USA: Plight of Child Migrant Workers Explored – U Conn
Plight of Child Migrant Workers Explored – University of Connecticut April 13, 2012 at the Student Union Theater, the Dodd Film Series presented the final film in their 2011-2012 film series. The year-long event sponsored by the Human Rights Institute, the Center for Caribbean, Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies, the Rainbow Center and the Humanities Institute, showed a thought provoking film that related to human rights and global Issues every week. This week’s film, “La Cosecha,” or “The Harvest,” explored the lives of three child migrant workers in the United States. The film took place over the span of a year, following three families as they traveled from one end of the country to the other and faced every hardship imaginable. The film’s director, Robin Romano, joined the audience for the screening, a question and answer session and a dinner after the event. Romano, a filmmaker and photographer, has directed two prolific documentaries on the subject of migrant workers including “La Cosecha” and another documentary solely focused on child labor across the world, “Stolen Childhood.” Romano has given TED talks on the matter, worked directly with human rights advocacy groups such as Goodweave and Amnesty International, and was a finalist in the Cinema for Peace Foundation’s film competition.
The film opened with a series of statements saying that, “In some countries, children work 14 hours, seven days a week. Many of these children are 12 years old and younger.” This shocking introduction was followed by the even more groundbreaking statement that “the United States is one of those countries.” Immediately, the stage was set for Romano’s dramatic and compelling documentary that exposed one of the most appalling aspects of the American economy. The film began in El Cenizo, Texas with the story of twelve-year-old Zulema Lopez, an American girl of Mexican heritage, who started working in the field when she was only seven years old. Romano and his crew followed Zulema and her family as they picked onions in Texas, sometimes in 100-degree weather with little to no breaks, then to Michigan where the Lopez family migrated to pick cucumbers, strawberries and apples during the later summer months.
The documentary showed not only the hard labor that migrant workers need to accomplish, but the terrible conditions they live in. Migrant children can, at best, attend school only a few months of the year and because of this few rarely make it to high school, let alone graduate. Romano pointed out, both in the film and his discussion, that migrant children drop out of school at a rate four times that of normal children. As Perla Sanchez, the third migrant worker that Romano interviewed, observed, migrant working is a vicious cycle. Because migrant children need to help support their families by working in the field they are unable to complete school and are stuck without a diploma and the opportunity to make a better life for themselves.
The film continued to discuss the lives of the three children Romano focused on and explored serious issues about American labor laws. Migrant workers, including child laborers, are subjected to the most dangerous conditions in any area of labor. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, agriculture is the most dangerous occupation for children in America. Not only are the working conditions appalling, with intense heat and a scarcity of breaks for workers, but migrant workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals, which may lead to pesticide poisoning. Victor Huapilla, the 16-year-old migrant worker from Quincy, Fla., had to cover plants in treated plastic during the film, and recounted his story of pesticide poisoning, which he had caught from the chemicals used on the plastic covers.
The film ended on an inherently tragic and depressing note, with the migrant families accepting their positions in the world, noting that there is no place for them to go other than the fields. This sad and realistic acceptance of reality was heightened by the three kids expressing their hopes and dreams. Sanchez said she wanted to go to college and be a lawyer to help people in her situation, while Victor noted that he wanted to live a simple and happy life with his family. Zulema, the most wizened and hardened of the three, said she did not have dreams, that she’s still working on them.
With these conditions and situations for children in place, one has to wonder why such conditions are condoned by the federal government. During the question and answer session, Robin Romani said that the children and the adult migrant workers “exist outside of any kind of modern legal framework.” This is not because of their immigration status, since many migrant workers were born in the United States, but because the Federal government does not legislate for agricultural safety.
“These children suffer. They do not have the protections that other American children enjoy today,” said Romano. Fourth-semester Spanish major, Dezanii Lewis, was shocked by the conditions the children worked in, “They’re kids, I never had to do anything like that. When I was that age I was playing with my brother with action figures, the closest I came to that was making mud pies.”
Fourth-semester human development and family studies major Tiana Burdick had a similar reaction. “ I thought it was sad that children are treated this way in the US, you don’t think about it happening here,” she said. Lewis was also inspired by the story and said, “I’m not a poli-sci major, but if I was I would be pushing for this to change.”