By Ivon Garcia, Children in the Fields Campaign Intern, AFOP
I remember my mother’s hands moving so fast. I was only four and I could vividly see all the cherry trees that rose above me.
During the summers when my parents couldn’t find a babysitter, they would take my siblings and me with them to work. I would sit on a bin under a cherry tree and look up into the trees as my parents toiled, picking fruit in the branches high above. My mother would pick for hours, sweat running down her face.
At that age, I would play in the trees to keep myself busy. As I grew, I slowly began to pick the fruits that I could reach in order to help my parents. I came to the realization that if I want to help my parents and wanted money for myself, I had to work like everyone else.
I come from a seasonal farmworker family. A seasonal farmworker is an individual who is employed in agricultural work, but does not move from their primary residence for the purpose of seeking employment. My childhood involved growing up in Bridgeport, Washington, which is mostly surrounded by agricultural fields.
I was fortunate to be part of the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program as a young child. It was there I was given the attention needed to develop skills that were going to be useful for the rest of my school path. With a lot of hard work and dedication, I was accepted to Washington State University. It was during the end of my spring semester of 2012 that I applied for the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association summer internship program and was selected to come to Washington DC as an intern.
Like myself, there are thousands of children who are working in extreme conditions to help their family financially. AFOP, through a combination of data collected by the National Agricultural Workers survey and its decades of experience in the farmworker community, estimates there are between 400,000 and 500,000 child farmworkers in the U.S. These are children who often work more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I was thankful that my working conditions were a bit better, however, it did not change how dangerous it was for me to work in the fields. It is because of this reason I became interested in working with students who are migrant farmworkers who share similar backgrounds.
I was fortunate to be placed with an internship at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and work with Norma Flores López, Director of Children in the Fields Campaign. During my six-week placement, I was charged with finding ways to get college students more involved with the advocacy efforts of the campaign. In order to do so, I have been learning as much about the Children in the Fields Campaign as possible by attending meetings and being given the opportunity to attend a site visit in North Carolina. I got to be a part of the program’s week-long quarterly meeting. There I learned about the grassroots campaign to end child labor in NC and I was also excited to go because I had never been to that state. My main interest in going was to see the living conditions in North Carolina and compare them with what I know about Washington state. Getting the chance to meet with the Poder Juvenil Campesino (PJC) youth council at the regional level was something I was looking forward to doing as well.
The living conditions were depressing in all of the camp sites we visited. There was little space for living and no privacy. In many of the places, there were regulations posted where anyone can see them, however, they were not being met despite having their certificates. I did have the opportunity to meet with the youth of PJC, a farmworker youth council that is a part of NC FIELD, which is a newly formed non-profit organization that recently transitioned from being a Children in the Fields Campaign community coalition. They are an amazing group of young farmworkers who are working to make changes in North Carolina.
Getting to know the youth and seeing their determination to learn and inform the farmworker community about the dangers of working in high temperatures with heat stress training was amazing. We got to work alongside PJC in their youth garden. Growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables in their own garden so they can learn how to someday be the grower and not the employee means so much to them. They are not only empowering themselves, but others as well. These children expect to someday leave these fields and better their lives. Being a part of PJC and working with NC FIELD is giving them the tools needed to make that a reality. Something has to be done by the rest of us to change the labor laws if they are to reach their goals.
Ivon Garcia is a junior at Washington State University majoring in Human Development. She was selected to participate in the 2012 National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association summer internship program. While interning at AFOP, she used her experience as a farmworker child to assist the Children in the Fields Campaign effort to raise awareness about the plight of farmworker children in the U.S.