December 1, 2000

Migrant Labor Through the Eyes of Children

By Maria L. Gonzalez

Growing up in Southeastern Michigan, I always looked forward to summer. When I returned to school in the fall my classmates would ask, "Where did you spend the summer"? I would confidently say, "I went to Traverse City was my way of hiding the shame of working in the fields.

As a young, innocent, naive girl, I would internalize the positive experiences of working in the fields: meeting new friends, swimming in Lake Michigan's icy waters and going to the city on weekends to shop and have fun. I buried the discrimination horrific housing conditions and abusive treatment by growers deep in my subconscious. It was my way of surviving the deplorable conditions of the migrant experience.

Although things have improve since I was a migrant, much remains to be accomplished for farmworkers in areas such as child labor, health care and education.

In 1989 the National Consumers League classified agriculture as the most dangerous occupation in the country. In 1991, 385,000 farm workers were women and children under the age of 14. Patterns of migration, short periods of employment, longer periods of unemployment, income fluctuations and annual disasters all play a part in the disruption of education and economic stability of the migrant and seasonal farm workers family.

Children who work in the fields often work during school hours, which deprives them of their right to education. Long hours and strenuous work take their toll, often causing excessive absenteeism. Students who are held back in school are likely to get discouraged and disillusioned with education. Migrant students have difficulty keeping up with their peers, suffering from extreme fatigue and poor nutrition. The rate of school enrollment for migrant children is lower than for any other group in this country. The dropout rate for migrants is 45%, compared to the national norm of 10% and the national average for Hispanics of 20%. Half of the enrollment of K-12 is lost by the 9th grade. And one in ten completes the 12th grade.

The impact of health is another aspect affecting the quality of life for migrants. The life expectancy for the migrant is just 49 years, compared to the national norm of 73 years. The infant mortality rate for migrants is 25% higher than the national average. The EPA estimates that pesticide exposure causes migrants and their families to suffer between 10,000 to 20,000 immediate illnesses annually, and additional thousands of illnesses later in life.

Despite the difficulty of my migrant experience, I was fortunate that my parents did not take me or my brothers and sisters out of school to work in the fields. We worked in the summer and in the fall some days after school. In addition, my father would not allow growers to abuse us. I recall many times when he valiantly stood up for our rights—the right to get paid a fair wage, to work limited hours and to have our voices heard. Not always successful in having our say in matters, we would move on to other work opportunities.

These early influences and modeling by my parents gave me a fundamental understanding of what it means to face discrimination as a Hispanic farmworker. It has given me the courage and drive to make the world a better place to live.

Today educational opportunities are changing the lives of migrants. The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) was implemented in 1972 by the U.S. Department of Education to provide higher education access and opportunity to students of migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds. As a former migrant it give me incredible pride to be ministering to the needs of this population as the director of the new College Assistance Migrant Program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.

As someone once said, "education is the great equalizer." By helping college bound migrant students, I am making a contribution to the dreams and aspirations of a group who can now see a future different from their parents.

(Reprinted from Network Connection, November/December 2000)

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