While training as an amateur boxer as a teenager in California’s Central Valley, former unified light welterweight champion José Ramírez harvested bell peppers while on summer vacation to help support his family.
“That was my first job. And I would look at many of the older men and women making such an effort doing the same work … that stayed on my mind,” Ramírez said.
About a 2½-hour drive southwest from where Ramírez called home, Julián Araujo grew up dreaming of soccer stardom, but stark reminders of the physically exhausting farm work his family and many others were accustomed to were never far from sight.
“[My friend’s] dad would get home from work and he would sit on the couch and just go to sleep,” said Araujo, a right-back for LaLiga club Las Palmas. “I used to see him covered in mud and just sit on the couch. His body, automatically shut off because of how much work and what he had to go through during that day.”
Araujo and Ramírez, both world-class Mexican American athletes and sons of Central California agriculture communities, have used their respective platforms on behalf of the workforce behind the industry. They shared their personal experiences and insights into their common cause recently in a joint interview with ESPN for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Ramírez, 31, recalled an episode on the farm in which he and another man pulled a worker to safety after she fainted from the heat, taking her out of the sun and bringing her water. She was unable to finish the rest of her shift, yet she was back at work the following day, readying herself before the crack of dawn.
These images experienced firsthand within such a vital industry serve as the driving forces behind the athletes’ cause.
“We just need to acknowledge that [these workers] do so many sacrifices and put their bodies in so many harsh conditions,” Araujo said. “We need to let them know that they’re appreciated. A lot of the food we eat is coming from them.”
Araujo’s father, Jorge, is a former lettuce farmer from Guanajuato, in central Mexico. His mother, Guadalupe, is the daughter of farmworkers. Ramírez’s father, Carlos, has also worked the fields of the Central Valley.
Although they have never met in person, Araujo and Ramírez share similar identity paths that straddle two countries. Araujo, a former LA Galaxy standout, was transferred to Barcelona in February and is currently at Las Palmas on loan. He represented the U.S. at the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup but has since switched to the Mexican national team as a senior squad member. He lifted the Gold Cup this summer with El Tri, his first international trophy.
For his part, Ramírez represented the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics, having won a Golden Gloves title the year before. By 2015, when he was 23, he had earned his first light welterweight title, defeating Johnny Garcia, and remained a champion until 2021. Ramírez often honors his roots by donning traditional Mexican fabric patterns and attire when entering the ring.
History of hardships
The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that over a third of the country’s vegetables and nearly three-quarters of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in the state. Additionally, its exports around the world for 2021 totaled $22.5 billion in value. Coincidentally, Mexico is one of its top destinations for exports, with more than $1.2 billion worth of commodities shipped to the country.
In particular, Central California has long been considered a hub for agricultural activity in America. Avenal, Ramírez’s hometown, is Spanish for “oat field,” a nod to what early explorers encountered in the area before it was settled. Because of the prominent presence of the nut farming industry in Avenal, it has branded itself as the “Pistachio Capital of the World.”
Araujo’s native Lompoc, in California’s Central Coast, has a long history of producing crops on a regional and national level because of its temperate weather and especially fertile soil. In recent years, wine production has become an important economic driver for the area.
American Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck, himself a native of the region, used the area often as the setting for classics such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” Steinbeck’s works are often cited as gateways to understanding the hardships agricultural workers have historically endured.
The Center for Farmworker Families estimates that between 500,000 and 800,000 farmworkers live in California, the largest concentration of any state in the country. Approximately three quarters of them are undocumented, and the lack of legal protection means many workers — deemed essential at the height of COVID-19 — are also without basic labor protections.
To hear Araujo and Ramírez describe it, the labor itself is taxing even in ideal weather conditions. Temperatures in the Central Valley can reach up to 115 degrees and regularly climb above triple digits during the summer months. Shade and proper hydration are often luxuries.
Pesticide exposure also remains a significant risk on the fields, but illnesses can go unreported for a variety of reasons, including lost wages, employer intimidation or lack of transportation to seek medical care.
“[We need] good companies who pay well,” Ramírez said. “Their duty should be not just to pay them every week, but to provide health insurance, water, shade and proper restrooms.”
Taking action during the pandemic
Just months into the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, Araujo, then with the Galaxy, organized meal deliveries to the fields around Lompoc with personalized message designed to lift the spirits of the recipients. Later that year, he donated to United Farm Workers in support of laborers and their families while encouraging others to follow his lead through social media.
“Julián saw a post on social media about farmworkers, about the conditions they were working in during the pandemic,” said Guadalupe Zúñiga, Julian’s mother. “They were working with face masks, in the heat. So he told me he wanted to do something for them, and he asked me to help him plan it out.”
Media coverage of Araujo’s efforts stirred an anonymous donor who, according to Guadalupe, was inspired to support the cause because of her son’s initiative.
“From that point, [Julián] has wanted to something each year, even if it’s small, to keep recognizing the fact we appreciate the work they do on the farm,” she said.
Also during the pandemic, Ramírez sent “appreciation boxes” full of health items and household essentials to workers in the Central Valley. Then, he personally roamed the fields to distribute thousands of facemasks, water bottles, hand sanitizers, gloves and food. In early 2021, Ramírez set out to increase awareness about COVID-19 vaccination by speaking directly to workers.
Before fighting Josh Taylor in 2021, he announced he would dedicate his performance to them in an effort to maximize awareness for their cause.
Additionally, Ramírez has advocated for political action as a way to secure better quality of life for those — including children — who “feed America” and the world through their work on Californian fields.
“I would advise people to open their minds to what’s being said. “Pay close attention to the law, to politicians who run for office, not just on the national level,” Ramírez said. “But locally, in your district, your city’s mayor, senators and the governor of California and put pressure on them to help.”
Committed to the cause
Next year, the state of California will hold a ballot measure present during November’s federal election related to improving the conditions for farmworkers. Known as the California Farming and Food-Access Bond Measure, the proposal would allocate $3.365 billion in bonds destined, in part, to “support the health, safety, and financial security of the food and agriculture workforce,” while decreasing the dependence on pesticides and fertilizers that “disproportionately harm farmworker communities and communities adjacent to farmland.”
Any such measure passing would probably mean a step in the right direction to aid the common cause of Araujo and Ramírez. Though both expressed interest in collaborating with each other, the constant bustle on the pitch and in the ring has understandably pulled them away from home.
Araujo turned 22 in August and has become an instant contributor for Las Palmas since the current season began. Buoyed by the Gold Cup win, he continues to receive call-ups for Mexico en route to the 2026 World Cup jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
After losing his WBC and WBO light welterweight belts to Taylor in 2021, Ramírez has bounced back with wins against Jose Pedraza and Richard Commey. His next target is Teofimo Lopez, who owns two light welterweight belts.
Sitting in his apartment in Las Palmas, on the scenic Balearic Islands off the coast of mainland Spain, Araujo smiles and nods to the discourse playing out in front of him. Ramírez is once again bringing up the point of political action and community involvement as a way to drag farmworkers’ rights into the mainstream.
The two are half a world away, but in a sense, they’ve never been closer.
“I think it would be a very good thing to join together,” Araujo told Ramírez. “To use our voices, we’re both young, and we can both say what we feel.”