The Dangerous, Invisible Work of Being a Teen Farmworker

Eva was born in the US and is a citizen, but when she was a toddler, her family decided to move back to Mexico. A couple of years later, her mother returned to the US, leaving her and her little sister behind with their father. Her mother would send money, school supplies, and boxes of Lucky Charms. By the time she was 11, she was living with family friends. She told her mom she wanted to return to the States to live with her. For Eva, working the fields feels like a kind of independence. It lets her take some of the financial burden off her mom. It allows her to buy things she wants. But that little bit of economic freedom comes at a cost too.

In 2019, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ “Children in the Field” Campaign put out a big report on child labor. In it, the authors write, “The financial pressures of low-paid agricultural work are so great that they are felt by the entire family. Farmworker children report ‘choosing’ to start work alongside their parents when they are as young as five or six years old. But, before we criticize or applaud that choice, we must first consider the paucity of options that are being presented to them. Children know without even being told that they could either live in crushing poverty or contribute their time and energy to the very industry that is oppressing their parents. So — naturally — they often ‘choose’ the latter.”

When I called up Maria Lopez Gonzalez, one of the authors of that report, she told me she too was a field worker when she was a teenager. She worked picking blueberries in North Carolina. Now, Lopez Gonzalez is the policy advocacy manager at Pueblo, a nonprofit in North Carolina specializing in leadership and development for Latinx youth. “From the stories that I’ve heard and from what I’ve lived, a lot of the financial pressure is absorbed, especially by elder siblings,” Lopez Gonzalez tells me.

Lopez Gonzalez says growing up undocumented with parents who only spoke Spanish forced her to mature her quickly. She did things for her parents that an average child wouldn’t, like filing their taxes. “It creates this emotional health burden that I know a lot of my friends have as well, that they’ve had to deal with all of these things at a very young age,” she tells me. “And then you get told when you’re very young, ‘That’s so cute!’” Lopez Gonzalez says. “But a lot of it is just kind of like this injustice of having to do things and helping your parents navigate systems.

This holds true for Mari, another Monterey County teenager who started working in la mora when she was 16 and a sophomore in high school. La mora, or “the berries,” is the name locals use for the countless acres of raspberry greenhouses. All summer long, Mari hunched over cutting one-inch raspberry plants from knee-high tables to transplant them into another greenhouse. “I remember it was really hot,” she says. “The manager came into the tent and said to open the doorways, and I remember people came out with their faces red.” Two workers met their limit and everyone was sent home for the rest of the day. Mari, who is 18 now, remembers that her main concern wasn’t the danger of overheating: It was losing half a day’s pay.

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