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I Was a Child Farmworker

A Q&A with Norma Flores Lopez, director of the children in the fields campaign.

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And that’s kind of the environment that I grew up in. As I mentioned, sometimes going out early, and even coming in late—we wouldn’t get back to South Texas until October, sometimes even up until November.

And having to go show up late to school—and I would have gone to school in Indiana—but I would show up to school with my grades and they would say, “That’s great that you were doing so well in Indiana. Unfortunately these grades don’t translate,” because each state has its own school system and its own requirements.

And so when I would be down in South Texas, I would have to make up a lot of schoolwork.

But it could happen that I would walk into the classroom and the teacher would say to me, “You unfortunately will not be able to make up big projects that are part of your grade. And so therefore there’s no way you can pass.” So essentially I was failed on my very first day of just getting there.

That is very very tough and discouraging and we do see it a lot with other farmworker kids. But you know—I kept pushing on it and eventually I was able to get my high school diploma. That was thanks to a lot of support from these programs that existed that would help farmworker families that I participated in to get that extra support and tutoring to get my high school credits that I needed to graduate. And so I graduated, went on to college, and eventually found my way to working for this nonprofit to be able to help other farmworker kids that are in my situation today.

MTS: OK. Let’s back out to the big picture again. How many children are we talking about and what are their ages?

NFL: There are as many as 500,000 children who work in agriculture. Out of those kids, in the US it is allowed for 12 year olds to be working out in the fields as long as school is not in session, they are allowed to go out and work an unlimited amount of hours.

Now, there are kids who work on their parents’ farm. And for those particular children, they don’t have any restrictions. They can do any type of job on a farm at any age. But the expectation is that those parents are going to watch out for their children. And that’s why the law allows for that parental exemption.

But the other kids who don’t have that path to one day owning their own farm, whose parents are farmworkers, and they are out there to be able to help their parents make ends meet—those are the ones we are the most worried about. And so these kids allowed to work out there at the age of 12, and to work an unlimited amount of hours, and that’s what we see—from sunrise to sunset those kids are really pushed to their limit.

And at the age of 16, children can start doing work that we know is dangerous, hazardous work. In every other industry these children would have to wait until they were 18 years old.

Yet we see in agriculture, our laws permit that to happen, despite the fact that we know that there are high rates of these kids getting injured. And there’s also the long-term effects of being exposed to many chemicals: we’ve seen links to Alzheimers, to defects in their development.

And so for –when it comes to pesticides, right now the EPA regulates that for an adult male. That’s what the regulations are based on. What would be “safe” levels for an adult male. They’re not taking into consideration women, and they are definitely not taking into consideration a twelve year old child, who is just developing. And the effects that that has on those children.