Beginning in September is National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States. This month, which goes from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, recognizes the contributions and influence of Hispanic and/or Latine people to the history, culture, and achievements of this country. As of 2021, Hispanic and Latine people compose roughly 6 percent of the nation’s population. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Hispanic/Latino community makes up about 23 percent of the nation’s agricultural producers in 2017. According to information from 2012 by the National Center for Farmworker Health, about 71 percent of our nations farmworker’s are Latino. This count doesn’t even account for Latinos in fields such as veterinary medicine and agricultural research.
From advancements in science and technology to changes in agricultural policy and even diversified food experiences, Hispanic- and Latine-identifying people helped shape and diversify our food systems into what we know and love to date.
In a nation so diverse, nothing can be done without inclusivity and unity. Hispanic and Latine people have helped change the way we eat, farm and work.
In honor of their contributions to agriculture, here are three Hispanic or Latine agriculturalists you need to know about.
Eligio ‘Kika’ de la Garza II (1927-2017)
De la Garza II was born in Mercedes, Hidalgo County, Texas and was elected in to the U.S. House in 1964, leading him to become the first Mexican-American to chair a committee in the house since 1945. Throughout his 32-year career, he advanced programs that would support the nation’s agricultural sector.
His accomplishment helped to break through the barrier of the Anglo-American political dominance prevalent in his district at the time and sought to increase Latine visibility in Congress.
From 1981 to 1994, he served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, where he passed several laws related to agriculture, including the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which provided assistance to struggling farm credit lending institutions. He was also very influential in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has greatly impacted commodity trading for U.S. producers. He was also a founding member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
In response to the Immigration Control and Legalization Amendments Act of 1986, De la Garza used his background and influence to support an amendment to prohibit immigration officials from entering agricultural operations without a search warrant or the owner’s consent.
De la Garza said people working in fields also deserve to be protected by the Fourth Amendment.
“This amendment will ensure that farming operations will not be disrupted by broad scale, random raids,” he said. “Work stoppages are very costly to the farmer, especially when the crops need harvesting in a timely manner.”
These are only a handful of the things he has done to elevate agriculture in the U.S.
Dolores Clara Huerta (April 10, 1930-Present)
The Farm Workers Rights movement is a very important and influential piece of history to Californians. This movement started in the ’60s in the Central Valley and aimed to fight for better working conditions for California farm workers. Cesar Chavez is usually the first person that comes to most people’s minds when they think of this movement. While he was very influential in it, he was not the only person responsible for its successes. Dolores Huerta is an impactful hidden leader behind it all as well.
Huerta was born in Dawson, New Mexico, and moved to Stockton, California, as a child. She began her work as a labor rights activist in 1955 when she co-founded the Community Service Organization and founded the Agricultural Workers Association. In 1962, Huerta and Cesar combined their passion for labor rights activism and worked together to create the National Farm Workers Association and eventually the United Farm Workers’ Union.
Some of her most notable work includes but is not limited to the 1965 Delano strike, where she lead thousands of grape workers to through their fight for a fair workers’ contract. Her work in these fights included demanding better working conditions and access to unemployment and healthcare benefits for farm workers. Because of her hard work and leadership leading nationwide table grape boycotts, they were able to attain a successful union contract by 1970. She led another boycott in 1973 which lead to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, allowing farm workers to form unions.
Huerta’s work as an activist did not end in the ’70s, and her work extended to other communities to reach different goals. She also worked to elect more Latinos and women in office and has been very outspoken on women’s issues.
Huerta’s hard work helped her receive several awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and soon became a board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation and is currently the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
To this day, her work as an activist continues. As recently as August 2022, she made an appearance at the UFW’s march for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB2183, which if signed would empower farmworkers to vote free from retaliation from growers and supervisors.
Evangelina Villegas (1924-2017)
Evangelina Villegas was a Mexican cereal biochemist whose work with maize led to the development of high-quality protein maize (QPM). She was born in Mexico City and even attended school there where she obtained bachelor degrees in chemistry and biology from the National Polytechnic Institute. She also obtained a master’s degree in cereal technology from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in cereal chemistry and breeding from North Dakota State University.
She began her career in 1950 as a chemist at the Nation Institute of Nutrition and at the Special Studies Office in Mexico. It was later turned into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and initiated the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory in 1957.
From 1972, Villegas was responsible for the development of a chemical methodology to screen samples for maize nutritional and protein quality. This allowed for the development of QPM in the 1980s.
Villegas took her expertise all over the world such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia and shared her work with other scientists.
No article could ever capture and appreciate every Hispanic and/or Latine agriculturalist who has impacted the way we practice agriculture. Nor should National Hispanic Heritage Month be the only month we acknowledge and appreciate Hispanic and/or Latine people in agriculture.
Saul Reyes serves as the 2022 American Farmland Trust Agriculture Communications Intern at AGDAILY, with a focus on helping to amplify diversity and minority voices in agriculture. An FFA alum, Reyes is a student at California State University-Chico and is double majoring in plant and soil science and multicultural and gender studies, while minoring in intersectional Chicanx/Latinx studies and public relations. He can be found on Twitter @sreyes710.