A Word About the Word Campesino

By Jason Woods

April 17, 2012

Irma America Maquim cooks in her home in San Sebastian, Guatemala. Photo by Russell Powell.

Today is International Day of Peasant Struggle, a day commemorating the massacre of 19 landless farmers in Brazil who were demanding land and justice in 1996. Every year on this date, people around the world unite through actions that support the rights of "peasants" and small-holder farmers.

The event's creation owes a lot to La Via Campesina, an organization that Heifer sometimes collaborates with in our Americas Area Program, and the event is called Dia Internacional de la Lucha Campesina in Spanish. I wanted to take a second to talk about the translation of the word campesina (or campesino), because it's an important word in relation to Heifer's work in the Americas, and I think a lot of meaning is lost when the word is translated to English.

I think it's safe to say that, in Heifer's Latin America projects, just about every one of our project participants would identify themselves as a campesino or campesina. But what does that mean, exactly? The most literal (and frequently used) translation is "peasant," but that's not really a word we use much in U.S. English anymore, unless it's found in a history book. "Small-holder farmer" isn't a bad translation, but it misses some of the word's richness in Spanish.

Sara Koopman, who is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia, writes a wonderful blog called Spanish for Social Change that focuses on social justice terminology for translators and interpreters. She has several posts on the term campesino and points to Via Campesina as an example of the complexity of the word. Via Campesina defines itself as "the international peasant movement" (clearly translating campesino as peasant) that brings together (and here's their extended, de facto campesino definition) "millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world." In subsequent posts, Sara also offers "family farmer" and "farmworker" as translations she has come across.

That's a mouthful for just one word in Spanish. Sara's recommendation for campesino is to import the word to English, then educate about it so that it is understood at all of these groups are included when the word is used. I agree... hence, the blog post.

For more context, Fernando Larrea, Heifer Brazil country director, said, "In general terms, (the word campesino) refers to people who live and work in rural areas and everything associated with that way of life." More specifically, campesinos are rural producers who often do not own land and work small plots, with the family constituting most or all of the labor. The food they harvest is for their own consumption and sale to the market, but both activities are aimed to maintain the life of the family as opposed to accumulation of capital.

Another important aspect, Fernando said, is the presence of specific values and cultural elements of rural areas, such as reciprocity and the redistribution of production in community relations.

Unfortunately, campesinos often suffer from marginalization, exploitation via sale prices that do not represent all of the work invested or, as mentioned above, restricted (or no) access to land. Heifer and our project partners/participants are working together to overcome these obstacles while moving forward on the path to end hunger and poverty.

"Small-scale farmers have been pushed aside in many places because people don't see their contributions to a globalized world," said Adriana Garcia-DeVun, program manager for the Americas Program at Heifer. Adriana added that, despite this marginalization, there is a lot of pride behind the word campesino.

"Being a campesino/a is beginning to be seen as an honorable profession," she said. "(You can see) the same pride you get by saying you're a doctor, police officer or school teacher, someone (who) contributes to the well-being of society. The use of a simple word, campesino, (makes) them a part of a movement (that is) feeding the world, not just a peasant trying to make it day to day.

"The work of organizations like Heifer and Via Campesina help people regain or further develop their sense of pride in cultivating the earth for the benefit of their children and sometimes their community."

The issue of land access--or more specifically land grabbing--is the focus of this year's Dia Internacional de la Lucha Campesina. For more information on today's event, visit La Via Campesina.