Librada Paz – Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate 2012

By on March 31, 2013

Award brings new life to years of farm worker advocacy

by Doug Hickerson

Librada Paz sits with the sculpture award she received as the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate. The award cites her extraordinary work for farmworkers’ rights. “Ms. Paz personifies the grit and passion of a great human rights champion. She’s lived and overcome the horror of being a victim to become one of the greatest defenders of farmworkers in the United States.”

Those are the words of one of the judges selecting Brockport resident Librada Paz as winner of the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award (see side bar). Librada Paz is one of only three U.S. citizens to win the award in the 29-year history of the RFK organization. The award “was established in 1984 to recognize those individuals who stand up to oppression at grave personal risk in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights,” according to literature from the RFK Center for Human Rights in Washington, D.C. As the recipient of the 29th annual prize, she joined 43 RFK Human Rights Award Laureates from 26 countries.

How did a resident of Brockport village end up with such heroic status among activist peers nationally and internationally?

It started with her dream as a young girl in her hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico to “be the highest I can be,” envisioning technology and science. There was no influence from others, she said, just “my observation of foreign people visiting my town and wondering ‘What are they doing? What did they study? And, what else can I learn?’ ”

She migrated to the U.S. with her older sister at age 15, joining their brothers in Ohio, and beginning work in the fields. They then moved on to New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Her life as a farm worker consisted of sharing living quarters with up to 16 people, sometimes working 14 hours daily, and suffering abuse and sexual assault. While her family’s home base was Okeechobee, Florida, she attended 9th grade.

Graduating Brockport High with special recognition

Wanting to continue her education, Librada came to Brockport to live with one of her two brothers. After starting Brockport High School as a sophomore, she joined her brothers working in the fields weekends and vacations. “It (school) was difficult for me,” she said. “I was shy and afraid of speaking because I barely knew English at the time.”

“My teachers were nice; they worried about me not finishing school because I was pregnant,” Librada said about her senior year. “Thank God everything worked out really well. I graduated and the baby was born one week after graduation.” That son is Brandon Nieves. Inspired by his mother, he now attends RIT on a scholarship. Both mother and son received special recognition at their Brockport High graduations in 1993 and 2011, respectively (see side bar).

Librada attended Monroe Community College part time for about four years. She took a year off, and then transferred to RIT, choosing a mechanical engineering major, fulfilling her dream as a young girl. She emphasized machine designs, which fit her current interest in designing cars.

The demanding journey between high school and RIT graduation

In the ten years between high school graduation, attending MCC, and RIT graduation, Librada’s life was a mixture of working, attending classes, being a mother, learning about lobbying, teaching farm workers and educating others on the plight of migrant farmers.

Librada first became interested in advocacy for migrant workers when in high school. Each year for three years she went to Albany with other migrant workers’ children to “Farm Worker Advocacy Day.” They learned about the legislative and lobbying process and how to be a voice in their government. As the only student who was actually a farm worker (on weekends and vacations), one year she was asked to share her own experience with the students. That sparked her first interest in speaking for farm workers.

She continued to share her experience with students at the Albany conference for several years after high school graduation and continued to learn more about farm worker advocacy. She also worked with Oak Orchard Clinic for about 10 years, speaking in migrant health clinics when workers were arriving for harvest season. Migrant Education, a program of the SUNY Research Foundation, called her to tutor the children of farmworkers; she also worked with them for many years in the Summer School Migrant Program.

She attended MCC, working in the fields when she could, and continuing with the health clinic, while caring for her child. After MCC, she was strapped financially, worked part time on and off, until she was accepted at RIT.

RIT: “Working hard enough to make it happen”

Her experience at RIT “was not easy,” she said, describing her situation as a single mom, with no supporting husband, and commuting between Brockport and RIT. “But, I really loved it.” She was the only woman in the classroom. “I was proud of being a Mexican farm worker and a woman studying engineering,” aware that few women chose that major at the time. She was also amazed and angry about the number of engineering students who dropped their majors. “I could not understand that,” she said. “They didn’t work hard enough to make it happen.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2003.

After RIT: Not the “American Dream”

As a Hispanic woman with a mechanical engineering degree from RIT, Librada could have pursued “The American Dream” with a lucrative career. How did she choose to continue her self-sacrificing life of farm worker advocacy?

Already a board member of the Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) before RIT graduation, she continued learning about the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act and serving the community by connecting with farm workers (see side bar). A year later she became an RMM staff member working full time to empower farm workers to speak up for their rights. She also spoke for her cause at churches, schools, and colleges.

Several years later she was made director of the Western New York district of RMM but had to leave after a year because of the work load. Representing RMM as a volunteer she has continued educating migrant communities by speaking to workers in the field and to the larger community. She also has been visiting senators and representatives with delegations of migrant workers accompanying her.

RFK Award adds new life to Librada’s cause

In the 20 years since high school graduation, Librada has worked for the oppressed migrant worker, especially with RMM in the last 10 years. The target of her advocacy is the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act which has been held up for 10 years in the New York State legislature. Now, The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award includes a partnership with the RFK Center “to launch a renewed advocacy effort” for the passage of the act. The Center provides financial support, plus tactical assistance over the six years of the partnership. Her next project is a speaking tour ending up in Brockport on April 13 (see side bar).

What is Librada’s dream now that she has the JFK Human Rights Award? “I really want to pass the farm workers bill with the support of the Kennedy Center and the network,” she said. “That’s my new dream.”

Librada’s dream may be the destiny suggested in her birth name “Librada Paz,” which means “Liberty, Peace.”

How it came to be

A panel of prestigious judges selected Librada from a myriad of nominees over a months-long process. Dean Makau Mutua, Professor of Law and Dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, was one of those judges. He is quoted at the beginning of this article.

•Librada is a 1993 Brockport High School graduate. She received the Presidential Silver Seal Certificate on awards night in recognition of her extraordinary effort to achieve academic excellence.

•Son Brandon is a 2011 Brockport High School graduate. He received the Linda Schleede Huffman Memorial Award at graduation. This award goes to a deserving BHS senior in honor of the memory of Linda Schleede Huffman, to help encourage them in their chosen field. The recipient possesses skills and achievement in photography or another artistic field. He is currently a sophomore at RIT on a scholarhip.

•The Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) is a statewide, non-sectarian organization that seeks rural justice. Its mission is to create a just rural New York state by standing with the disenfranchised (especially farm and migrant workers), promoting their leadership, and addressing unjust systems and structures. The Western New York Council was created in 2000, after the research and recommendation of Barbara Deming, Redman Road resident. For several years, she was president of the RMM Board of Directors and remains an RMM Fellow. She was a very helpful resource for this article.

•The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act seeks to amend labor law to allow farm workers overtime pay, a day of rest, disability insurance, the right to collective bargaining and other labor protections granted to other workers in New York State.

•Coming to Brockport: Librada’s next project is a speaking tour of the state, starting on Long Island. She will go to different towns, visiting farmworkers and allies to educate and empower the people about the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, ending in Brockport on Saturday, April 13. That will be celebrated as a Farmworker Day at the First Baptist Church from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with migrant worker communities and the public attending. It is hosted by the RMM and the Brockport Ecumenical Outreach Committee.