why wouldn't you? But sometimes you just need that common sense to be explained to you, to see it in practice. So they had counselors to work with women who, many times were escaping situations of violence in their homes, and they had migrated to export processing zones to support themselves. And they dealt with them around body issues, and the fact that they would leave a particular situation of violence, but then have to deal with the violence of these corporations — that also regulated their lives, and that also didn't pay them a sufficient amount of money for all of the profit that was made, out everything that they were working on. And so for me, it's about not just coming up with policy recommendations, because we can all do that. And we could turn blue coming up with policy recommendations, but at the end of the day, we have to fight to create change. And it's not just about coming up with research, and thinking that, ‘oh, now that I have these policy recommendations — like, miracoulsy different governments at the provincial and federal level are going to actually listen to us.’ But when we are in community, we have to be completely open to be challenged by community, but then also in our positionality, as academics and as community engaged academics, we also have to challenge our communities to dream big. And to go beyond the immediate. To think about how we want to rearrange our lives, that doesn't depend on the coercion or expectation of anybody. So we entered this symbiotic relationship, where I was trained by migrant workers, basically, to become an organizer. And I've made mistakes, and making mistakes is part of learning and growing. And every time I go to Leamington — I'm actually going to go in August again. You know, I think I understand Leamington, the world of migrant workers, but then there's a new layer — there's all these stories. And because, you know, a particular immigration policy changed, that created all these other realities that weren't there before. It's, yeah, it's just so incredible, how policies affect people — it affects people in their daily lives, and affect their emotions. So, I just think that how to get there, it's about the journey. I don't have the answers of, you know, where we're going to end up. But I think that we all have a role to play on what social justice looks like. I will have some ideas of what migrant workers need, but then they’ll be like ‘no Evelyn, that's not our immediate concern.’ So you have to also put yourself aside, and see what community needs right away. And right now, it's about survival. So I could also have all of these dreams about migrant workers working in co-ops, transnational co-ops, and having mobility. But right now, the context doesn't allow for that. And migrant workers, especially the ones that weren't able to come back to Canada, they're seeking a way to return. So we have the responsibility to be intercoluders of all these complexities. And then, because of our privileged mobility once we’re able to travel — we could make linkages among movements, among organizations. So with Justicia [for Migrant Workers], for instance, we have a lot of connections to organizations that are similar to us in the United States. And in the past, I've had some of migrant workers tell me that one of their relatives needs help in Georgia, and then I would contact folks that I know in the US. And if if they, themselves, didn't work in Georgia, for instance, they would find somebody or an organization that did. So that's what our role is. But what I want to reinforce is that we all have a role. And we have to be humble with what we know, and put it aside, but also sometimes also engage in dialogue with the communities that we work with — to inspire collective dreaming beyond capitalism, beyond what we have right now.
Alyha Bardi 46:17
I really like how you said that — that we have a responsibility to engage in a dialogue about all of these complexities within the lives of migrant workers, and sometimes taking a step back and listening to the needs of migrant workers, rather than assuming their needs — and using that to direct our collective action and change. But to sort of send you of with a last question, I’m wondering if there is anything else that you would like to speak about?
Evelyn Enclada Grez 46:47
So, when I started organizing, and when I met with migrant workers for the very first time in my life in 2001, I was completely transformed. I couldn't be like, ‘okay, thank you for talking to me. See you later,’ after I heard everything that I heard. And when I was with migrant workers, I saw my father, my brother, but even migrant workers who didn't look like me. I was obviously concerned and moved. And I couldn't just continue on as if nothing [had happened]. And I've never stopped going to Leamington since then. And we founded this organization called Justice for Migrant Workers that is quite grassroots. And we did all of this work. For primarily — I would say, now, like 18 years, because I have to deduct the years that I was travelling abroad and working abroad. But I was I've always been connected to migrant workers, because they're my community. And there's some migrant workers that, for me, are like my uncles. I was also a part of films, including El Contrato, and Migrant Dreams that was directed by Min Sook Lee. And I'm still in contact with many of the workers that appeared in these films. So these are relationships that are very strong and profound, that can't be just built on just going to the farms for one weekend, and that’s it. And throughout the years, we've done it all, we've engaged in a multi-pronged action or multi-pronged approach to effecting change. And one of the first things that we advocated for was status. The need for migrant workers to not be temporary workers — temporary, as in disposable people that can just be thrown away, when employers decide, when they get sick. And that's one way to leverage some of the imbalance of power. But it's not the only way. Because then we will have to change the nature of agriculture in the industry that is still guided by profit-making. And we see too, that a lot of racialized Canadians racialized peoples, newcomers, they may have status, but they are exploited in the 3 D’s, right? So the dirty, dangerous, demeaning type of jobs. So we know that status is not the end all, and be all, but it's a start. And it's an organizing tool. And so that's something that we've held onto. And through my work, I've also realized the importance of not just doing a research to make it onto an academic journal — that will be read by maybe 20 people? [laughs] But to be a part of these documentaries, to create space for the stories of migrant workers — to be heard, to be seen. And to come up with also very creative ways to get migrant workers voices out there. Because many times they can’t speak up, because they're they could be completely banned from these programs. So over the years, I have taken the examples of the export processing zone, organizing models, and I try to apply them here. But now being in this for, 18 to 20 years — I also have to say that I'm going to tell you a little story. So I heard that some migrant women were very upset at me, because they weren't called back to a particular farm — to a farm that grew apples. Because in that farm, one migrant woman that I've known for so many years, she was injured in that farm, she had her leg broken and several parts, after being run over by a tractor trailer. So we had to intervene myself, and other folks from Justicia [for Migrant Workers]. We had to ensure that she received all the medical attention that she had to receive here in Canada. Because at that time, her employer, and the Mexican Consulate Officials at that particular moment, they just wanted her to go back to Mexico. And sign a waiver saying that she forfeits — she just gives up on all of the medical attention that she would receive here, and that she would instead seek medical attention in Mexico. And so they wanted her to pay out of her own pocket to have the surgeries that she needed, and then she was supposed to get reimbursed. So how does that make any sense, right? And so one particular night, I went to go see her after she left the hospital, to see how she was doing. And she was staying in this portable. And so I went to talk to her, see how she was doing, and it was an awful place to recover with all of these bunk beds. And she was also left alone, when the rest of the migrant women had to go into the fields and work. And we were worried that at any moment, the Mexican Consulate or — that she would be sent home to Mexico, and nobody could do anything because she would be isolated. So when we were talking, all of a sudden the employer shows up, and he starts yelling at me in front of all of the migrant women. And I said, “can we take this outside, because they also can understand what we're saying. So it's just best that we go outside.” He’s like, “no, I want them to hear and see me talking to you.” And I realized that he wanted to show his power over me. And that he was in control. And, and then the migrant woman, she was so upset, and so worried — she's like, “Evelyn please get me out of here.” And I said, “Okay, I'll come back on Friday. And then we'll make a plan. And I'll get you out of here. So that way you're safe. And you can continue on with your medical treatment.” But at the end of the night, again, the employer appeared out of nowhere, when I was getting into this car rental with another organizer. And then, Rene (Salazar), the organizer that I was with at that time, he went into the driving driver's seat, and then I got into the passenger side, but then the employer was still yelling at us, and he had alcohol on his breath. He was completely upset and yelling and screaming, and he threatened us — if we ever come back to the farm, his private property, that he was going to call the police on us. And I don't know what Rene said to him — that the employer was so angry that he opened up the door on his side. And he was gonna eject him out of the car. But then I said, “don't you touch him!” And then we could call the police on the employer. And then the last thing I'm going to do is call the police, because of all the issues with the police. But I didn't want to be arrested because he, the employer, could have us arrested for trespassing. Because it was his private property. That's another issue too, with accessing migrant workers. So we had to get the worker out of there that same night. And so the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) showed up, there was two OPP cruisers, we called another member of the community, so that way we weren't seen as the crazy activists from Toronto that were causing trouble. And then one of the OPP officers said, “an apple is never going to taste the same way again.”
[soft guitar strumming transition]
I would like to say that … you should never forget that we are human beings … and that perhaps they are not bad people, but sometimes, they want us to work and act like machines. And so, maybe I cannot fully express what I want to say but they should remember that we are here and we also have problems that we are dealing with … problems that perhaps nobody cares about but … the fact is that we are human beings and that they should treat us as such.
[soft guitar strumming transition]
Evelyn Encalada Grez 54:20
And so that was the issue in that farm. And the employer decided not to hire any women for the following year. But then I was blamed. And so I thought, you know, what am I doing? Like, am I throwing my life away? And I, you know, I asked from my soul — I asked my ancestors, I prayed really profoundly. The next day I get an email from Guelph University that I was invited to the United Nations, all expenses paid, to talk about my research and my work with migrant women. So what I wanted to say is that, always ask about your role. And also when these situations happen, we have to also look at everything in context. That many times it's easier to look horizontally and engage in horizontal oppression, rather than analyze the global context, global capitalism. And that's the story that I took to the United Nations. You know, it's a story of this particular migrant woman. And so these are the stories that play out invisibly, time and time again, in the farms. And it's completely unconscionable that it's 2021 — that Canada still has these types of programs. And we can trace back to the Chinese railway workers, and how immigrant people of color — brown and black bodies, have been used for the nation, but they have not been part of the nation. I think, in my work, what I also want to do is make more connections with migrant workers and Indigenous communities across Canada. Because for instance, Guatemalan workers — workers from Guatemala, are Mayan, and they have been — some of them displaced by Canadian mining corporations, they have been brutalized historically, since the time of the conquest in the 1980s, when there was a dirty war. So there's much more that needs to be done. But I'm also quite tired, because I've been doing this for 18 years. So now, I also want to inspire and train a new set of students and scholars that are going to take this movement, hopefully forward.
Alyha Bardi 56:35
Evelyn, thank you for sharing. Thank you for sharing that story of yours, which I really feels highlights the importance of transnation storytelling — as you say. I feel that stories like these really help to bring out the lived experiences of migrant women working within Canada — rather than just imagining these workers as faceless people or numbers, as research can often do. So yeah, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your research and their experiences.
Evelyn Encalada Grez 57:10
Thank you so much.
[soft guitar music]
Kathy Feng 57:18
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.
Alyha Bardi 57:25
Thank you for listening to this episode of Women, Work, More series with Evelyn Encalada Grez. To learn more about Justicia for Migrant Women, or Evelyn’s past research, check out the show notes below.
Melissa Roach 57:38
A special thanks to the all-women team that created this series: our audio editor Paige Smith, cover artist and secondary editor Kathy Feng, transcriber and copywriter Melissa Roach, and our host and producer Alyha Bardi — as well as to each and every woman that spoke on the podcast, and the migrant women who participated in Evelyn’s research.
Alyha Bardi 57:59
Thanks again for listening, stay tuned for the final instalment of this series on Thursday next week — as we hear from Sheila Block and Jo-Ann Hannah as they speak about economic insecurity within senior women. And we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.
[soft guitar music]