A Hard Life in the Fields Starting at Age 7
Ed. Note: Three bills now making their way through Sacramento promise to dramatically improve conditions for California farmworkers, including one on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that requires overtime pay for shifts above eight hours. For Javier Mondar-Flores Lopez, an indigenous Mixtec farmworker in Southern California, the bills are welcome news. A recent high-school graduate, Lopez has worked in the fields since he was in elementary school. He lives in an apartment with his family in Santa Maria, California, but has become an activist and plans to go to Los Angeles. He told his story to NAM Associate Editor David Bacon.
SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Growing up in a farmworking family -- well, it's everything I ever knew. Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out. That's pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers. When I was younger it would be right after school, and then during vacations.
My sister Teresa slept in the living room, and one night, when I was doing my homework at the table, I could hear her crying because she had so much pain in her hands. My mother and my other sister complained about how much their backs hurt. My brother talked about his back pain as well. It's pretty sad. I always hear my family talk about how much they're in pain and how's it's impossible for me to help them.
I always moved. In my high school years, I moved six times. In junior high I moved three times and in elementary school, I’m not sure. I went to six different elementary schools. For a while we went to Washington to work, but aside from that it’s always been in Santa Maria.
We always lived with other families. The first time I can remember we lived with four other families. The second house we lived with five families. I remember [when] I would wake up and take a shower, my older siblings would tell me to get out because I already had a huge line waiting for me to finish. It was always in and out, flush after flush.
First Time in the Fields
The first time I worked in the fields was when I was seven, in Washington, where I picked cucumbers. It was summer. We didn't go to school in Washington [but] the foremen never said anything because my brother knew them. He worked in the crew, so the foremen were okay with it. There were other kids there as well. It wasn't a huge company, just a small rancher.
When they paid by the hour we couldn't work. If [workers] were paid by the hour and they were slow, the foreman would send them home and not let them work anymore. They would only let kids work if they were doing piece rate. We were actually really slow because we were only in third or fourth grade.
The first [paycheck I received] was for $40. I was crying because I counted my boxes that day and I knew how much I had earned that week. When the foreman gave me my pay he said I hadn't worked [more than that]. I was in fourth grade. I was crying because I had worked and really wanted my money. I wanted to buy something with it. Finally he paid me my money in a white envelope. I was pretty happy.
When we got older, we did get more money. We got to earn our own money because before then my mother would take everything we earned. As we got older, we had more interest in money, so we would keep half of it. We were getting our own pay, and my older siblings would ask us to give half.