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New center in Riverhead aims to advance rural workers’ rights on the East End

Members of the council, local workers and their families gathered Saturday for a tour of the facilities and a discussion of the programs and activities planned at the new center, followed by a Thanksgiving meal. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A new center for rural workers has opened in Riverhead with the goal to provide a place in the community for workers, by workers, to empower themselves.

CASA or Center of Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment, located at 573 Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead, is open to all East End workers, independent of their ethnicity, and is the culmination of a collaboration of local rural workers, the Rural and Migrant Ministry, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island — which lent the site, Grace Episcopal Church— and the Presbytery of Long Island.

Comprised of a “consejo” or council of about 12 members from different backgrounds, they decide what are the most urgently needed programs in the community.

“We have members in the consejo from Guatemala, El Salvador, even indigenous people — and at least three different languages are spoken,” Rural Migrant Ministry Long Island coordinator Nathan Berger said.

Juan Antonio Zuniga, a Mattituck resident and member of the CASA council, explained that several rural workers had formed a group years ago with the help of the Rural and Migrant Ministry in an effort to organize themselves and talk about the topics that affect them, but without a stable place to gather, it was hard to inspire others to join them.

“Having a center will really make a difference,” he said.

Ananias Canel, also a CASA council member, said that in order for the center to be successful, the input from local rural workers is essential.

“We were looking for a place where we could form a community, not based on religion, but a place where people’s voices can be heard, where we can get educated, learn about our rights and responsibilities and to find our identities as rural workers living on the East End,” he said.

The center will offer different types of programming: leadership development, cooperatives, how to speak with allies, justice for farm workers workshops, OSHA training, mechanic workshops, immigration clinics and ELL (English-Language Learner) classes.

“What’s great about having this center is that is a community effort,” Berger said. “It’s different because it’s a group of local people who has come together to create solutions to problems in their own communities.”

Rural and Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit organization supported by five different church denominations, is dedicated to improving the living and working conditions for farmworkers and day laborers, developing rural leaders and empowering their
children and families. It already operates centers in western New York, the Catskills and the Hudson Valley.

Rural and Migrant Ministry first came to Long Island about three years ago for the “Justice for Farmworkers” campaign, a statewide educational and legislative movement aimed at giving farmworkers the same rights that every other worker in New York receives.

“By coming here and putting pressure on politicians we learned there is a large population of farm workers on the East End,” Berger said. “We started hearing their stories and realized they didn’t have a center that does justice-seeking work and that gives the community a place for them.”

Working the vast agricultural fields of the East End is not an easy job, Berger said. Historically at a disadvantage compared to other types of workers, farm workers labor hard, long hours, especially during the summer when the heat can be exhausting, six days a week, sometimes more, at minimum wage and with no overtime pay, disability or collective bargaining rights.

“It pains me to know that we don’t have the same rights as other groups of workers,” CASA council member and farm worker Boris Martinez said. “We contribute to the economy, pay taxes just like everybody else, but we are treated as less, even though without us there wouldn’t be food on people’s tables.”

Martinez who participated in last year’s March for Farmworker Justice — a 200-plus mile march from Smithtown to Albany organized by Rural and Migrant Ministry, several churches, community advocates and workers — said that farm workers’ labor is not appreciated enough and that CASA will help them identify and deal with the issues affecting them.

“A lot of workers live in constant fear, for example— fear to not understand, fear to be fired, fear for their families to be deported,” he said.

According to a 2015 report by the New York State Comptroller, farm labor is of paramount importance, and without it, the local economy would suffer greatly.

Long Island has 659 farms and approximately 39,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Suffolk County, the report says. The region is ranked first in the state for aquaculture as well as for nursery stock crops and sod. Suffolk County ranks third in the State for overall agricultural sales, and is an official wine region, with 90 wineries.

The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island made a commitment to partner with Rural and Migrant Ministry to create a ministry center at Grace Church in Riverhead as a nucleus for advancing the organization’s work and ministering to the thousands of day workers, farmworkers and laborers in the diocese, especially on the East End, according to the Right Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, bishop of the diocese. 

“The day workers, farm workers, and laborers in our midst are working with no benefits, no legal protections, no worker’s rights, no health care, sub-standard housing, language and cultural disadvantages. These children of God are living today the nightmare my grandparents, and I suspect many of your grandparents, lived at the turn of the last century and more recently for immigrants from the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and Africa,” Provenzano said in his address to the diocesan convention last year. The church’s partnership with Rural and Migrant Ministry on the center to serve the East End “will help us to live into the fullness of our call to serve Christ in all people,” the bishop said.

Berger said CASA is still expanding and he urged the community to join and become a part of it.

“It’s free and open to everybody,” he said. “We have to stand together.”

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria