I met our Children in the Fields (CIF) Essay and Art Contest winners the morning after their arrival at AFOP’s national conference in Las Vegas. For most of them, it was the farthest they’d ever traveled. For our first-place essay writer from North Carolina, Teresita Paz, it was her first time ever on an airplane. All four of them came with at least one family member. Las Vegas, all concrete and flashing lights, was surely way outside of their norm (it’s outside of most people’s!), but they kept their wits about them. I was immediately impressed by their steadiness, self-presentation, confidence, and ease.
Around 10:30am, our other Health & Safety team members Cari and Vashti ushered the winners into a small room at the Golden Nugget Hotel for an informal group interview. Vashti and I set up the cameras while Cari sat down with them and started the conversation: Where are you from? Do you work in the fields? Do your parents migrate?
Most seemed hesitant to speak, and spare with their words, but before too long a conversation was started. Teresita talked about her personal experiences in the fields from a young age, and about the scars she still bears from the branches scratching her arms while she worked. The other three didn’t have stories so personal, but their parents did. “It’s a lot of hard work for him,” Julieta Cruz said of her father, Aaron Cruz Calderon, lamenting that there was no other way for him to earn a living. The other children chimed in, agreeing. The pain they all felt in seeing their parents work (too) hard was clearly evident.
Then Norman Gonzales and his parents began talking of “Valley Fever,” an illness caused by breathing in a fungus that becomes airborne when the ground is broken. Common in the dry, dusty areas of southern California, it was unknown to those of us from the east. They described family members who had been stricken with it – missing days, or months, of work – while the rest of us expressed shock. A fungus in the dust that you can just breathe into your lungs, making you very sick? The Californians responded matter-of-factly; to them and other farmworkers, it’s nothing but a fact of life on the farm.
Soon a genuine rapport was established amongst the group, and conversation gradually shifted into Spanish. Some of the parents started passing around photos of the creepiest spiders they’d encountered during the blueberry harvest, while others shared their own perspectives from the fields. The farmworker children would often listen and interject in English – unconsciously straddling two worlds, as they have learned to do from a very young age.
None of the kids expressed a desire to grow up and work in the fields like their parents. Licsy Limon from California said, “My mom does want to take me to the field, but I feel like it’s gonna be really hard. It’s gonna be really hot, and I will be tired after I get home.” She said instead that, “I would like to be a doctor.” To her, being a doctor seemed far easier.
The CIF award ceremony followed the interview: a formal luncheon at which each winner would present their artwork or essay to the 300+ conference attendees. This can be a daunting task for those who have never done it. Even so, every year the CIF contest winners bring down the house. As Licsy, Julieta, Norman, and Teresita all spoke of their parents’ sacrifices, many of them broke into tears; there was audible sniffling in the audience, too. When Licsy, the youngest of the group, paused to marshal her courage, people called out their encouragement while her mom drew closely to her side, coaching her quietly. When Julieta could not finish speaking, her father graciously spoke for her, as her mother and younger brother – himself a 2nd place award winner – both gathered onstage in support. When Teresita mentioned that next year she will graduate high school with three associate’s degrees, the whole room broke out into applause. Every single one of our contest winners received a standing ovation, and by the end of the ceremony there was not a dry eye in the house.
I’d seen only one other CIF awards presentation since my time here at AFOP. Then, too, I heard comments to the effect of “this is why I do what I do.” I felt that inspiration in the room once again. At AFOP, in partnership with all of our member organizations across the country, we work hard for farmworkers and their children, just to give these worthy people a voice and a chance. They have never disappointed us.