May 5, 2010

Maria M.

“Every teenager should do at least a day and see how it is to work a real job. You sweat. You walk until your feet hurt, you have blisters, and until you have cuts all over your hands,” said Maria M., reflecting on her childhood working in the fields.[1]

Growing up in a farmworker family in rural Idaho, Maria said she was “always surrounded” by work in the fields. She started working at age 11 in order to help her parents. “I worked picking onions after school in about 6th grade,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I didn’t mind working in the fields. I just saw it as something we did, something my family had always done.”

According to Maria, her young age was nothing unusual: “I worked with a lot of older people and younger. The ages were always varied, 11 and 12 year olds, even 10 year olds. They didn’t get paid on check [on the books], they’d just go and help their parents on the side. The growers know that. They see that—they would pass by when they drop off water. No one was going to say anything.”

Maria said she worked 10 and sometimes 13 hours a day, earning less than the minimum wage. “The pay was terrible.”

As she got older, Maria said, she mostly “was hoeing onions in the back country . . . sugar beets, zucchini, espiga [detasseling corn]. . . . When I worked in espiga, the growers would water . . . . We would walk down the rows getting really wet. The mud goes in your tennis shoes and you get blisters. You’re in them all day.”

Maria said everyone felt pressure to work fast. “The crew leader would egg the workers on and intimidate the workers who were slow. It almost became a tradition in the field, the person who was the fastest was the best worker. . . . [It’s] something that has been instilled in us to work hard. Prove yourself, be a good worker.”

One summer vacation in high school she harvested zucchini, bending down all day to pick the vegetables. “You had to go really fast,” she explained. “You had to bend down for hours until your next break. . . . A lot of people who did zucchini before have back problems. I was young and I know how much my back hurt after one season. . . . I don’t know if I blame the field, but ever since I worked in zucchini, I have had a lot of back problems. I don’t know if it was zucchini or if it was just working for years in the field.”

Maria was the only member of her family picking zucchini and one of only three girls in the field. “The first time we got there,” she said, “the guys were just joking around and said this was a guy’s job, it was no place for girls, that we should just go home.” She added, “it wasn’t an easy job. . . . Sometimes it was very frustrating because guys would tell you stuff.” Because Maria’s father was known in the community, she said, she was spared more serious harassment, but the men were verbally abusive to one of her co-workers.

At the time, Maria said, she did not know anything about pesticides but has since learned. “Now that I know about pesticides,” she told us, “I’m pretty sure we entered many fields” with recently applied pesticides.

There was always white residue in the fields, especially zucchini always had residue on them. . . . [T]here were people who got sick but probably thought it was the heat. They never told us they were spraying, they would just say “watering.”
One summer . . . me and my older sister were working . . . . We were told when we saw the plane we had to get out. But they didn’t say when, just “look for the plane.” They were spraying things we didn’t know what they were. We heard it was chemicals so [the plants] could grow, but we didn’t know what they were. So we didn’t think about that when we saw a plane. We were in the next field and you see it all the time in the country. It’s always the next field but it drifts.

Maria is one of the rare farmworker children who has made it to college, where she says her experiences in the field continue to motivate her. “I’m not like some people who came to college because their parents made them or to party,” she explained. “With me, my parents didn’t force me to come to school. They didn’t want me to put pressure on myself. In the long run when I finish school, I will help my parents. When there is an exam coming or I just want to go home because my parents need help financially, I think how much I’m going to help them when I get out. Some days I just want to go home and help them, but I think in the long run this won’t help, so I think working in the fields had a big impact on me.”

[1] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Maria M. (not a pseudonym), age 19, Idaho, September 13, 2009.