by Madeline Daniels, First Focus Campaign for Children
“It’s a summer day, the sun is rising, and the sound of my mother’s cooking awakes me. Her meal will be enough to get us through the day that awaits us. One would think this was about a child that awakes to her mother’s cooking to go to school like any other ordinary child, but that isn’t the case here. My life is much more complex, even to this day. I live day by day struggling to get past each month with my family. Working in the fields is all we know, it’s all we think we’re good at, it’s what we do to survive.”
Zulema Lopez is a 17-year-old, fourth-generation migrant farmworker, and one of the United States’ hundreds of thousands of agricultural child laborers. Instead of a school year punctuated by football games and dances, hers are defined by family moves and growing cycles: asparagus, then strawberries, then cucumbers, to apples.
“Falling behind in my studies is the main problem that I face every time I move from state to state to work in the fields. For example, during my freshmen year I attended four high schools. I was devastated when my counselor advised me that I was lacking credits and that I was going to be a 2nd year freshmen. Luckily my counselor arranged for me to attend summer school. I dedicated my summer to my studies and managed to gain two credits and catch up in school; though not going to work in the summer set me back financially. I usually struggle when I change schools, because all of my classes are all very advanced by the time I arrive in the middle of the school year. I get very stressed out about my grades dropping while continuing to work on the side. Not many individuals understand my lifestyle, but I must do what is needed in order to provide for my family.”
Zulema’s vivid essay is a first place winner in the annual Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contest held by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program’s (AFOP) Children in the Fields Campaign. This year’s contest asked young writers and artists to depict “From Our Hands to Your Table,” the challenges faced by farmworker families and children, and their dreams for the future and how they will get there.
The best entries are compiled into a booklet for Congress to share the lives of child laborers and the children of season and migrant farmworkers. Farmworker children face unique challenges such as health threats, education instability, increased rates of leaving school before graduation, and poverty. From Zulema’s essay:
“My dream is to break my family’s cycle of poverty and working in the fields. I want to go to a university and be a role model to my brother and sisters; to show my siblings that if I’m able to succeed and achieve my dreams, they can as well.”
For those of us whose relationship with the food we eat begins at the grocery store, it is difficult to imagine the experience and impact of child labor and the seasonal work of migrant families. The talented winners of the AFOP essay and art contest offer us a glimpse into their lives and the challenges they face. Their winning essays and artwork in two age categories can be viewed on the AFOP website.