Field of dreams

Can local migrant farmworker youth escape the cycle of poverty and practice of child labor—and maybe even go to college?

Brandon Louie leads a Sacramento-based grassroots effort to protect and assist the children of farmworkers. “When we talk about child labor, we think of sweatshops in southeast Asia,” he says. “But it’s happening here in the United States.”

Brandon Louie leads a Sacramento-based grassroots effort to protect and assist the children of farmworkers. “When we talk about child labor, we think of sweatshops in southeast Asia,” he says. “But it’s happening here in the United States.”

Photo By Gabor MEREG

Guillermo Alvarado rushes across campus to his anthropology class. He’s a sophomore at Sacramento State and a good student. He plays pickup soccer games with friends and likes to dance, although not at clubs, but family parties. He enjoys listening to Journey and Bryan Adams songs. He likes real Mexican music, not the pop stuff on mainstream radio.

Sitting later at a cafe on campus, Alvarado, 20, wears a black jean jacket, blue jeans, white polo shirt and a gold ring. He has a mustache. He holds the door open for women and speaks with a thick Spanish accent. Occasionally, he gets frustrated when he forgets an English word. Alvarado plans to major in criminal justice and go into the field of narcotics. Before graduating, he hopes to study abroad, either in Spain, Mexico or England.

“School’s not that hard,” Alvarado says. “It just takes dedication and effort. Sometimes, we need to put a double effort to understand the material. I think I’m doing well.”

By “we,” Alvarado means the children of Mexican farmworkers living in the Sacramento region and all across the United States. Alvarado, who still works occasionally as a farm laborer, most recently in a walnut orchard nearby, was himself a child in the fields, hauling tomatoes in local fields by the time he was 14 years old.

His dad, also named Guillermo, is a farmworker in the nearby agricultural fields of Dixon, preparing soil, making beds, harvesting tomatoes, cutting alfalfa and feeding the farm’s steers. He’s been a farm laborer in California for the past 32 years. His family lives in a trailer on the farm, and his son Alvarado commutes to Sacramento State four days a week.

Although no one knows exactly how many children work in agriculture in the United States, government estimates put that number around 400,000. There is no estimate about how many of those work in the Sacramento region. Not surprisingly, these youth work in areas treated with pesticides, some of them known carcinogens, and are exposed to harsh-weather conditions, dangerous machinery and sharp tools. They’re also prone to injury and even death in work-related accidents.

“When we talk about child labor, we think of sweatshops in southeast Asia and mill workers in the Industrial Revolution,” says Brandon Louie, a Sacramento-based organizer with the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “But it’s happening here in the United States.”

Louie currently leads a grassroots effort in the outskirts of Sacramento—Lodi, Esparto, Knights Landing, Dixon and Woodland—to form coalitions of farmworker youth. His organization, meanwhile, has its sights on a bigger goal: eliminating what it considers a discriminatory federal labor law that fails to adequately protect children who work in agriculture. The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, or House Resolution 3564, introduced last September, aims to end the double standard in child labor laws.

The organization also emphasizes the role education plays in lifting struggling farmworker families out of poverty. But there’s a problem: Half of youth who regularly perform farm work don’t graduate from high school, let alone college, according to the U.S. Department of Education. AFOP estimates that noncompletion rate to be at least 65 percent.

Alvarado could have been one of those dropouts.

None of his childhood friends from the migrant camp where he grew up entered college. He almost didn’t either, until the College Assistance Migrant Program came knocking on his door. The federally funded program has eight sites in California; the local program funds 80 incoming students every year at Sac State.

“I was not even planning to go to college,” Alvarado says. “I was just planning to go to work.”

Childhoods end

Growing up, Alvarado and his family moved every six months, traveling between Mexico and California, for seasonal farm work. He lived in the Dixon Migrant Housing Center from 1994 to 2006.

“I liked [the camp] when I was a child,” Alvarado says. “It was a pretty fun time. They had soccer fields and a playground. There were a lot of kids my age.” Moving back and forth, however, soon began to take its toll as he struggled to learn English. When Alvarado turned 8 years old, he started accompanying his dad out to the farm for a few hours on the weekends. As a teenager, he worked in the fields full time during the summer, hauling tomatoes. As a high-school senior, he operated a tractor and performed irrigation work.

“I think, in my opinion, it was pretty fun,” Alvarado says. “You got to see how a plant was growing because of us. I liked to feel that satisfaction.”

During summer months, he earned $9 an hour and worked 12 hours a day six days a week. Only about six hours a day involved hard labor, he says, but the work didn’t let up even in 100-degree weather. One time, when he was 17 and irrigating alfalfa, he fell into a ditch.

Viridiana Diaz directs the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which recruits migrant students from local rural schools to go to college. Diaz knows the value of the program firsthand—she is herself a CAMP graduate.


“You have to be careful, because we were [children],” Alvarado says. “We got overheated. Our eyesight would get blurry. They have to have some regulations. If it’s a hot day, then the children should stay home.”

A few years later, he began working at a walnut orchard in Winters. Last summer, his boss didn’t provide shade or water for fieldworkers, Alvarado says. Under California state law, employers with outside work sites must train their employees about heat safety, provide them water and establish an emergency plan for medical assistance. The state fined his boss for this violation, Alvarado says.

Nowadays, he attends school during the week and does homework on Fridays. Saturdays he works construction jobs with his uncle.

“Sunday, just rest,” he says. “Do a little homework. And go to church.”

As a teenager, Alvarado didn’t seriously consider applying for college until a recruiter from the College Assistance Migrant Program visited his classroom.

On a brisk afternoon last November, a dozen students hang out at the CAMP study lounge on the Sacramento State campus, a few sitting around a table typing on their laptops. Young women with long, dark hair pulled back into ponytails wear hooded sweatshirts, boots and scarves, and chat and giggle with each other. The young men wear baseball hats and tennis shoes. The scene could take place at any other spot on campus, except with a few notable differences: Most of the students converse in Spanish. And all of the students come from farmworker families.

A guy walks in and hugs a female student: “Bienvenido,” he says.

“It is like family. You get to know everyone,” explains Nallely Lopez, 19, a sophomore.

Born in Mexico, Lopez moved with her family to Winters when she was 10 years old. Her dad only went to third grade and her mom finished sixth grade. Nowadays, her dad fixes farm machinery and works on a ranch year-round. He wakes up early and comes home late at night, working most Sundays, too. Lopez’s mom used to sort nuts at a nursery, but now works at the child-care center at the Davis migrant camp six months out of the year. Lopez managed to stay out of farm work as a teenager, unlike many of her peers. She plants to major in recreation and park management and one day start her own business.

“They want me to have a career,” Lopez says. “They don’t want me working in the same things they do. They don’t want me to have the same struggles they had. When I feel like I can’t do [college] anymore, I remember all the things they’ve done so I could be here.”

Every year, the program’s outreach counselor recruits about 300 students from rural high schools, and the program gets lucky if 80 of these students end up enrolling in college.

“They don’t come to us. We have to go out and find them,” says executive director Viridiana Diaz, herself a CAMP graduate. When she received the admission letter in the mail, she didn’t tell her family because she didn’t think it could actually be true: “I believed so little in that opportunity.”

Back in the day, when Diaz conducted recruitment presentations, she would ask the class how many students wanted to go to college. Nobody would raise their hand. She talked to high-school principals and counselors who said migrant students were better suited for physical labor or vocational training, not for dreaming bigger.

A lot of teenagers drop out of school in April so they can help with the spring planting and harvesting season; they often don’t return, or else they’re so far behind with their studies that their grades suffer. While the high-school graduation rate of migrant students in California isn’t specifically tracked, Diaz estimates the number to be about 20 percent.

Migrant camps vary

On a warm morning in March, Louie drives down a country road off the Mace Boulevard exit in Davis, passed farmland and the South Fork Preserve into Dixon, where he hits a dead-end and a collection of militarylike housing in muted colors of beige, sage and orange. The area is well-groomed and has a soccer field and two playgrounds. This is a migrant camp, or what’s called migrant housing, where 62 rental units house an average of five family members each. The families that live here come from Texas, Arizona and Mexico. This is where Alvarado grew up. But, today, the place sits empty.

“Can you imagine being a migrant worker and moving here from Mexico every year to work?” Louie asks, as he pulls into the parking lot.

Louie works as the California regional coordinator for the Children in the Fields Campaign, an initiative started by AFOP, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for migrant and seasonal workers. The organization’s goals include securing a living wage for farmworkers, and increased health insurance and benefits. More than 95 percent of farmworkers have no health insurance, sick or vacation pay, and no access to unemployment insurance or worker compensation.

Irma Jimenez moved to the United States at age 6, the daughter of migrant farmworkers. Her parents wouldn’t allow her to work in the fields, but finally, at age 18, she took up labor in a vineyard at 10-hour days, six days a week. “It was hard,” she said. “It’d make me so tired.”


In mid-April, the migrant camps open in Davis and Madison, which is about 11 miles from Woodland. All 24 camps throughout the state of California open by May. At this annual interagency meeting for the Dixon camp, representatives of health agencies, churches, government agencies, education groups and others convene to determine what services each will provide at the center. Louie walks into the community room, the size of a high-school classroom, barren except for an American flag hanging from the front wall.

“Instead of telling you how bad things are, I’m going to tell you things aren’t getting any worse,” says Arturo Rodriguez of the California Office of Migrant Services, as he starts the meeting.

The department’s budget has been cut by $600,000 in the last two fiscal years, but won’t be cut again this year, he says. To account for less funding, the office is considering raising the rent of migrant camp units by $1 a day, which would bring in an additional $300,000 a year. Residents pay $11.50 a day for a two-bedroom unit, and the amount increases slightly for larger units. But the office hesitates to increase rent because farm work remains low-wage employment, and workers rely on affordable housing.

The conditions of migrant camps vary, but the Dixon housing is relatively well-kept. In the old camps—what Rodriquez calls essentially “plywood boxes”—units had no air-conditioning and only beds and chairs for furniture. Residents walked to a separate facility to use the bathroom.

Before leaving the meeting, Louie stops to speak with women from the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network, a group that makes weekly stops at Yolo County Juvenile Hall in Woodland to visit youth from Mexico who’ve been arrested for being here illegally and await deportation.

While Louie’s primary job involves organizing farmworker youth—those here legally and illegally—into coalitions, another part involves conducting field investigations and documenting the experiences of these young laborers. Last summer, Louie witnessed four adolescents working on a farm in Marysville, three boys and a girl, of the ages 9, 12, 13 and 14 years old. The youngest children sorted and sized peaches as the oldest one stood on a ladder picking fruit. AFOP has uncovered children as young as 6 years old working in agricultural fields.

“You talk to these farmworkers and you hear a lot of them say, ‘I started work when I was 5 or 6 with my parents.’ It’s a common thing,” Louie says.

Farmworker youth may be exposed to pesticides during a developmental time in their bodies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that children ages 3 to 15 may experience at least three times the cancer threat the same chemicals pose to adults. Children absorb more pesticides relative to body weight than adults, and their developing brains, nervous system and organs may be more vulnerable. In Minnesota, AFOP found that aerial-pesticide sprayings occur on large beet fields even with farmworkers—including youth—present in the fields.

One hypothesis for their susceptibility is that children may not always dress properly, so they walk around barefoot in the fields and get cuts, which may get infected. Or they work around heavy machinery and handle sharp tools made for adults and hurt themselves. That’s what happened to Eric Guerra, who grew up in a Yolo County farming community. He now works on the staff of California Assemblyman Warren Furutani of south Los Angeles County. But as a teenager, he picked figs and remembers slicing his toe once and returning to work the very next morning.

He isn’t the only child to have occasionally sliced a toe or finger while doing farm labor. Sometimes, though, the scenario can be much worse. In December of 2007, a 10-year-old Mexican boy was driving a pickup truck that hauled a trailer of produce through an orange orchard in Florida. His sister slipped out of the truck and fell between the trailer. The little girl was killed. She was only 2 years old.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that some 10,000 children and adolescents suffer injuries on farms annually. Between 1992 and 2000, 42 percent of all work-related deaths of minors occurred in agriculture, and children account for 20 percent of all farm fatalities.

Nationally, the average annual salary of a farmworker family is $17,000. The national poverty level for a family of four is currently pegged at $22,050. Across America, many children work in agriculture to supplement their family income. Some growers pay farmworkers by the hour, while others pay by the number of crates filled or amount produced, which makes the goal to be fast and efficient. The more hands helping, the more money a family makes.

Six days a week, 10 hours a day

Maria del Carmen Sierra started working at 16 years old, sorting almonds at a factory in Ripon, a small town 70 miles from Sacramento. She left her mother and younger siblings in Mexico to live with an uncle across the border. She wanted to get an education, but lived in a rural area too far away from the nearest school. The 23-year-old moved back to Mexico briefly before returning two years ago with the rest of her family to work at a cherry-packing plant in Lodi.

“As anyone who comes here from Mexico, I came here to work,” Del Carmen Sierra says through a Spanish translator. The petite woman wears big hoop earrings and professional clothing, as she sits in the office of California Human Development in Lodi, where she works.

Someday, she wants to be a nurse, she says, as she reflects back on her time in agriculture. Del Carmen Sierra worked at night, doing what she calls the “tedious” work of packing and loading boxes, each weighing about 15 to 20 pounds. Her boss treated her well, and if she followed the rules, then everything was fine, she says. But as she speaks, tears well up in her eyes.

Del Carmen Sierra’s sister, Ana Sierra, now 20 years old, moved to the United States with her family to be with her dad, who had been working here legally for two decades. He would return home to Mexico periodically to visit.

“There’s more of a possibility for a future here,” Sierra says in Spanish.

Guillermo Alvarado was 14 when he first hauled tomatoes in nearby fields. Today, thanks in part to a program that encourages farmworker youth to go to college, he’s a student at Sacramento State with a major in criminal justice and desire to go into law enforcement.

Photo By Gabor MEREG

Growing up, Sierra worked on farms in Mexico before coming here to work in the cherry-packing plant with her older sister.

“[I got] accustomed to it, and you work with what you get,” Sierra says.

Later that afternoon, Irma Jimenez walks into the California Human Development office. Jimenez, a short woman with pretty brown eyes, moved to the United States at age 6. She cried a lot after she first moved here, but a nice teacher in elementary school made her feel welcomed. Jimenez’s parents wouldn’t allow her to work in agriculture as a minor, so she worked in a vineyard for the first time last year after turning 18 years old.

“To me, it was hard. It’d make me so tired,” says Jimenez, who worked six days a week, 10 hours a day.

Jimenez was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her parents know the family of another girl born in that city named Maria Isabel Jimenez Vasquez, a woman who made national news in May of 2008. Two years ago, Vasquez was a 17-year-old pregnant woman who picked grapes in a Lodi vineyard.

One day, after working for eight hours in 95-degree weather, the young woman’s body temperature reached 108.4 degrees, according to a news report. Vasquez miscarried her baby and later died of heat stroke.

To ensure the safety of farmworkers, the labor commissioner’s office routinely conducts inspections in the agricultural industry and other low-income industries through the Bureau of Field Enforcement Unit and the Economic Employment and Enforcement Coalition, a unit established to target the underground economy. Obviously, though, enforcement agents can’t catch every single infraction when it matters most.

In 2009, the state conducted 954 inspections in the agricultural industry, issuing 201 citations. Of these citations, 26 were due to child-labor violations. The main reason for the violations was due to an employer failing to have work permits, says Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the legal age to perform most farm work is 12 years old, with the written consent of a parent. Legally, these children can and sometimes do work for unlimited hours in the fields before and after school. But the law prohibits that same child from working in an air-conditioned office for two hours a day. A person working in an office, a clothing boutique, a stationary store or in any other nonagricultural occupation must be at least 14 or 15 years old to work up to eight hours on a nonschool day and up to three hours on a school day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

When a child turns 14 years old, he or she doesn’t need parental consent to work in agricultural fields. The law allows farmworker youth to perform hazardous work at 16, while other workers must wait until they are 18 years old.

In September of 2009, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard introduced federal legislation to end the double standard in child-labor laws. Under the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, or House Resolution 3564, a person must be at least 16 years old to work in fields and at least 18 years old to perform particularly hazardous work. The bill would permit 14 and 15 year olds to work in certain agricultural jobs, during limited shifts and outside school hours.

“We’re not advocating the end of farm work, obviously,” Louie says. “It’s something that’s necessary, but we feel that farmworkers and their children should have the same legal protections, should have the same educational opportunities, should have the same economic opportunities. In order to enact something like that, it’s going to take cooperation from the growers and the industry.”

Focus on the future

More than 90 organizations have signed on in support of the CARE legislation to end the double standard in child-labor laws, and the bill has 91 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill currently sits in the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.

“This is the epitome of the American Dream,” Louie says of the Mexican farmworkers he knows. “They are some of the most hardworking, family-oriented people I’ve ever met. They will work for next to nothing, just to support their families and for the potential for their kids to go on.”

Louie questions what potential our society wastes as we continue to marginalize migrant youth and relegate them to a life of low-paying farm work.

Last June, on World Day Against Child Labor, President Barack Obama stated that the education of children is key to a nation’s ability to advance forward, while “child labor perpetuates a cycle of poverty that prevents families and nations from reaching their full potential.” This is where programs, such as CAMP, make a difference. Sacramento’s program has successfully supported the college education of migrant youth who went on to become elected officials, school principals, a local news anchor and attorneys, just to list a few. Vice mayor of the city of Woodland Artemio Pimentel, Leticia Ordaz from KCRA Channel 3 and Jose Lupercio, a doctor, all participated in CAMP.

As for Alvarado, thanks in part to CAMP, he’s focused on the future—both his and his family’s, including what will happen when his 17-year-old brother graduates from high school later this spring. “I’m encouraging him to come to Sac State,” Alvarado says.

Alvarado admits his mom is worried about her oldest son eventually going into law enforcement. But he knows his parents are proud of him for going to college. And pleased to see him moving toward graduation. And, more than anything, happy to see him encourage his younger brother to follow in his footsteps.