Alumnus facilitates improvements in working conditions for migrant workers
Blaz Gutierrez ’01 found his life’s work in human rights advocacy during his first-year seminar at Redlands. Taught by Professor Tracy Fitzsimmons, the class focused on Latin American politics and spirituality. Then, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú was booked as a baccalaureate speaker at the University, Gutierrez was quick to approach her staff about an internship. As a result of his initiative, he went to Mexico City to work with Menchú’s organization and became involved in public policy advocacy that affects change for individuals in local communities.
Today, Gutierrez uses those experiences in his work with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a nonprofit group with a 50-year commitment to justice. As directing attorney at CRLA’s office in Coachella, Gutierrez focuses on domestic human rights issues. His clients, many of whom are farmworkers who are residents of the East Coachella Valley, often face 60-hour work weeks but only earn approximately $14,000 annually.
“Farmworkers are some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in California,” explains Gutierrez. “While we have good labor laws here, enforcement of those laws is often the issue. Housing and employment discrimination are barriers to justice for individuals and families. Some of the challenges facing the people I work with include wage theft and public health issues, like exposure to pesticides and substandard housing. Lack of basic services, such as those provided by doctors and attorneys, is also a barrier to a dignified life.”
Advocacy can effect real change, however. As a result of a settlement CRLA facilitated in the area 15 years ago, the Mecca Comfort Station project was recently completed. During harvest, 200 people per day now use the station’s restrooms, laundry and shower facilities specially designed for migrant workers. Without these resources, workers would otherwise bathe and wash their clothes in contaminated irrigation canals.
“It is great to be a part of an organization that has been doing good things for the community for so long,” he says, “and to learn so much from my clients.”
Learn more at crla.org.
—Michele Nielsen ’99