NMSHSA Interns in the Spotlight

Here at AFOP, we have the privilege of working side-by-side with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA), a non-profit that serves Migrant & Seasonal Head Start organizations across the country.  One of our favorite parts of NMSHSA is their summer internship program:  Head Start alumni who grew up in the fields but are now in college and ready to take on DC.  They come to get experience working in the nation’s capital, excited to advocate for the Head Start programs that had a positive effect on the earliest stages of their lives.

Working in the same office with NMSHSA makes sense for AFOP, because the NMSHSA internship and the CIFC art & essay contest are like two book-ends of the same book. Both programs seek out kids with farmwork experience; both programs select only four winners.  But AFOP recruits and works with farmworker kids who are definitely still kids:  10-18 year-olds who are just beginning to figure out their future.  NMSHSA interns, on the other hand, are all young adults who have accrued at least 60 college credits, and, as such, are well on their way to making a life of their own.

So, what does a farmworker child look like once they’re all grown up?


Last year, they looked like Julián Martínez, Celia Vargas, Mireya Camacho, and Erika Aguilera.  Three of the four hailed from a different region of the country – Washington state, Texas, or New York – which meant their stories were all very different.  Julián’s family once owned their own ranch and never migrated for work.  Erika was from New York state, where she picked strawberries and cut flowers in the summer.  Celia and Mireya both came all the way from Washington state, where state child labor laws are lax and children work in the fields as young as eight (and work in the fields they did!).


One theme that was common to all their stories, however, was their parents’ incredible work ethic.  Julián spoke highly of both his mom and dad, appreciating how, even at the end of a long day, his mom still found the energy to help him with his homework.  Erika said that “both of my parents have become used to working so hard, that’s all they breathe and live.” Celia’s parents’ work schedule sounded downright impossible:  working the hops every night from 6pm-6am, then heading straight out into the fields for a full shift before coming home, catching a nap, and then going back at it again.

Though Celia’s parents do this only 1-2 months out of the year, it has taken its toll.  Celia’s dad can no longer drive anywhere without getting sleepy.  She and her siblings feign interest in joining him on whatever errand he wants to run, just to keep him awake.  “Coffee,” she said, “doesn’t even affect his body anymore.”

Mireya’s parents, of course, were also hard-working– so much so, that they almost didn’t notice when it was having an effect on Mireya’s body, too.  It was about the 10th grade when Mireya started to complain of back pain.  But, each time, her mom would hold out her own hands, crooked from years of working in a cooler, and say, “Look at my hands – and I still have to go to work!  If you go to school, that’s your way out of poverty, so your hands aren’t like this and your back doesn’t keep hurting.’”

But her back did keep hurting.  In fact, the pain got so severe that Mireya had to be careful not to stand up for too long.  She was even using her locker between every class so that she only had to carry one book at a time.  Finally, at an annual well visit, her doctor checked the curvature of her spine.  Seeing something he didn’t like, he ordered x-rays, and, when the results came back, grimly pronounced his diagnosis:  Mireya had developed scoliosis.

Though the cause of scoliosis is often unclear, in her case, it wasn’t.

“The doctor asked, what are you doing?  I told him [about my work in the fields],” Mireya said, “and he told me, this is from your working conditions.”


What were those working conditions?  They were to pick apples, apples, and more apples.  Since the tender age of five, Mireya had been going to the apple orchards along with her parents.  By age nine, she’d started thinning the apples, and then, as a teenager, was picking apples just like all the other grown-ups.

However, Mireya doesn’t look like every other grown-up.  She weighs just 93 pounds, and apple picking, she says, is “one of the hardest things” she’s ever done.  This is the way she describes it:

The bag has three different knots.  As you fill it up, you unclip it so it gets bigger.  When [I] get to the third knot, it’s halfway between my knees and ankles.  You waste time going to the bin and back, so you try to fill it to the brim, that way it’s 20 bags per bin.  I’m 93 pounds, these bags weigh 40.


Has the scoliosis at least gotten Mireya out of apple picking?  Unfortunately, no.  Though Mireya is now 20 years old and in her second year of college, she still helps with the picking when she goes home for the summer.  “I have to sleep on the floor to keep my back straight,” she told us.  “Until I graduate and find a professional job, that’s what I have to do every summer, and that’s the consequence of it.”


More about these incredible young people in future blog posts!

By the way, the deadline for this year’s NMSHSA internship application is February 15thApply now!