What It’s Like To Be A Teen Farmworker

Maria, 16 (Latina) – Merced, Calif. 

(Maria requested that her full name not be used. Her family was granted political asylum in the U.S., after fleeing Mexico, but they still fear being targeted by the cartels.)

Seasonal farmworker

This summer I’ve gone back and forth between taking college classes and doing short stints as a farmworker here in California’s Central Valley. My first time working in the fields was last summer with my mom. I had been asking her for money to buy school supplies, and we both knew it was a way for me to have a little pocket money and also help out.

Around my hometown Merced, I know other kids who work in the fields during the summer, so there’s no stigma attached to it. Still, getting ready to go work out there for the first time last year, I was nervous. I knew it would be a heavy job. It’s hot and very physical work. I asked my mom what I was in for, and she told me I’d know what it was like once I did it. And she was right — it’s something you have to experience to understand.

We wake up really early — 5 a.m. — which is hard for me since I’m used to sleeping in. I put on lots of layers — a long-sleeved sweater, a hat, boots, and a handkerchief. It gets hot, but we need to wear it all in order to protect ourselves from sunburn later in the day. We have to bring our own food and water. In the mornings, mom packs lunch for both us (usually sandwiches and beans) and then we head out together.

The shifts start around 7 a.m. and go until 4 or 5 p.m. Last year, I was too young to pick anything, but there are lots of other jobs to do out there, like clear sticks and brush to make it easier for workers to move. At one point, my job was to get rid of pests; I think they were gophers. I used a shovel to throw poison into their holes and cover the opening with a mound of dirt. I felt weird because I like animals and I don’t like the idea of killing them. I did it because it was part of the job.

My friends who regularly work in the field do it because they want to earn money and they don’t like school. But I work because I love school. It’s a way to make my education possible. I earn money for books and supplies. Going to school is first on my mind. My mom thinks about it, too. She says she works in the fields year-round to make it possible for my siblings and me to do something better.

Working in the fields for the first time was hard. I was exhausted at the end of the day. But at the same time, I enjoyed it. I like the sounds of the fields, hearing people speaking Spanish and the radio blasting ranchera tunes. It sounds like my childhood. I find it comforting. Being out there, I feel more connected to my community. And I’ve recently started getting involved in politics to advocate for immigrant and farmworker rights.

Even though I could get a job doing other things, I like being out in the fields with my mom. I feel like I understand her better now that I know what she goes through every day.

Maria is a part of We’Ced in Merced, California and a correspondent for Youth Radio. Her essay appeared as part of a Youth Radio collaboration with the New York Times’ Race/Related.

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