Essay Contest Provides Insight into the Lives of Farmworker Youth

“….it makes me sad to see children out in the steaming hot sun….I believe children should not be in the fields with their parents suffering the same way.”
–Daisy Ortiz, 14, who has worked with her parents picking peaches, blueberries, and apples

NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg and I recently had the privilege of serving as judges for an essay contest put on by one of our Children in the Fields Campaign partners, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. The contest called for farmworker children to address their hopes and dreams for the future and the challenges that stood in their way.

The essays were truly inspiring. Many of the kids work and go to school. Many have lived in more poverty and uncertainty in their short lives than many of us have experienced in longer lives. Their occupational dreams mirror those of other kids. The entrants said they wanted to be a doctor, artist, baseball player, customs officer, social worker, computer engineer, actor, soccer player, psychologist, architect, model, firefighter, dancer, police officer, journalist, teacher, cosmetologist, lawyer, nurse, novelist, pilot, interpreter, boxer, and mechanic. Many said they wanted to be the first person in their family to go to college.

Israel Rodriguez, a 15-year-old from Salem, Oregon and the winner of the essay in the 14- to 18-year-old category, said that his dream was to go to law school so that he could “fight against injustices… that affect migrant and seasonal farmworkers. “

Israel Rodriguez, 15

Child labor, migration and poverty are just a few of the many obstacles that stand in the way of achieving those dreams.

Alma Hernandez, who took first place in the 10- to 13-year-old category, dreams of becoming a doctor. “I don’t want to end up working in a mushroom factory my whole life, because I learn a lot from my parents, and I know I don’t want to end up [working] like them.”
“Ever since I started school my dad always told me to do well…and study hard. He would tell me that so I would not have to work in the fields like him,” said Stefanie Sanchez, who dreams of being a nurse someday.

One young girl, Elissa Del Murro, who finished second in the 10- 13 category, said she faced two challenges. She feared that work and migration would keep her from pursuing her goal of becoming an actress: “I won’t be able to go to drama classes, play practice, or anything that I’m trying to do to achieve my dream.” She also suggested that farmworker children are not encouraged to dream big. “The challenges I’m facing are people and relatives thinking that I’m going to end up like them, working in the fields,” she wrote.

Fields of Peril
The entrants described in vivid detail what it’s like to do field work. Stefanie Sanchez said that working under the summer sun is like, “burning up in hot lava.”

Daniel Gonzalez, whose dream is to be a math teacher, said he has only worked in the fields “about five times,” and that “In the beginning, it is easy, but after [an] hour you start to feel tired, hurt, sleepy and frustrated. After lunch you just feel like a zombie.” He added, “If you go to the fields just one day, you are going to be thankful you [attend] school.”

Maria Balli, who began working in blueberry fields when she was 6, recalled working one day when the temperature was nearly 100. She felt that she would faint from the heat. “I was really tired that day,” she recalled. She also talked about her fear of snakes which she often encountered in the fields. Maria eventually convinced her mom to let her make and sell tacos to the other workers so she wouldn’t have to do field work.

Israel Rodriguez referred to the “challenge of conquering another 8-10 hour day of heated conditions, endless rapid precise picking, and heavy lifting in the cherry orchards” and “filling the last bucket of cherries after almost convincing myself that I can no longer continue….”
“I work every day in the sun with only [a] hat covering my face,” said J. Gonzalez. “There are times when I am intensely thirsty, but there is no good water to drink or water [at all] to get to. The sun makes me extremely tired, and sometimes I don’t take a lunch break just to finish what needs to be done for that day.”

Many children noted the fatigue of farm work. “I am tired of waking up to the hot sun in the morning and staying in the fields until night when the sun has gone to sleep,” said Alejandro Espinoza, who said farmworkers need to earn better pay. The wages, he explained, seem to go down each year “and we sometimes do not have enough money to buy food.”

Cassandra Garcia, 14, agreed that the pay is shockingly low considering how hard the work is. “Last year, I worked in the fields picking pickles and blueberries. I experienced the hard work and the struggle out in the fields, [with] many people getting paid less than minimum wage but still they had to work to maintain their family,” she said, wondering if it was worth it because “you hardly get paid for your hard work.”
Some children spoke about the difficulty of migrating to a new country and adjusting to a new life. “I saw and did things that I never thought I would do, and I don’t like to remember, but thanks to God we got here,” said Jose Rosas.

“I think that my friends will laugh at me because of the way I talk, said Jessica Tapia, 17 of Caruthers, California. “Even though I’m scared, I stand up and go in front because I know I have to grow in order for me to keep going. I try my best…,” she explained.
“I can still remember the frustration of not being able to understand what teachers would tell me, said Jose Rosas. “ I still remember when other students tried to talk to me but they would just walk away when I just stared at them. I felt like I was deaf. I felt like I went from the smartest kid in my class to the stupidest person when I came here.”

Balancing School with Work and Migration is Difficult

Many essay entrants noted how hard it was to maintain their studies in the face of constant moves and hours worked in the fields. “I live in a Migrant housing Center that opens its service in the month of May and ends it in November,” said Braulio Alcaraz, who came in second place in the 14- to 18-year-old category. “When this happens, my family has no other option but to go back to Mexico. This didn’t appear to be a problem for us until I became a high school student. The last two years have been really difficult because when November came by, I knew it was time to leave school which meant that I was going to lose all my credits because I never had the opportunity to complete the final exams required.”

Braulio Alcaraz is 17

“Sometimes we are in the middle of the semester and I have to move from school, I get completely lost,” said Jessica Tapia, 17. “When school starts, I still work after school picking up grapes. In the morning, my legs [feel so sore] that I [don’t feel] like waking up…..but I know that going to school is the only way to help me have a good education [so I] don’t have to work in the fields.”

“I cannot be transferring schools [all the time], if I want to go to college,” said Daisy Ortiz, 14, succinctly.

Discrimination and Poor Treatment

Many children reported concerns about the way Hispanic farmworkers are treated in the U.S. “In school, people laugh [at] me for being a migrant student. That makes me so mad, but I can’t do anything about it,” said Diego Rocha,15, of Calexico, California.
“When people hear the word ‘migrant’ they immediately think poor, dirty Mexicans, but to me being a migrant means only the opposite of that [and] proving them wrong….” said Carolyn Martinez, 14, of Westmoreland, California.

Diego Rocha, 15

“Working in the fields, I have seen people mistreated. They do not complain because most of them are illegal aliens and believe that in this country they have no rights,” said Dharla Torres, 14, who hopes to be a human rights lawyer some day. “No matter where you are, you still have your human rights.”

“I do not want to be treated like trash,” said Stefanie Sanchez.

“Sometimes I get really afraid with everything that’s going on around the country with discrimination against Hispanic people, and I’m really afraid of what could happen to my family,” said Jose Rosas, 16, of Fairibault, Minnesota. “It makes me want to cry that they treat innocent people like delinquents. I’m really afraid that someday my dad could be treated that way when all he has done in his life is to work hard and suffer so that his sons don’t suffer or go through things he has gone through.”

Other kids clearly worried about money. Diego Martinez, who hopes to be a policeman, said, “If I earn money I will buy things for my family and pay the rent, so they can’t throw [us out].”

Deep Appreciation for Parental Sacrifices

One of the major themes in many essays was how much the kids appreciated their parents’ sacrifices for them. “Anytime I think about my dreams, I think of my parents […]about all the hard work they have gone through only for the benefit of our family, just so we could have a better life, better opportunities….,” said Carolyn Martinez. She hopes to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice and help her parents financially.

Susana Calin, an another entrant, said that her inspiration is her mom: “She was able to see, plan, and sacrifice a lot for our family to move from our home and loved ones in Mexico to come to America. She had to leave behind what she knew in order to reach a new future for us.”

“My mom would always wake up early and come home late from working [in] the fields even when she had medical problems and she still took care of the rest of the family,” said Michael Valdez, 15, of Herber, California.


“Watching my dad return from work with swollen hands, and tired eyes due to the lack of sleep, made me mature earlier than all the boys my age…..Every time he came from work after working 10 hours he would tell me: “I don’t ever want you to work the way I do, because you deserve a much better life than the one I had…” wrote another entrant.

“Being a migrant student does not mean that you are poor or Mexican, it means that your parents work hard to support you so you can reach your dreams,” said Diego Rocha.

Although many children wished they didn’t have to work, others are determined to turn their labor into a positive. “If in the process of accomplishing my dreams, my circumstance become difficult, I will remember the sweaty faces under the orchard trees that look up with optimism and keep going,” said Israel Rodriguez. “I will remember the heavy cherry buckets I lifted when I felt weak, and I will keep going. I will remember the feet that carried me from one tree to the next and did not let me give up, and I will keep going.”

Jocelyn Gonzalez, 18, who hopes to become a nurse, said the hard work makes her realize “…that I would go through anything and do anything to have the money for my education.” Others were determined to succeed no matter what obstacles they face. Jessica Tapia, 17, would like to be a police office. “There a probability they won’t accept me because of my height. I’m short, but I won’t give up,” she said.

One impressive thing about the entries was how many farmworker kids had college as a goal. The federal statistics on migrant education are notoriously bad, but organizations participating in the Children in the Fields Campaign, including the National Consumers League, believe that as many as two of every three migrant kids drop out of high school because of the difficulties of work and migration. The goal of the campaign is to remove exemptions to U.S. child labor law that allow children in agriculture to work at 12- and 13-years-old. Reading these inspiring essays reminded all of us that these kids deserve a level playing field.

The author, Reid Maki, is NCL’s Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards. He coordinates the Child Labor Coalition, which works to protect Farmworker children and other child laborers around the world.