The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers

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Published on Narratively on September 3, 2014

An innovative college program opens privileged young eyes to the million undocumented laborers who toil away in an invisible America. Story and photos by Michael Durbin

It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.

“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.

I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.

Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.

The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented migrant farmworkers in the U.S. and the issues they face: workplace hazards, inadequate housing, low wages.

Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.

Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?”

“There’s Delaney’s, in Five Points,” answers Christine Burke. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. “They have pint nights on Wednesday.”

“Delaney’s. Got it.”

At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here. He is deep-voiced, slim and fit — an avid soccer player since age four — and wears glasses on a face rarely devoid of a smile. When I ask what brought him here he doesn’t hesitate:

“For me it’s all about the language.”

Eric’s Spanish is already quite good for a non-native. He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school. But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.

Around half of the Safistas are already fluent in Spanish. It’s their native language. Unlike Eric, these Safistas come from farmworking families. Working with SAF broadens their view of farmworker issues beyond their personal experience. Their participation also allows Safistas from more privileged backgrounds to learn about the farmworker experience not only from workers the meet in the fields, but from their peers as well.

Eric Britton was born in June 1992 — the very month SAF first sent students into the fields. Every summer since, while Safistas worked in some of the poorest counties in America where farmworkers live, Eric was growing up in one of the wealthiest.

Montgomery County, Maryland, lies just outside of Washington, D.C. Its tonier parts are home to country clubs, houses with seven-digit price tags and private schools where tuition can top $30,000. Eric and his two sisters went to public school in Rockville, one of the county’s more middle-class areas. Their upbringing on a tree-canopied street was typical of the area: nice brick house, weekend movies at the Regal cinema and summer vacations to places like the Florida Keys. He took up skydiving when he turned eighteen, something he enjoys now whenever he can.

Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista - an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).
Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista – an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).

After five rainy days in Efland, the 2013 Safistas pack their cars and disperse across a multi-state triangle spanning both Carolinas and some of Virginia, an area of more than 70,000 square miles. SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).

Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.

Authorized by Congress in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the MEP provides educational services — from supplemental classes to private tutoring — to migrant children who struggle to keep up as they move from one school to another.

“I think I’ll be translating documents and helping teachers,” Eric tells his parents.

He’s right about the Columbia part. The rest is just a guess, and not a very good one.


Eric is assigned to the Lowcountry District of the South Carolina MEP. His training in a sleek office tower in Columbia is brief and loaded with jargon: His job is to ID and R (identify and register) OSYs (out of school youth) on COEs (Certificates of Enrollment) then return to camps to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). That’s about the extent of formal training.

Zach Taylor is Eric's supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.
Zach Taylor is Eric’s supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.

Most of what he learns comes during ride-alongs with his supervisor, Zach Taylor. In contrast to Eric’s slim frame, Zach Taylor has the upper body of a weightlifter. With his Anglo skin and crew-cut hair, farmworkers used to mistake him for a cop. He fixed that by buying a baseball cap with Viva Mexico! on the bill. He never goes to a camp without it.

Zach is only a few years older than Eric. When he was fifteen, his father, an English teacher, moved the family from a small town in Maryland to Costa Rica, where Zach developed a fluency for Spanish and Latin American culture.

This is the first year the MEP is using SAF interns, and when Zach heard about it he had some doubts. Could they handle the long hours? The minimal supervision? Were they only here to grind a political axe or make a statement about social justice?

Zach knows as well as anyone how bad farmworkers have it, but he can’t stand so-called “toxic charity” where wealthy people give stuff away or drop in for a vacation service project. He thinks what farmworkers need most is empowerment. And that, he learned from his dad, begins with education.


Eric peers at a Google Earth map that Zach uses to record locations of farmworker camps across the state.

Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “Which ones do we hit first?” he asks.

“Dude. These have already been ID and R’d,” says Zach. “That’s how they got on the map. You gotta find new camps.”

The term “camp” is misleading. It just refers to any place a farmworker might live. Finding a camp is all about profiling, Zach explains. You look for clues at rundown houses and trailers on the side of the road: clotheslines, cars with out-of-state plates and windows covered with sheets.

“I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. “The house was right on the highway. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. There was sewage spreading onto the yard.”

A migrant farmer's home in North Carolina.
A migrant farmer’s home in North Carolina.

Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. The mom was delighted and Eric was impressed.

“She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. We signed up three or four families, right on that one stop.”

Later they approached a house with all the right signs: clotheslines, windows blocked by droopy bed sheets and a car with Florida plates.

“Whaddya want!?”

The first thing they noticed was the stocky man’s pale skin and sleeveless white t-shirt, followed by the face of a woman, equally irritated, yanking the door wider to see who it was.

“Sorry,” they explained in retreat. “Wrong address.”


One evening Eric is looking out of Zach’s slow-moving Hyundai at some trailer homes. Only nobody calls them trailer homes. Just trailers. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight.

Eric wonders why he and Zach are here. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. But Zach insisted they visit before calling it a night.

Just beyond the trailers is an old building made of wood, its shape vaguely familiar to Eric. They approach it on foot.

“Was this a stable?” asks Eric.

Zach bangs the door. “It still is.”

Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. But most stables keep horses in their stalls.

These contain men.

It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.

At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.

Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord. Were all three running at once it’s a safe bet this dry wooden structure would go up in flames. The only water comes from a spigot outside, at the end of a pipe in the ground, and there’s neither a bathroom nor outhouse in sight.

Eric knows they could report this place to state inspectors. He also knows they won’t. He’s heard of outreach workers forced to contend with a cruel compromise: If you report every housing violation, the grower might not let you back.

Zach introduces Eric to a farmworker with a smiling but weather-beaten face a man of sixty might sport. Eric guesses he’s probably more like forty.

On Zach’s last visit the man implored him to sign up his teenage daughter for English classes. She is very interested, he insisted, but wasn’t at the camp that day.

¿Cómo se llama su hija?” Eric asks the cheerful man. What is your daughter’s name?

“Linda,” he answers. “Se llama Linda.” (All farmworker names have been changed for this story.)

¿Y dónde está Linda?” asks Eric. And where is Linda?

The smile falls off the father’s face. Again the girl isn’t here and it’s not clear where she is or even if her dad knows. His daughter appears to be missing.

Where Eric grew up, a missing child would set off alarms throughout the community. Police would be called and radio stations would broadcast Amber Alerts.

Eric is pretty sure those things won’t happen here.


After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging. He might register one or two workers on a good day. And not every day is a good day.

Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while. One is a cluster of trailers alongside a wooded highway.

Gabriela came from Mexico as a young girl so she speaks English reasonably well — a relief to Eric. Even with his strong Spanish it’s less work to speak in English.

Her four young boys swarm to Eric like puppies. He gives them books, asks about school and takes them on a nature walk at the edge of the trailer cluster. It reminds him of his own childhood escapes to the woods at the end of his street in Rockville.

Escorting the boys back to the trailer, Eric sees elements of normalcy in this family. The kids and their parents look healthy, and Gabriela seems to have things under control. She even drives the kids around in a minivan just like his own mom did. In another setting, he realizes, Gabriela might be just another soccer mom.

Standing at the door of her trailer, Eric asks Gabriela about the kids’ school when she interrupts with a question of her own.

“Do you have any food?”

This is no soccer mom. Gabriela’s refrigerator is broken and the crew leader hasn’t paid her yet. Some employers cheat undocumented immigrants and withhold pay, she explains, or pay less than minimum wage. It’s happened to her.

Gabriela and her kids have only ramen noodles and cereal — without milk — for dinner. Eric fetches a USDA emergency food box, donated by the Lowcountry Food Bank, from the trunk of his car.

Carrying the heavy box of dry goods, Eric navigates all manner of debris, spills and damp clothes hanging from a clothesline strung inside the trailer. Gabriela apologizes for the mess. Eric assures her it’s fine.


Eric had thought seventy songs on his iPod would get him through the summer. But with hours each day behind the wheel, by week three he’s hitting the skip button on the opening chords of even his favorites, from Fleetwood Mac to the Cave Singers.

He turns to audio books (free of charge, courtesy of Pirate Bay) starting with Hard Times by Charles Dickens. After that, Great Expectations.

Listening to tales of economic cruelty and social injustice in nineteenth-century England, Eric cruises the Carolina blacktop like a detective, viewing every rundown trailer as a potential opportunity to register some workers, teach some English or just hand out some food.


One evening Eric pulled off the highway at the sight of several Latino men kicking a soccer ball in the orange light of sunset. He asked the guys what team they followed in Mexico (Eric knows them all) and complimented them on their technique.

They asked if he played fútbol and he responded by gesturing for the ball. Seeing the heavy boots on his feet, they expected him to catch it with his hands. He caught it on the tip of a boot, tapped it to the other boot, and dribbled it perfectly before sending it back their way.

This impressed the guys even more than his excellent Spanish. He signed up every last one.

A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.
A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.

Eric’s soccer experience came in handy more than once. His comfort talking with strangers also helped. He stopped people at roadside fruit stands and gas stations, and hung out at stores where many Latino people shopped.

Following a lead one day from a tienda owner, Eric found a large trailer park he didn’t recognize. The camp wasn’t on Zach’s Google Earth map and may have never been scouted. He put some extra COEs on his clipboard.

Mija es una estudiante excelente,” the man at the door of his trailer beams with pride, introducing Eric to his teenage daughter. She makes very good grades but, Eric learns, they have no money for college. After high school she’ll work in los campos. The fields.

Where Eric went to high school, going to work after graduating was practically unheard of. You went to college. And for the handful of kids who did go straight to work from Richard Montgomery High, it sure wasn’t to pick vegetables.

Eric produces his clipboard and asks for their names. But the man just smiles and shakes his head. Zach told him to expect this. Someone in the family is probably undocumented, and Eric’s assurance that the information will be used only by the school system does no good.

On his way out, Eric apologizes for not being able to register the family for MEP services, but does ask the girl if she has access to a computer.

“Yes,” she answers. “At the library.”

“Google CAMP,” he tells her. “It’s the College Assistance Migrant Program.” Eric learned about the program from farmworking families, some of whom used it to get into college.

Farmworking parents Jorge and Luisa invite Eric into a front room packed with piles of clothing, secondhand toys and furniture that looks reclaimed from a dump. The arms of an overstuffed loveseat are worn down to exposed wood.

Their daughter, Rosita, is an energetic first-grader who seems as typical as any other, except for one thing: Luisa has to wave a hand in her daughter’s face to get her attention. Rosita is deaf.

Eric asks if she knows sign language but her parents don’t seem to know what he’s asking. He makes a mental note: Sign language tutor!

Eric gets to work. There is something fulfilling, bordering on selfishness, about helping someone who needs exactly what you have to give. Eric feels that buzz as he prepares a fresh COE.

Jorge and Luisa go silent. Peering at Eric’s clipboard, they too, don’t want to give their names. Moments pass. He promises the information will be used only by the schools. More moments pass and, again, Eric senses opportunity vanishing.

He wonders if everyone at this camp will refuse to give their names. This camp is a waste of time, he thinks.

Then they agree. “Está bien. Te damos los nombres.” We’ll give you our names.

He races to complete the form before they change their minds. He just needs to confirm they meet the three MEP requirements. Working in agriculture? Check. Children ages three to twenty-two? Check. Moved in the last thirty-six months?

“¿Cuánto tiempo han vivido aquí?” he asks. How long have you lived here?

“Cinco años,” says Jorge. Five years.

If this is true then they’ve lived here too long and don’t qualify.

Are you sure? Yes. You have lived here, in this same place, for five years? Yes. But didn’t you go to another place to work, even for a short time, like even for one night? Not even one, single, night? Eric feels his frustration turning to disbelief.

Driving away, Eric wonders if he should have just fudged the form. No. Zach says everyone suffers if the state does one of its routine checks. He was right not to take a chance.

He did the ID but couldn’t do the R.

One day Eric signed up an entire family — by invitation. A crew leader had called the MEP and asked to have his children registered, and the office dispatched Eric his house.

Also known as patrones or contractistas, crew leaders play a key role in the farmworking community. They are like the vassals of Medieval Europe, paying homage to their lord the grower who owns the land but wants nothing to do with supervising his peon farmworkers.

Crew leaders also allow a grower to shed virtually all responsibility for anything having to do with a farmworker. Wage complaints? Talk to the crew leader. Housing complaints? Documentation issues? Medical needs? Talk to the crew leader.

Listening to the muscular patron introduce his family, Eric sees things here he doesn’t see in other farmworker housing, things like carpeting, air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV.

Eric also notices a bedroom door ajar — with someone peeking out. It’s a girl with a low-cut shirt who looks to be in her late teens. When the girl spots Eric eyeing her, she quickly closes the door.

After Eric signs up the kids he asks if there are any other youth in the house. No, answers the crew leader, nobody else. Eric waits for the crew leader to mention the girl in the bedroom. But he doesn’t.

A few days later Eric is delivering another box of food to Gabriela. Her sister Elena is there, telling about a bossy crew leader acting strangely to her friend, a nineteen-year old girl. According to Elena, the much older crew leader is controlling her friend too much and even telling her what to wear. Eric hears Elena refer to a low-cut shirt.

Eric asks the girl’s name. “Linda,” says Elena. “Se llama Linda.”

Linda?

Eric recalls the girl peeking out the bedroom at crew leader’s house, and the missing teenage daughter of the farmworker living in the stable. And now Gabriela and her sister are talking about a nineteen-year old girl and an overbearing crew leader.

Might these girls all be the same Linda? He asks the women.

Sí por supuesto,” they answer. “Of course it’s her.” According to the women, Linda used to live in the stables but now lives at the crew leader’s house.

Workers in the tobacco fields.
Workers in the tobacco fields.

Eric also learns this crew leader is a coyote, smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S. for huge fees. Coyotes have been known to entice impoverished clients with the promise of a good job, convincing them they will have money to pay the coyote in no time.

Then, when the workers arrive and learn the jobs are not so good, they have to pay off their debt another way.

Eric relays all this to Zach and together they formulate a disturbing theory: Linda’s father can’t pay for the family’s crossing — the summer of 2013 is one of the rainiest anyone can remember, and farmworkers often don’t get paid when rain keeps them off the fields — so his daughter is paying off the debt in sexual servitude to the coyote.

It’s only a theory, but a plausible one.


At the beginning of summer Eric promised his girlfriend Sara he’d come back to Charleston on weekends. He enjoys the first few trips back, hanging out with Sara and enjoying burritos and tequila shots at Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, a popular hangout near campus.

But it doesn’t take long for Eric to notice a surreal disconnect between affluent Charleston and the much larger part of Lowcountry where farmworkers live.

“It’s only twenty miles from the center of Charleston to a tomato pickers’ camp on Jones Island,” says Eric. “And it’s like nobody in Charleston knows. Or cares.”

Walking past a King Street shop selling honey for $100 a jar, Eric thinks about the emergency food boxes. Seeing shoes at another store going for $700, Eric recalls opening the trunk of his car filled with donated clothes at a camp and watching women rush to pick through it.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing people with not a care in the world,” says Eric. “Even to my friends at school it was like, ‘Oh where am I going to go drinking tonight?’ And I was just talking to a family and their main concern is how to pay for food.”

Zach kept his promise to Linda’s father, on a visit back to the area, to help his daughter with English.

He called the crew leader and got the okay to meet with Linda and give her an MP3 player with self-guided English lessons. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more of her story, a story he shares with Eric.

Linda traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her dad, partly by foot but mostly on the top of a train. She called it el tren de la muerte. The death train.

When they arrived in South Carolina they took shelter in a horse stall at the stable. There, she was the only woman among fourteen men. Her father offered her as a prostitute.

Eric struggled with what to do with this new information. He recognized his limitations. Linda was nineteen, no longer a child. And maybe, he wondered, she wasn’t being kept by the crew leader so much as protected from a demon of a father. He didn’t know the full story.

He never learned full stories.

One farmworker claimed to have miscarried in the fields when a crew leader wouldn’t give her a break. Was it true? Another woman had a face covered in what appeared to be bruises but she claimed it was a birthmark. Really?

More than once he was forbidden entry to camps with flimsy excuses from growers when workers were expecting him for lessons after hours, even after showing his MEP credentials. It made him think of slavery.

As summer drew to a close Eric knew he could only do so much. He was determined to help as many people as he could, starting with someone who seemed to need it the most. But he’d have to bend some rules.


Rosita sat on the floor in her silent world, playing with her baby sister. Her parents hadn’t expected to see Eric again. But here he was handing out books and food and hygiene kits and treating them much like any qualifying family.

“Puedo buscar una escuela especial para su hija. ¿Quieren que lo haga?” “I can look for a special school for your daughter. Do you want that?”

Of course they said yes.

The Kudu coffeehouse on Vanderhorst Street, where Eric goes for free wifi on his weekends in Charleston, is across from St. Matthews Church. Eric is so used to the bells he hardly notices them booming every fifteen minutes as he Googles for schools for the deaf.

And maybe the clanging from the house of worship brings good fortune into the coffee shop, because Eric can hardly believe his luck when he finds the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and gives them a call.

The principal describes a program especially for children like Rosita — free of charge — that extends through high school. It will change her life, Eric thinks. It will change her entire family’s life, all for free. They even provide transportation.

Luisa and Jorge listen as Eric describes the school. Thankful and intrigued, they interrupt him with gracias over and over.

The school is far away, Eric explains, but the school will pick up Rosita on Sundays and return her on Thursdays. Eric reminds them everything is free of charge — lodging, meals, and a private education tailored to her needs. But the parents have stopped listening.

“No,” they interrupt. “Ella no puede asistir a esa escuela.” She cannot go to this school.

Eric repeats his pitch, emphasizing how the school is just for children like Rosita. He says they need to visit — they have to visit. He’ll drive them there and back. “¿Cuándo podemos ir?” When can we go?

They tell him again: Rosita cannot go to this school. Eric wants to tell them they are making a big mistake. But he doesn’t. He can tell the parents won’t budge.

Walking to his car, Eric realizes what he hadn’t considered: Rosita can neither hear nor read — in any language. Nobody could explain why she was being taken away from her mom, dad and baby sister. The first time she was put on that bus, Eric realized, would be not just baffling but terrifying.

Walking to his car he hears someone yelling his name. It’s the girl he told about CAMP.

“Hey, I looked up the program like you said,” she tells him. “I never heard about it but I got the application.”

Eric wishes her luck and thanks her for telling him.


“Sure, it’s cliché to say I grew a lot this summer,” Eric tells me. “But I did.”

We’re at the Kudu, talking about the summer between bell chimes from St. Matthews.

“A lot of things I used to find really fun and fulfilling, like going out and getting hammered on the weekends, I find trivial now. It’s like, why do that when there’s actually real stuff to do?”

After his last days with SAF, and a celebration on the lawn of Duke University where Safistas gathered to swap stories, eat and dance late into the night, Eric joined his family at the beach to unwind. And to jump from a plane.

Plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, Eric feels the skin on his face ripple. The rush of air is like sticking your head from a speeding car — only way more intense. And the view from high above the Outer Banks of North Carolina is stunning: Endless blue ocean on one side and vast, flat land — farmland — on the other.

There are thousands of farms down there. The last time Eric fell to earth he didn’t think about those farms and certainly not the farmworkers. Now he can’t help it.

Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.
Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.

These vecinos are more than just neighbors

Vecinos_HeightScaleFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

We were lost. That’s what I concluded from the back of the minivan going up and down mountain roads in western North Carolina, past tiny homes and trailer parks that tourists rarely see.

“The note says look for an RV next to a dumpster.” Devereaux was in the passenger seat trying to help driver Maria.

“I have a hunch it’s down here.” The car leaned precariously to the left as Maria made a sharp turn from the pavement onto a steep gravel road. “Oops!”

She righted the minivan as my stomach took its own precarious turn.

I was traveling with an outreach team from Vecinos (Spanish for neighbors), an agency that provides primary and preventative healthcare to migrant farmworkers. They were following a tip that a new migrant worker had arrived in the area, hoping to sign him up for the program.
Vecinos_Wess
Vecinos_MariaV

Maria’s hunch was right. They found the RV with not one but two new workers, both eager to sign up, and soon answering questions and getting their blood pressure, height and weight checked by the Vecinos team: Interns Devereaux Swaim (on a Student Action with Farmworkers fellowship) and Maria Vargas (herself a former farmworker) and staffer Wess Roberts. A handful of other workers at the camp teased their campesinos as they looked on.

As night began to fall a neighboring farmworker strolled over with his wife and daughter. Would they see him too? Sí, por supuesto. Of course.

Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on
Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on
Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van
Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van
Executive Director Amy Schmidt
Executive Director Amy Schmidt being briefed by the outreach team

The skies were pitch black by the time the white Vecinos van arrived. Executive Director Amy Schmidt and Nurse Practitioner Kathy Hefner had been at another camp giving exams; the van is equipped with a complete examination facility under a pop-up roof.

Amy’s eyes widened when she recognized one of the onlookers and went to say hello.

Soon this farmworker was inside the van getting a checkup and a clean bill of health, which relieved Amy and Kathy more than usual.

They hadn’t seen this man since the year before, when he arrived from Florida just days after major surgery. He needed time to recuperate, his doctors told him. But like many farmworkers he needed wages even more. I think Amy was happy just to see him alive.

These farmworkers earn around $250 a week, not near enough to afford preventive medical care. Health insurance is out of the question. Without Vecinos dropping in to offer free care and health education, I imagine many would find themselves in the ER one day, or worse.

I’m not sure vecinos is the right word for these caregivers. They seem more like ángeles to me.
Vecinos_Van

Text and photos by Michael Durbin

Cultivating farmworker advocates, one student at a time

saflogoFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Like many farmworker advocates, Melinda Wiggins can rattle off a long list of injustices faced by the people who harvest America’s food — stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, housing often unfit for human habitation, and one she finds particularly unconscionable: Many farmworkers aren’t allowed visitors in the camps where they live.

“I’ve had a grower tell me it’s just like his kids who want to have visitors,” she told me. “They need to ask him for permission. And I’m like, farmworkers are not your children! What are you saying? But the growers see their worker as a child. As property.”

Two decades of advocacy have not weakened Melinda’s incredulity, which fuels her work as Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit that sends college interns into migrant farmworker camps for a summer of healthcare, legal, and education outreach.

Last summer I followed a bunch of SAF interns — they call themselves safistas — around camps in North and South Carolina. I was so impressed it took all of a moment last week to decide to become a regular donor when Melinda put out the call. (They don’t ask for much: only $10 or more a month. Here’s where you can donate.)

Melinda was raised on her grandparents cotton farm near Phillipstown, Mississippi. Surrounded as a kid by farms and farming, it was only when she left that rural and isolated place that she saw a distressing side of agriculture.

In 1993 Melinda departed the Mississippi delta for divinity school at Duke University. There she applied for a stint with the newly formed Student Action with Farmworkers, a chance encounter that opened her eyes to the systemic injustice suffered by farmworkers. Realizing her true calling, Melinda gave up the ministry for a permanent job with SAF.

SAF is unique among organizations that help farmworkers. There is no permanent team of outreach workers. Instead, every summer they hand-pick twenty or so college students from schools across the United States. After a week of training they provide much needed services for ten weeks, then disperse for careers as varied as you can imagine.

By rebuilding their team each summer, SAF provides to the world a perennial crop of witnesses to the plight of farmworkers.

SAF has sent more than 700 college students into farmworker communities since its founding in 1992. That’s when it emerged from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which had been incubating the concept behind SAF since the 1970s, and incorporated as an independent non-profit.

The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF
The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF

Safistas do more than provide services. Most produce documentaries about their experience, a nod to their origin in the Center for Documentary Studies, which still houses SAF in a converted 19th century mansion on Duke’s campus. Some stage theatrical productions modeled after the social protest works of playwright Luis Valdez. They all can contribute to a Tumblr blog, allowing anyone to follow their work in the camps.

When Melinda joined SAF, interns were mostly Duke students from privileged backgrounds. One grew up in a farmworking family. Now that ratio has nearly flipped, with a majority of Safistas having farmworking backgrounds. Many have worked the fields themselves, like Daniel Guzman who I wrote about here a few weeks back.

Safistas from farmworker households often arrive with a sense of shame. They know what it’s like to miss school, to miss meals, and to be called out by other kids for working in the fields—harvesting potatoes is not likely to make a kid popular at school. But after ten weeks of sharing their stories with eager listeners, of indeed being honored, they can take away from SAF something far too few farmworkers are allowed: a sense of pride.

All Safistas leave with a new sense of perspective on the plight of farmworkers. “We contextualize it,” Melinda explains. “We talk about the history of agriculture, and how this is happening all over the country.”

Melinda and the other SAF leaders do more than bombard the students with how bad things are for farmworkers. The shock and outrage is inevitable. But by discovering and commiserating and brainstorming as a team, they get a collective sense that they can do something about it.

“Most people who learn about farmworker issues don’t know what to do,” Melinda tells me. “But Safistas leave here knowing something can be done. And what their role might be.”

Melinda may have given up a career in ministry when she took a job with SAF, but I don’t think she strayed too far from whatever drew her to divinity school in the first place. She runs an organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the working poor, and to opening the eyes of young people at the cusps of their careers so they might spread the word wherever they go.

That sounds plenty divine to me.


Melinda Wiggins with 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University
Melinda Wiggins advising 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University

P.S. Next Saturday I’ll join the 2014 Safistas as they celebrate the end of summer at a public event at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. This should be a great event where we can watch the documentaries, enjoy great food, and meet SAF students and staff. Here’s a link to more information.

Land of the free? Not for U.S. farmworkers according to visiting British MPs

FLOCmpforum1

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Last night, a 13-year old farmworker spoke to the panel from experience: She’s been working in the fields of North Carolina since the age of 7. Now she just wants to finish high school and go to college, but knows her parents can’t afford it.

Another farmworker held the microphone with his right hand because the index finger of his left was heavily bandaged. Last Monday, the end of that finger was cut off by a tobacco planting machine. He hasn’t worked since and doesn’t know how he’ll pay the hospital that reattached it.

Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan, members of British Parliament, are in North Carolina to see firsthand what life is like for farmworkers in the U.S. Yesterday they toured fields and labor camps, spoke with a grower, and ended the day at a forum where more than 40 farmworkers shared their stories. They were accompanied by U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Baldemar Velasquez.

FLOC invited the MPs to further the union’s campaign—so far unsuccessful—to hold R.J. Reynolds accountable for the welfare of the workers who grow their tobacco. They hope Mr. Lavery and Mr. Sheridan can pressure British American Tobacco, which owns 42 percent of R.J. Reynold’s parent company, to influence the tobacco giant. The forum was held at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh.

FLOCmpforum2

Mr. Lavery is a former coal miner and Mr. Sheridan has worked in a shipyard. They know what hard labor is like. Still they were unprepared for what they saw, especially in the camps where farmworkers live, as compared to the U.K.

They were blunt in their assessment. “We wouldn’t put animals in the conditions they are living and working in,” said Mr. Sheridan.

Addressing the crowd about the fear many farmworkers have of speaking out, Mr. Sheridan made a point that is maybe lost on those who live in the United States.

“This is supposed to be the land of the free,” he said. “What we’ve discovered today is the contrary. People here are terrified to speak out—and that is no way to live.”

He went on to urge the media to look beyond the growers hiring the farmworkers, many of whom are sympathetic to their workers but “are pressured by those above to deliver the cheapest product possible.”

Standing after nearly two hours of listening to workers, each of whom thanked the MPs for listening to their stories, a visibly moved Ian Lavery shook a fist in the air and repeated that theme.

“It is always those at the bottom of the ladder who are attacked, time and time again, for the profits of the few.” The crowd roared in agreement.

“Your demands are meek,” he continued. “Decent safety and housing. Decent wages, terms and conditions. These are basic human rights!”

Their tour continues today and will be followed by a public forum this afternoon in Raleigh.

“In the U.K. we have a saying,” said Mr. Sheridan to visitors before the meeting. “There is such a thing as need and such a thing as greed. What we’ve seen here today is greed.”

FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez speaks from a panel listening to farmworkers, alongside British MP Jim Sheridan, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gabre, U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and British MP Ian Lavery
FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez speaks from a panel listening to farmworkers, alongside British MP Jim Sheridan, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gabre, U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and British MP Ian Lavery

Handcuffed in defense of farmworker rights

FLOCmailboxFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omivore…

The irate grower cut off conversation. “I’m giving you to the count of five to get off my property. Five, four, three…” Union organizer Raul Jimenez stood firm.

“Two! One!! Okay lock him up.” The sheriff snapped on the cuffs.

This is what I saw late last night at a farmworker labor camp outside Faison, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh. I was there at the request of the Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee to observe their attempts to sign up members for their union.

The goal of FLOC is to offer the benefits of collective bargaining to migrant and seasonal farmworkers, a largely ignored population of laborers at the lowest rung of America’s economic ladder. Remarkably, they are excluded to this day from many job protections everyone else takes for granted—overtime rights, reasonable child labor laws, and more—of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Raul and I had been at the camp, a cinder-block barracks housing 28 men in the U.S. on H-2A visas, for more than an hour. Raul, a gentle-mannered former farmworker himself, with a sharp mind and abundant charisma, had been informing individuals and small groups of the benefits of joining the union to deal with poor living, working and wage conditions. The men received him with smiles and shared stories Raul could relate to.

The men told Raul of a wage offense they are experiencing right now: They are still awaiting reimbursement of $300 they paid to travel from Mexico to the farm. According to Raul the grower is required to make that reimbursement—a small fortune to a worker earning around $10,000 a year—during la primera semana. The first week. These men had been here more than two months. This is exactly the type of crime, Raul explained, a union can help prevent.

As an observer I was provided a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office referenced by FLOC to justify their presence at farmworker camps. According to the letter, case law demonstrated the workers First Amendment rights to visitors, even on “company-owned” land, trumped the growers charge of trespassing.

Raul explained this justification many times to the grower, the sheriff, and the pair of encardados or supervisors. And of course Raul explained this to the men who sat in rapt attention, asking questions and confirming they wanted Raul to be there. “Tengo tu permiso ser aqui?” he asked a number of times. “Claro,” they answered.

With his hands cuffed behind his back, Raul asked me to get the car keys from his pocket so I could drive back to the FLOC office. As the sheriff helped fish out the keys, the red-faced grower interrupted.

“I’ll give you one last chance. Will you leave my property if he takes off those cuffs?”

Raul had to make a decision. “Can I have a second to think about it?”

“No!” said the grower.

“Okay I’ll leave,” answered Raul.

As we drove away I asked Raul what he was thinking. “I think the sheriff wasn’t too sure about all that,” he said with a wry smile. “He put on those cuffs pretty loose.”

Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC
Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC

500 miles from Immokalee

Danny Guzman

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore

Danny should feel comfortable here and the tomato pickers should see him as one of their own. But he doesn’t, and they don’t.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Guzman is in a labor camp in the South Carolina Lowcountry, some 500 miles away from Immokalee, Florida where he grew up in a farmworking family. He started picking tomatoes at age ten.

Danny knows what it’s like to faint from heat stroke, spilling your bucket of tomatoes as your body tumbles into the dirt and disappears between rows of pungent plants. He still has memories of speaking only Spanish, of missing meals, of watching his apologetic dad slice a Snickers bar into pieces so each of his kids might enjoy the rare treat.

But Danny found a way out of their world and into college. He’s here at this camp as an intern with the federally funded Migrant Education Program, being paid this summer not for his strong back but for his educated mind. This puts him on a higher plane than these campesinos and the awkwardness all but silences him.

Danny and two other interns, Julie King and Eric Britton, are here to lead an evening class in Ingles de Sobre Vivencia, Survival English, to a dozen or so farmworkers. Unlike Danny, Eric and Julie came from privileged childhoods. They grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. where they perfected Spanish at some of the best schools in the country.

SAF interns teaching English to migrant farmworkersThis camp, located about an hour east of Charleston, is one of hundreds hidden throughout the state. It consists of two long buildings that look like oversized storage sheds. One is for bunking the Mexican and Guatemalan migrants who pick tomatoes all day and sleep at night. The other is for those who sleep in the day and work through the night, washing and processing those tomatoes at a nearby packinghouse.

It’s hot here. The two women in the class took seats at the folding cafeteria tables promptly after finishing the dinner clean-up. Most of the men had to be enticed out of their bunks with the help of sweating bottles of water and cans of Coke so icy cold they sting your palm. They sit at the back of the room, quiet.

Nobody refuses a cold drink in this place. The tropical heat lingers well after the sun goes down, making everybody, and everything, sweat. Some of the white refrigerators lining the cinderblock walls have rusted entirely to orange.

Danny stands at the head of the class but off to the side as Julie and Eric teach. He fidgets, like he wants to get out of here, as his colleagues write essential phrases in Spanish and English.

Necessito agua → I need water.

Eric turns to Danny when a student uses a Spanish phrase he doesn’t recognize. Danny hesitates then steps to the front of the class. He translates and asks the woman a follow-up question. Her answer prompts Danny to ask another question, and then another and another.

“She knows my Mom!”

The class comes to a halt, transformed, as Danny explains how the woman used to give his mother a ride to the tomato-packing house in Immokalee. He makes no attempt to hide his joy or get back to the lesson. When the woman stands and extends her arm across the table Danny runs around it, demanding a hug. “Dame un abrazo!!”

Even the taciturn men now grin in disbelief. They toss out names of others in the camp who are from Immokalee and might know Danny. They see him now in a different light. Danny too is transformed.

The topic of class now is medical symptoms and Danny is no longer off to the side. The marker is in his hand now, writing the word “dizzy” on the board and breaking it into Spanish phonetics. When the subject turns to how to talking with a doctor, Danny draws on personal experience with Mexican folk-remedies and warns the students emphatically, as if speaking to someone in his own family, to tell the doctor everything they might be taking.

“Dígale al doctor todo lo que toma. Las hierbas. Los tés. Todo!”

The class ends with students completing paper exercises. Danny strolls from table to table, offering help, then exchanging small talk as the workers head back to their bunks.
Muchas gracias por venir, he says. Thank you for coming. They thank him back.

The gratitude is clearly mutual.

2013-07-03 19.17.02

It ain’t just tobacco

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

From my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Thanks to a recent feature on The Daily Show and a slew of media attention (links below) a lot more people are now aware of the problem of children working in U.S. tobacco fields. This attention is a very good thing, but the problem goes way beyond tobacco: There are kids — mostly Latino, mostly dirt poor — harvesting crops of all kinds across America.

The Human Rights Watch report that ignited this attention is but one of numerous accounts of child labor in agriculture and was based on interviews with just 133 kids. Some estimate there are more than 400,000 children, maybe more than 700,000, working on U.S. farms.

The general public may not know about these kids but plenty of insiders do. The photos accompanying this post are from the 2009 Children in the Fields project by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. It drew the same conclusions as the Human Rights Watch study and was not limited to tobacco. Melissa Bailey of NC Field, a non-profit based in Kinston, North Carolina, also sees kids at work all the time. And she doesn’t have to go far. “Last season I stopped counting after visiting 100 children in nearby fields.”

Child labor anywhere is wrong. Child labor in U.S. agriculture is unconscionable for any number of reasons. First is the simple fact agriculture is among the most dangerous occupations for workers of any age.

Accidents with farm machinery can maim a child in an instant; heat stress can (and does) kill; and exposure to toxic pesticides is especially hard on kids. Their bodies aren’t done growing so development is impaired, and their smaller body mass makes the same dose of pesticides more harmful to them than to an adult-sized body.

A decent education is a pipe dream for many farmworking kids. As migrants they hopscotch from one school to another as a matter of course. And they miss a lot. Around half drop out before college, sucked for life into the vortex of poverty.

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

How can this be?

Child labor laws were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Institutional racism still permeated U.S. law back then so jobs held by blacks, such as crop work, were easily excluded. It didn’t help that the agricultural economics formed in the days of slavery still depended on cheap labor. In fact it still does. And while African Americans no longer hold most farmworking jobs, another minority has taken their place. Something like 80% of all crop workers in America are Hispanic. And more than half live below the poverty line.

Farmworking children belong to a minority class and they are very poor. That, it appears, is why 2014 is so much like 1914 for so many kids.

If they must work it would be nice if farmworking kids could at least count on the minimum hourly wage of $7.25. But legally they can be paid $3 less than everyone else. This is from the Department of Labor web site:

“Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment.”

These agriculture exemptions have been around a long time. And today, the agribusiness lobby uses switchblade politics—brilliantly—to keep these out-dated laws firmly in place.

In 2011 the Obama administration tried to make a change. A small change. They attempted to limit the type of hazardous work the youngest kids could perform in agriculture. They proposed to simply apply the same rules to agriculture that apply to, say, steel-working.

The effort was met by a campaign of blatant disinformation, such as Sarah Palin claiming the law would prevent young people from working on family farms. That simply wasn’t true. When industry-backed Republicans threatened to defund the Department of Labor, the president turned tail not just for the day but for all of his days. The language from the DOL could not have left Obama supporters more slack-jawed:

“… this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

So much for Hope.

Americans are led to think of their country as the international gold standard for human rights. In many areas we are. But how can we let little kids work in tobacco fields when countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and India ban it? Maybe some global shaming will do us some good.

History gives me hope. It took a half century of serious effort to enact any child labor laws at all in this country, and more than a century just to abolish slavery. These things take time. And time has a way of making things right. I’ve always liked how Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It can’t bend soon enough for the kids in our fields.


For more on this topic…

MADE IN THE USA: Child Labor & Tobacco
Human Rights Watch

Nicoteens
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?
by Gabriel Thompson
The Nation

The Harvest / La Cocheca
The Story of the Children Who Feed America

Child Labor in North Carolina Tobacco Fields
WUNC Radio, The State of Things

Children Don’t Belong in Tobacco Fields
New York Times

Children At Work
A Glimpse into the lives of child farmworkers in the United States
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

Considering the farmworker

ChipsOnBucketFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore

Given how corporatized, mechanized and super-sized American food production has become, I wonder how many people know that the harvesting of fruits and vegetables is still done mostly by hand. It is.

Much of what you see in the produce aisle was picked by migrant farmworkers. These men, women and children live their lives on the move, going wherever the crops are, laboring out of public view to earn poverty level wages.

Many of the growers who hire farmworkers would pay better wages if they could. But they can’t. The American produce farmer is at the mercy of a handful of massive grocery chains with the power to all-but dictate prices. And further up the supply chain is, well, me. And you. Who doesn’t prefer lower prices for produce?

I’ve known a little about farmworkers since the early 1970s when my parents stopped buying lettuce until farmworkers got a raise. This was when Cesar Chavez was doing his thing, and I remember it striking a nerve, the apparent injustice of it all. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. Now it’s back in front as I learn how little has changed in four decades.

There are just over a million farmworkers in America. Or maybe 3 million. Nobody seems sure but the lowest count I’ve seen is a million so let’s go with that. At least half are undocumented and most are foreign-born, from Mexico and Central America.

Farmworkers earn around $11,000 a year. The current poverty threshold is around $12,000. The so-called piece rate—what a farmworker earns per bucket of crops—hasn’t increased in many cases for decades. It hovers around 50 cents.

Some farmworker housing is unsafe, unclean, and unfit for human habitation. Not all migrant labor camps are like this, but one hovel off the highway is too many.

This one confounds me the most: Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws put in place with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That’s no typo. The president who signed it into law was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No farmworker is entitled to overtime pay and some can be paid less than minimum wage. And there are special child labor laws for farmworkers. In every other industry the minimum age for employment is 14. Farmworking children can be as young as 12. Here in North Carolina they can work legally at age 10.

Farmworkers are subject to work hazards you won’t find elsewhere. Green Tobacco Sickness is one of the worst, in which rubbing against wet tobacco leaves for a day can put as much nicotine into your system as smoking multiple packs of cigarettes. Heat stress is a killer. And God only knows the long-term effect of pesticides farmworkers are exposed to.

And of course, as most farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, they suffer the same indignities as their peers in any industry: Fear of deportation, paying taxes they’ll never benefit from, and so on.

I have much more to learn. I don’t know how widespread these conditions are, nor all the reasons why farm labor conditions are so different from every other trade in America. But I intend to find out.

A million workers in the United States, subject to different laws, living and working in unsafe conditions.

That’s a lot to consider.

ClotheslineAndBucket
Clothes drying next to a harvesting bucket at a migrant farmworker camp in North Carolina. Above: Plastic chips collected harvesting sweet peppers, one per bucket, each worth 42 cents, wait to be tallied at the end of a farmworker’s day.

Text and photos by Michael Durbin