Essential Only as Labor: Coachella Valley Farmworkers during COVID-19


  • Christian O. Paiz



In this article, I attempt to come to terms with the Trump administration’s designation of farmers as “essential” to the economy, which allowed—or condemned—them to work while the majority of U.S. residents sheltered in place in the spring and early summer of 2020. I provide a snapshot of the Coachella Valley during the COVID-19 outbreak and relate farmworker pandemic conditions to a century-long exploitation of Mexican agricultural communities in the U.S. Southwest. I argue that a relational approach to race making and racialized life is key for understanding farmworkers’ present marginality: to see their disproportionate pandemic vulnerability, we must relate it to other racialized people’s historical oppression, especially within Indigenous and African American communities. But I also insist on pairing this approach with a transnational frame that centers the role of noncitizen labor in subsidizing U.S. consumption. Farmworker marginality, in other words, indicates more than a nimble and relational white supremacy. It also reflects the United States’ imperial relationship to the Global South and its citizenry’s reliance on noncitizen “essential labor.” Farmworker marginality suggests further that in a world marked by a growing refugee diaspora, a climate change crisis, and continued wealth inequalities, the United States’ citizen/noncitizen divide will continue to grow and shape its racialized hierarchies. To study farmworker pandemic conditions, in short, is to study the world to come.