For this week’s INDY, I wrote an article exploring North Carolina’s hidden labor force: children working the fields. Almost half a million children are working in the fields in the United States. This week is also National Farmworker Awareness Week. Due to lack of space in the paper, a few excerpts didn’t make the edit. I’ve included them below, as they touch on poignant themes such as immigration and youth activism.
The youth I met were all either former or current farmworkers, along with many of their family members. Some were undocumented, others were born here. They live in rural Eastern North Carolina. In activist circles here in the Triangle, one often hears the words “mobilize” and “organize” as mantras. The youth in this group speak in a less abstract, more veritable vocabulary, from experience and from the heart. While individually sharing stories of what they have overcome – heat exhaustion, rashes, long days –a sense of empowerment clearly exudes in their youthful, yet tired, voices.
Milly Lima, 16: “We are being used, and they’re trying to make us think that we don’t have opportunities. They are trying to keep us underclass. But we have rights.” (Read more of her story in the full article.)
Nineteen-year-old Elvis Ordonez from Chiapas, Mexico, took a photo for the group’s campaign Give Food a Face. The postcard depicts a bare-backed youth hoisting an enormous bucket of sweet potatoes on his narrow shoulders. Ordonez once staged a sit-in in the fields when he and his fellow workers were refused a water break. He says days typically begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m., with only a 20-minute break. He initially came to the States to work for a bit with his father in the fields, and then study. That was four years ago. So far, he has only managed to take English classes sporadically and says he gave up on finding the time and resources to study. He and his father, and now mother, all work in the fields to send money to his siblings and family in Mexico.
“It’s an injustice. A child shouldn’t be working in the fields. They should be studying, so they can go on with life,” he says.
“I take photos because there are certain people who don’t feel comfortable talking about farmworkers in the field. But these farmworkers exist. There are emotions that people working in the fields are feeling that can be expressed through a photograph. Every time I take a photo, I always think of that. I think of telling a story. You can tell so many things from just one photograph, without words, without having to say anything.”
NC FIELD co-founder and documentary photographer Peter Eversoll has helped Ordonez and other youth obtain funding for photography workshops around the state. On a recent trip to Mexico, he secured an exhibit in Mexico City in October to display their photos. The downside: due to their legal status, many of the photographers can’t leave the country to see it. He said he will “Skype them in.”
“I’m very proud of them. These kids are ambassadors. It’s pretty amazing. Americans don’t know about child labor. They don’t know it exists here. We make all these provisions and acts to prevent child labor in places like Honduras and Phillipines, but not here.”
“You can’t do any more to this population. You’ve taken their drivers license. You’ve made them illegal, you’ve arrested them on the way to the grocery store. You’ve deported them,” says NC FIELD co-founder Melissa Bailey. “Society has made this such a political platform that they’ve literally destroyed the lives of children and are not accountable. We aren’t paying attention to who’s picking our crops. When we think farming, we don’t think farmworkers. We think farmers, county fairs. This is the reality of how your food is harvested.”