“The Harvest/La Cosecha” Reveals Hardships of Child Farmworkers (2)

The Harvest/La Cosecha
Director: U. Robert Romano
Executive Producer: Eva Longoria
80 minutes

The conventional wisdom tells us that eating fruits and vegetables will help us stay healthy. But what about the agricultural workers who pick these crops? Do they also get to benefit from the spoils of their labor?

“The Harvest/La Cosecha,” a new film available on DVD directed by U. Robert Romano, answers these questions with a resounding, “No,” and opens with several startling facts.

“In some countries, children pick crops for 14 hours a day. The United States is one of those countries,” it begins. What's more, approximately 400,000 kids labor in 48 of the 50 states, gathering the food we consume. The reason is simple dollars and cents. Their often-large families cannot survive without the contribution of every able-bodied person, however small their arms and legs. Even then, the film continues, the average farmworker household earns a paltry $17,500 a year.

Not surprisingly, school attendance for children who do this work is at best erratic, with migrant children four times more likely to drop out than their nonmigrant peers.

“The Harvest/La Cosecha” highlights these brutal realities by zeroing in on the stories of three Mexican-American children, 12-year-old Zulema Lopez, 14-year-old Perla Sanchez, and 16-year-old Victor Sanchez Huapilla. The 80-minute film follows them as they and their families dash from state to state in search of work. As the story unfolds, viewers are made privy to their thoughts, hopes and realities.

We see Zulema, up at 4:30 AM, heading to the onion fields of El Cenizo, Texas. By 11 AM, the temperature is 99 degrees. Zulema's mother, Jessica, notes that her daughter has already worked alongside her for five years, since she was seven, just as she worked alongside her parents when she was Zulema's age. “I make $64 a week, which helps my mom,” Zulema shrugs.

From Texas, the Lopez family – four kids and two adults – head to Bear Lake, Michigan, where they'll pick strawberries. Once there, Zulema becomes nostalgic for the few months she spent in Texas. “My friends are in school, having fun,” she says. “I'm over here, picking crops.” Zulema fantasizes about somehow finishing high school and finding work far from the fields. As the interview proceeds, her exhaustion and dejection become blatant. “I have no time for dreaming,” she states.

Unlike Zulema, Perla Sanchez dreams big, and she proudly articulates both her anxieties and aspirations. She is deeply aware of anti-Mexican prejudice and conscious of the abusive treatment and lack of protections afforded farm laborers. “I have a dream to become a lawyer and help other people just like me,” she says. Her biggest fear? “That something will happen to my parents.”

Already, her 46-year-old father has severe back pain, which limits his mobility. Similarly, her 43-year-old mother has trouble with her hands and is often unable to cut and pack the crops she's picked. Perla acknowledges that when her mother's already precarious health got worse, landing her in the hospital, a domestic crisis ensued. “How do I help my family? she asks. “How do I show my support?” Even more poignant is Perla's realization that farm work – with routine exposure to pesticides and other poisons – may endanger her health as well. “I worry,” she admits.

Still, despite shouldering adult responsibilities and concerns, Perla is also a kid who resents missing important developmental markers, not the least being her eighth-grade prom. “There's all this stuff, all this good, neat stuff that you can't do because you are a migrant and have to work,” she grumbles before ticking off indignities – like being repeatedly held back a grade level – that come from constantly changing schools. “Time does not stop just because you're a migrant,” she muses.

Victor not only works the fields – something he's done since age eight – but also helps take care of his two young sisters, both of whom attend school full-time. “In school you get fed, there's air conditioning, everything,” he sighs.

Victor and his family spend part of each year in Florida's tomato fields – by 11:30 AM, it is an unbelievable 107 humid degrees – and earns $1 per 25-pound bucket. On a slow day, he says, he picks approximately 1500 pounds. “I feel pressured to keep up the pace with the rest of the workers,” he says. “I'm not as strong as a grown man, so it's difficult to keep up.”

That said, Victor's loyalty to his parents and siblings is ironclad, and his deep reverence for family belies his youth. Mature and resigned to life as he knows it, Victor has faced the economic downturn head-on, taking whatever jobs are available when farm labor is not. At one point, he secured work laying down plastic sheeting. “It's not difficult, but it's toxic,” he reports. “My skin started to fall off.”

The stories the film tells are enraging, and the young workers' vulnerability is horrifying to behold. At the same time, while “The Harvest/La Cosecha” is masterful at exposing the ongoing exploitation of farm laborers, the film leaves many questions unanswered. There is, for example, no mention of unions or workplace justice campaigns, and I found myself wondering whether the United Farm Workers (UFW) or the United Farm Worker Organizing Committee (UFWOC) are doing anything to counter the misery that is chronicled.

In addition, while it's clear that children who work in the fields do not get the education they are legally entitled to, it's less clear why boards of education turn a blind eye to attendance irregularities. Interviews with teachers and administrators who work in areas populated by child laborers would have better exposed the educational malpractice that seems apparent.

Despite these shortcomings, “The Harvest/La Cosecha” is a riveting and compassionate look at the day-to-day lives of the people who keep us nourished. And while it concludes on a positive note – showcasing now-prominent men and women who once toiled in the fields – it notes that these people are exceptions. Indeed, until fair wage and hours laws make child labor a relic of an exploitative past, kids like Zulema, Perla, and Victor will continue to exert themselves on our behalf.