Step by Step: Inside the Homes of US Farmworkers

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Years ago, still close to wartime, many of my Cambodian friends spoke of dreams they chased step by step. Hunger and hardship were still too near to be called memories. Security and prosperity were distant visions on a road that felt vast and overwhelming. So they began that journey step by step, one foot forward toward the little goals along the way. That was how they built (and rebuilt) their lives. And they still do.

I heard that phrase, “step by step,” again in the past 16 months while working with my amazing, energetic, relentless, gutsy, and gregarious partner, Valeria Fernández, on our project to document the lives of children and families working in agriculture in South Texas. Mid-way through our reporting, Jerry joined us to photograph the story. More than 500,000 children work in agriculture nationwide, many of them starting as young as 12 (and sometimes younger). It’s legal. It’s what many American kids do to help support their families—and to kickstart their own dreams, step by step, of finding better work and a better life. Our article, with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation, was published last week in Pacific Standard as the first in a four-part series edited by Ted Genoways on “Unseen America.”

As with every story, not everything could fit. So many conversations, so many scenes had to be left out. In the process of our reporting, farmworkers opened their hearts and invited us into their homes, into the most private spaces of their lives. Spaces that revealed deeper layers of who they are: Resilient. Hopeful. Determined. Visionary. Innovative. Tough.

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Many farmworkers we met had built their own homes. They started with the barest walls they could afford, and step by step, they added rooms and paint and trim and new floors and bathrooms and cabinets after they had worked enough to save a little for the supplies that could be nailed and plastered in the shape and color of their dreams. Step by step, the souls of these workers inhabit the evolving comforts of their homes.

These houses are, sadly, also sanctuaries that shelter fear. While the child workers we met are US citizens, many of their parents and grandparents are not. Many others are, but they still live with the fear of misconceptions. The Rio Grande flows swift and strong near the fields we visited. When you hear  news of “the border crisis,” you are hearing the rumors and rhetoric of a region we had the privilege to get to know for a while.

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

It was Easter Sunday when we met an elderly man named Miguel, who shared his memories of coming to Texas as a bracero decades ago. He showed us his papers. He assured us he has always followed the law. “I worked here legally, I never harmed anyone,” he said over and over. But Miguel, at 82, was terrified we would make a mistake. He was terrified someone would erroneously label him illegal.

That fear has cut through the colonias, where we learned many farmworkers no longer migrate; the risk of arrest is too great. Meanwhile, those with papers continue to work legally in a system built on the exploitation of our country’s most vulnerable. A system perpetuated by the very foundations of the American economy. It’s “like an economic ladder,” said Bobbi Ryder, then-president and CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health. “If you took a picture of the bottom of that ladder at any point in time, it would be full of people that are struggling to survive, striving to improve their lives, striving to improve their families’ lives. And they’re trying to pull their way up the rungs of that ladder,” she said. “If I took a picture of the bottom rung of that ladder of migrant farmworkers in 1973 when I first started working with farmworkers, and I took a picture today…the picture would look very much the same.” While some families have moved up a bit, “there’s always a new influx of new faces to fill that bottom rung.”

Atop a South Texas farmworker’s dresser

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

There’s a particular image in my mind that I can’t shake. Our first trip to Texas for this story just happened to take place during tax season. One afternoon, Valeria and I walked into the office of a local organization that works with migrants—undocumented or not. The lobby was packed, every seat taken, every visitor awaiting assistance in filing their taxes.

Federal law requires US workers to pay US taxes, regardless of immigration status. Workers who are not eligible for social security numbers (a.k.a. undocumented immigrants) can obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In 2015 alone, 4.4 million such workers paid $23.6 billion in taxes, feeding a system of Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits they cannot access. Why? It’s the law. And paying taxes is one way to help establish residency in an effort to boost an immigrant’s petition for citizenship. It is one step toward that dream.

South Texas farmworkers’ front door

South Texas farmworkers’ house extension

These are the workers who support our food system. They and their children and grandchildren are the laborers who pick our cilantro, onions, beets, and chard. They are the people who build their homes, piece by piece, as time and opportunity and money allow, in their ongoing dreams of making a great American life—step by step.

South Texas farmworkers’ dining room

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