– Ruhama Tereda, 2021 SAF intern
Piedmont Health Services
This past summer, I drove hundreds of miles through the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Long winding roads were framed by the treeline that extended from rolling hills of mostly tobacco. I’d never seen a tobacco plant in person until this summer. Weeks went by and revealed how tiny green sprouts neatly planted in a sea of rust-colored dirt grew into towering plants. As we conducted health surveys with farmworkers, we’d sometimes comment on the plants. From a distance, the tall green plants looked lightly dusted with snow; a closer look revealed tiny flowers on top of each stalk.
A few weeks passed and the flowers disappeared. As we measured farmworkers’ blood pressure and weight, they told us of how they spent that day cutting the flowers off the tobacco plants. During a vaccine drive under an open shed with the smell of burning tobacco around us, I learned that commercial tobacco production requires the flowers to be cut. This practice ensures that the plant is able to devote more energy to tobacco growth in the leaves below.
To me, the tobacco plant represents many things. Lives are endangered and lost cultivating this plant through green tobacco sickness. The production and distribution of this plant are controlled by a few corporations who exploit production lines and target vulnerable communities for profit. Tobacco represents an opportunity to support a family far away with long, hard work.
In this path for farmworker justice, the flowers of the movement are often cut prematurely. I am reminded that for every victory, there are countless losses. But like the tobacco plant, the fight continues. Outwardly, the flower is gone. But the plant redirects energy to the rest of the leaves. When we can’t reach a camp during outreach, we go again. When the powerful try to plant discrimination in legislation, we lobby. When we hear of farmworker injustice, we organize. And even when our efforts are fruitless, como la flor del tabaco, we continue to grow.