Twelve-year-old tobacco farmers: the hidden battle against US child labor – The Guardian

Youth farmworkers are legally allowed to pick tobacco at age 12. Photo by Yesenia Cuello, a youth farmworker in North Carolina.

Youth farmworkers are legally allowed to pick tobacco at age 12. Photo by Yesenia Cuello, a youth farmworker in North Carolina.

Nearly every hot, humid North Carolina summer morning, 15-year-old Eddie Ramirez wakes up at 4am, slips on a thick, long sleeve T-shirt and boards a school bus with his mother in Snow Hill, North Carolina. The bus is cramped – not with students, but with up to 40 migrant farm workers on the way to work in a tobacco field.

Ramirez began this work – hand-picking tobacco for shifts up to 12 hours in his school holidays and sometimes during term – when he was just 12 years old.

He is among 141 youth farm workers featured in a report released Wednesday by international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), documenting child labor in tobacco fields in the southern United States. Eighty children come from North Carolina, with the rest from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

The 138-page report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children, reveals the dangers and harmful conditions of tobacco work. It emphasizes the US lagging behind Brazil and India, the top two tobacco producers in the world, who have banned children from working in their fields.

Read the full article in The Guardian here.

Mole and a movie: Vida Propia – INDY Week

Nora Mendez goofs off to calm her nerves before dinner service outside of Full Frame Theater on March 22.  Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis with Instagram.

Nora Mendez goofs off to calm her nerves before dinner service outside of Full Frame Theater on March 22. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis with Instagram.

Nora Mendez protects the secrets in her pot of bubbling chicken mole like one would guard a weapon. “Es mi machete,” she says. It is my machete.

“Campesinos in Veracruz used to say that if someone takes your machete, they might as well take everything from you: your wife, your family. It’s all you have and you have to guard it.”

Last night, Mendez, a cook at Dos Perros restaurant, blended her kitchen secrets into traditional moles for a community dinner outside the Full Frame Theater in Durham as part of the FARE Project .

The FARE Project combines documentaries with community food events. Mendez’s life behind the stove and beyond is featured in the documentary Vida Propia. Mendez and Duke student filmmaker Sarah Garrahan have been working on the project for two years. They met in August 2012 while both were working in the Dos Perros kitchen.

Mendez, 44, isn’t very guarded, neither on- nor off-screen. She is playful and gregarious with a goofy, sarcastic wit. The film draws you into an immediate camaraderie, highlighting life’s very raw elements—children’s celebrations, cooking with family, cooking at work, half-day road trips for a two-day vacation—to reveal a tiny slice of her reality.

“It’s good for a cook like me to have this, to show the hands preparing the customer’s food,” Mendez says. “It is giving us recognition in society, where we all coexist.”

“I am interested in highlighting the seemingly mundane moments in life that have the potential to speak to larger social issues,” Garrahan says. “I hope that audiences will find commonalities in Nora’s story. There are family dinners, birthdays, school and work. But I also hope that audiences will reflect critically on the treatment of immigrants in the United States.”

Read my preview for the INDY Week here.

Jose and Sons – Ethnosh

Photo by Stacey Sprenz.

Photo by Stacey Sprenz.

I wrote this article to preview Raleigh’s second NoshUp at Jose and Sons. The events are presented by Ethnosh, a partnership between Face to Face Greensboro, Triad Local First, and Bluezoom Advertising that highlights immigrant-owned restaurants in the area through guides and events.

Jose and Sons
By Victoria Bouloubasis

Charlie Ibarra sits in his family’s newest restaurant, Jose and Sons, to tell the story of how he arrived at this very bar stool, turning his father’s dream into his own.

Jose Ibarra, Charlie’s father, is the inspiration behind the Ibarras’ newest venture. He is the one who, while on his vacation in Mexico, kept up with the Yelp reviews during the opening months, phoning his son to read the comments verbatim. Before Jose and Sons, there was Jibarra, an upscale Mexican eatery in that same spot. Before that, El Rodeo, a Triangle Tex-Mex staple started by Jose more than 20 years ago.

When Charlie was about 5 years old, he remembers squishing into the backseat of a car with his parents, siblings and uncle for a three-day adventure. With Jose at the wheel, the family fixated on the flat road away from La Mirada, California, Charlie’s birthplace, and toward a new life on the East Coast.

After two decades of laboring in a car parts factory, Jose gave up working for someone else for his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. He emptied his 401k and piled his family into the car, which eventually led to the first El Rodeo location on Hillsborough St. More than twenty years later, there’s a steady business with various El Rodeo locations, and gradual transitions to extended family (who transformed them into La Rancherita). You can find him still working at all of those restaurants.

The Ibarras (L to R): Hector, Raquel, Jose and Charlie. Photo by Stacey Sprenz.

The Ibarras (L to R): Hector, Raquel, Jose and Charlie. Photo by Stacey Sprenz.

Read the rest of this entry »

True oyster cult – INDY Week

Leave the shucking to the pros. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis for INDY Week.

Leave the shucking to the pros. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis for INDY Week.

Our state’s recorded oyster history began in 1709, when British colonial explorer John Lawson reported back with a gourmand’s tale from North Carolina in his book, A New Voyage to Carolina:

“Oysters, great and small, are found in almost every Creek and Gut of Salt-Water, and are very good and well-relish’d. The large Oysters are excellent, pickled.”

Shuckers, some professional and others volunteer, worked for hours [last week at Motorco Music Hall]. Chris Davis was among the pros. He wore a bright blue, thick latex glove on his dominant hand, tied at the wrist with a kitchen cloth to get a steady grip on the palm-sized oysters. The towel doubled as a catchall for the grit and grime soon to splatter.

His free hand gripped an oyster knife, its blade angled and dull. The tip pierced into the oyster’s seam, sliding it along the shell like a zipper to unveil a wiggling delicacy deluged in salty water.

Read more about the NC Fresh Catch Winter Oyster Tour here. Catch it this Saturday, Feb. 15, at Cat’s Cradle.

Gratuitous shot of my friend Sarah chowing down. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis.

Gratuitous shot of my friend Sarah chowing down. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis.

Supporting Today’s Civil Rights Struggle Means Listening As Well As Speaking Out – Women AdvaNCe

Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis.

Too often we demand Dreamer narratives, drawn-out explanations and neat, clean labels to justify political action. But if we aspire to be true allies, we must listen to understand the complexity of a reality that isn’t ours.


Today, while the words of Martin Luther King echo in our ears, we must realize that silently nodding our heads in agreement is not enough. Questioning and criticizing the nonviolent tactics of our neighbors, as we sit comfortably on the cushions of our privilege, is detrimental.

We must pay attention.

To read the full essay at Women AdvaNCe, click here.

Full of grace: St. Bart’s community lunch – INDY Week

"In here, we do church." Prep in the kitchen for St. Bart's community lunch. Photo by Jeremy M. Lange.

Longtime community member Henry Horton plays piano as the room fills with people, a diverse mix indicative of Pittsboro’s eclectic, small-town charm.

An older man leans over to a friend and says, “I get a kick out of seeing the young people here. I don’t think I was ever that young. Maybe I was, but I forgot.”

Local farmer apprentices with half-shaven heads and unshaven faces file in throughout the hour. They stand in line with the senior citizens who carpooled here together, dressed to the nines, suspenders taut and silk dresses pressed.

Some squeeze in at the tables set with colorful faux floral bouquets and real silverware hand-wrapped with paper napkins and placed at every seat. Others find a spot on the small outdoor brick patio, bordered by a cemetery with gravestones from the 1830s, when the church was founded.

A man named Dick walks around like he owns the place. He is 94 and wears an impish smile and long red apron that reads: Sexy Senior Citizen. “When you got it, you got it!” he exclaims.

Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsboro offers a community lunch every Thursday, free to all. As many as 100 people show up for the meal, which is cooked by a rotating group of volunteers, with a different chef in charge each week. Click here to read the full story in this week’s INDY.

Be Our Guest Worker – The American Prospect

Photo courtesy of Luis Perez.

“I want everyone to know what’s happening,” says Luis Perez, a legally-employed agricultural guest worker in North Carolina. “People think we are coming here to a good place, but they should realize that this is not true. We haven’t been treated well in many camps. And to the workers who stay silent about what happens, they shouldn’t. They should work up the courage to say something about the way we are treated.”

H-2A guest worker Luis Perez shared his story with me over the summer. The result is a look at the uncertain existence of the legal migrant farmworkers that the agricultural industry relies on for cheap labor.

Read it here in The American Prospect.

La Cacerola – First Bite: INDY Week

At La Cacerola, fluorescent bulbs glowing from the ceiling tiles hide nothing. They illuminate mismatched plates and discount-store sugar containers set on vinyl tablecloths. Toys lie on the floor, forgotten by the owner’s children. A loud television jutting from the corner plays saucy scenes from a Spanish-language soap opera and bouncy cartoons.

In this, I found a much-needed pause.

Sitting in that unfussy ambiance, I felt detached from the perfectly poised plates and branded details found in many restaurants, styled to satiate the foodie’s urge to Instagram the meal.

A whole fish (and its face) arrived on a platter, its golden-fried skin perforated in three places and garnished with slender half-moon pieces of crisp white onion and juicy round slices of tomato and lime. Resplendent grease shone on our fingers as we picked through the flaky white meat and ate with our hands.

Read my full review of La Cacerola at

New starts at Benevolence Farm – INDY Week

Darla Locklear, former prisoner and member of the Benevolence Farm advisory council. Photo by Maggie Smith.

“There’s a twinge in your gut saying, ‘I’m still not worthy.’ You come home and you’re dead inside.”

Benevolence Farm is a project in Alamance County designed to provide a safe, supportive transition for former women prisoners. Tanya Jisa, project director, just secured 11 acres and at least $20,000 in funding to get started. Leading the charge are former women prisoners and local farmers.

One in five incarcerated women is a mother and the primary caregiver for her children, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2011, the ACLU found that at least 85 percent of women in prison reported being a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Jisa wants the project to provide a way for the women to “take back the power” lost while being in the prison system.

“They need a second chance, but they’re going to need a lot of support and healing,” she says. “That connection with the earth, growing food in a safe and nonchaotic place. It’s hopefully a sense of accomplishment.”

Read the story in this week’s INDY.

The coast is clear – DISH: INDY Week

This week, Durham’s popular Saltbox Seafood Joint turns one year old. For the INDY Week DISH issue, I sat down with Chef Ricky Moore to learn more about his love for seafood. The CIA-trained chef, with Iron Chef and Michelin-starred experience under his belt, owes much of his passion for food to his New Bern coastal upbringing.

You don’t really “fish” for flounder along Croatan Beach at the Neuse River.

“What you do is, you gig ‘em,” Moore says.

Read the full article here.