Screening of the film The Harvest (La Cosecha)

Among the non-musical offerings of VivaFest was the screening of the film The Harvest (La Cosecha) – an extraordinarily moving documentary on child labor among the migrant workforce in America. The film followed three children and their families – 12 year old Zulema Lopez, 14-year-old Perla Sanchez and 16-year-old Victor Huapilla – as they picked crops across the U.S.A.

Zulema had been a farm worker since the age of 7, and at the time of the film was earning $64 a week picking onions. Though she loved school, her family had to uproot her from Texas to travel to Michigan for the next crop. Victor was earning $1 a bucket for picking tomatoes in Florida. Perla’s brother died at a hospital because they had no money to pay for medical care. She dreams of becoming a lawyer but doesn’t know if she’ll finish school because they are on the road so much.

All of them live in shacks as they travel around the country picking strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers and whatever else is in season. Their parents are also farm laborers who started out as kids themselves, and fear their children will be trapped in the cycle of poverty as well. All must work to support the family, and when a parent gets sick, the pressure on the children is enormous.

The film shows unflinchingly the grueling, back-breaking conditions all farm workers in America face, the ramshackle conditions of the housing they find themselves in, and the long journey from crop to crop that they must undertake to find what unpredictable work there is. It shows as well the human side of the immigrant workers who keep cheap food on American tables. The emotional toll of being shipped off all the time, of not being able to make friends or attend school, as well as the crushing stress of having to be strong as children through hardships no one should endure. You see it in the faces of both the children and their families. The constant weariness and worry. The fleeting moments of joy. And the strong bonds of family that keep them all pressing onward.

It is eye-opening at the very least and more often deeply shocking. But it is also deeply touching and emotionally gripping. You can learn more about the documentary at http://theharvestfilm.com/ .

Sadly these stories are not uncommon. Following the screening a panel discussion took place featuring Santa Clara University professor of modern languages and literature Francisco Jimenez, MALDEF Vice President of Strategic Development and Communications David Damian Figueroa, and former Nickelodeon Entertainment president and Spike TV creator Albie Hecht. All three had been farmworkers as children.

Figueroa spoke of going to 14 different schools before the eighth grade, noting that while all work is noble and should be appreciated, education gives you options and choices.

According to the panelists, the average farmworker family earns about $17,500 a year total from all of its combined labor. If they got a 40 percent pay increase, it would only cost the average American family an extra $15 a year.

All of the panelists focused on how one gets out of the fields, pointing primarily to education as the fastest means to escape the cycle of poverty. But as the film showed, that’s hard to achieve when your family is moving from town to town through major chunks of the year, and when you spent 12-16 hour days working in the fields.

Figueroa got out a different way – through the arts. He grew up singing in the fields. His mother taught him corridos (ballads), and his artistic talents kept him more involved in school than he might otherwise have become. That was an important message to deliver to students involved in mariachi and folklórico dance groups from around the country, as well as parents and adults in the crowd.

It has been 50 years since Edward R. Morrow’s “Harvest of Shame” special aired, and yet little has changed in the life of the child farmworkers who harvest our crops.

So what does this have to do with a festival of Mexican heritage and mariachi/ folklórico arts? Plenty in my view. This is an ugly little secret that all should be aware of. There will be no change as long as such secrets are swept under the rug. Mexicans and Mexican Americans more than ever are vilified for political gain. Their contributions to America are misunderstood and under-appreciated.

These kinds of festivals are part of the solution in that they promote education and student involvement and present a solid cultural view of Mexicans and Latinos in general. But as this festival has also shown, they can be nodes for discussion of broader issues that need to be addressed, particularly in these tough political times.

But there is hope in all of this. As I write this blog, the architect of Arizona’s repressive SB 1070 immigration enforcement law – senator Russell Pearce – has been recalled from office. It took community organizing and the will of the people to make it happen. But it was Mexican American Randy Parraz who organized Latino youth to get the signatures together to bring the matter to voters, and to educate the populace of the need to oust this divisive character. There is power in knowledge and collective effort.

– Daniel Buckley

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