To those of us who have caught a glimpse recently of migrant workers toiling in a distant field beside some highway we were traversing and comfort ourselves that any injustice regarding their lives was handled long ago — Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and a grape boycott, wasn’t it? — it might come as some surprise that 400,000 children currently toil in America’s fields.
That migrant farmworker families often still live in abject poverty, making on average $17,500 a year for a family of four, which then requires them to put their children in the fields as soon as they can work.
That these children typically work 30 hours a week, either bent over and on their knees or clinging to ladders, in heat and cold and damp, from May to November, to bring us our shallots and radicchio, making their chances of advancing in school toward a better life difficult indeed.
“The Harvest/La Consecha,” a documentary opening this week in Los Angeles, attempts to put a human face on this travesty by following three child farmworkers and their families through one long harvest season, which takes them on an uncertain journey from sweltering Texas onion fields and Florida tomato fields to cold Michigan apple orchards and damp Oregon cherry orchards and then back south again.
Directed by U. Roberto Romano, the film alternates between simply shot interviews with the three children and their parents and scenes showing just what a back-breaking job it is to wrench onions from the ground and trim their tops with mammouth scissors, to pluck up strawberries and twist off their “green parts,” to load dozens of apples into a bucket strapped to your chest — all for peanuts in pay and precious little protection.
“Agriculture in America is a Third World country,” Romano said at a screening at Laemmle’s Town Hall in Beverly Hills Wednesday night. Romano interviewed more than 50 children to find three whose stories would be most compelling. The three stories share common elements: multiple school transfers, constant traveling, long hours, backbreaking work, little sleep, and children whose dreams seem unattainable.
“I wanted as much of the film to be shot as it happened and stayed away from recreations,” Romano has written. “I travelled with the families and let them speak in the language they were most comfortable. Their lives were the framework for the narrative and whatever happened to them was the story.
These Children Who Feed America
At 14, Perla Sanchez dreams of being a lawyer so she can help other migrant workers and volunteers to work so her family can make ends meet. Twelve-year-old Zulema Lopez, looking older and wiser than her years, has bounced from school to school and says she is too busy for dreams beyond somehow, someday being happy. Older at 16, Victor Huapilla finds purpose in looking after his younger sisters as the family looks for ways to bring his two older sisters legally to America.
But as the long harvest season unwinds, any hopes or dreams these three have of better lives later on float further and further away. Perla’s father falls ill, wiping away — at least for now — her dream of staying in Texas and keeping up with her classmates. Zulema goes for awhile to live with her father in Florida, a move to a more stable environment designed to last several years, but that’s over in a few short months, putting the young girl back among the many single men who make up a large part of the migrant work force. Only Victor seems to catch a break. According to Romano, who is still in touch with his subjects, Victor blossomed in the attention the filming brought him, giving him some faith in himself that is helping him do well in school. At least for now.
Interspersed in the film’s credits at the end are photographs of former migrant workers who have made it big in America — an astronaut, the founder of MALDEF, a judge — but it’s clear that these triumphs are very much the exception. The families shown typically have at least three generations traveling together to harvest crops, and the adults look beaten down physically and mentally, older than their years.
One mother’s hands are so sore for a lifetime’s work in the fields that she can barely wash dishes. And Perla’s father, who falls ill, looks more worn out in his early 50s than sick, though increased illness from exposure to pesticides and extreme temperatures is commonplace among farm workers. All the adults want something different for their children — it’s heartbreaking to hear them say that they want their children not to have the lives they themselves have had — but there is no clear path for any of them, it would seem. Only their strong family ties keep them going.
The film ends with a long shot of a wild-haired toddler in diapers — Zulema’s baby sister — mimicking the behavior of the adults around her between the rows of vegetables, sure to follow in Zulema’s footsteps.
No Fairy Tale Endings
“There are no fairy tale endings,” said Eva Longoria, the “Desperate Housewives” star who served as the film’s executive producer. “Yes, what Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers did was wonderful. But a lot of what Cesar did in the 60s has been undone, then redone, then undone, then redone again. The agreements end and new ones take their place. The fight is continuous. It never ends.”
Longoria, who grew up on a South Texas cattle ranch, picked corn and watermelons as a kid — “but only for fun, to throw at my sister’s head.” She warned that the film may be misinterpreted. “This is a labor issue, not an immigration issue,” she insisted. “Most of three kids are Americans anyway.”
The real hope came from the audience, which included more than 100 young men and women from UCLA’s Migrant Student Leadership Institute, who are the children of migrant workers and, in some cases, migrant workers themselves. Their ringing endorsement of the film’s authenticity and message visibly buoyed the filmmakers. The young people’s bright eyes and smart attires said maybe they were on the road to someplace good.
Still, for most of the migrant workers shown — desperately poor, mostly Latino, living in rural camps far from view — most roads out for them and their children seem closed.
Who’s the Culprit?
“Farmers aren’t the bad guy here,” Romano said. “The farmers are in the same place as the migrants because they know the system is set up so that the children can work.”
But, of course, there are culprits in a story like this. Education is surely the pathway to better things for these child laborers, but for that they need structure in their lives and time to attend to their studies. And for that to happen, their parents and their parents’ parents need to make enough from their labor that their children don’t have to work in the fields so the family will have enough to eat.
The farm owners won’t pay better salaries out of the goodness of their hearts, not if that means the farmer down the road can undersell them and anyway that’s not how the world works. Clearly, the government — and “we the people” behind it — needs to step in to make sure the people working so hard to provide our food are paid well enough to live reasonable lives and not just one step above (or maybe it’s below) slavery.
Until then, there will be more scenes like the one showing Zulema’s mother inspecting vegetables in a gleaming grocery store.
“Ninety-nine cents a pound,” she says wistfully at a display of onions. It’s far more than they’re paid to harvest the produce, and far more than they can afford for their own table.
What We Can Do
Romano recommended three actions:
- Support the many organizations fighting to protect these child farmworkers: National Council on La Raza (NCLR); Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF); United Farmworkers (UFW); Migrant Legal Action Project (MLAP); Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP); National Assocation of State Driectors of Migrant Education (NASDME); Child Labor Coalition of the National Consumers Leagues (CLCNCL); National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH); and Harvest of Hope. “We have the makings of a national movement when we get all these groups together,” Romano said.
- Pressure Congress to pass Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), H.R. 3564, which Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D. Los Angeles) has introduced repeatedly. The CARE Act would raise labor standards and protections for farmworker children to the same level set for children in occupations outside of agriculture.
- Buy organic produce: “At least the kids won’t be exposed to pesticides,” Romano said. “Laws concerning pesticides are designed for 160-pound males, not children half that size.”
“The Harvest/La Consecha” is produced by Shine Global, distributed by Cinema Libre Studio, with U. Roberto Romano as director, Julia Perez as associate director, and Eva Longoria, Albie Hecht, and Susan Maclaury as executive producers. It opens August 5 at Laemmle’s Town Hall, 9036 Wilshre Boulevard, Beverly Hills.
Editor, Hollywood Progressive