Friday, October 5, 2012

The Harvest / La Cosecha reveals lives of child migrant farm laborers

U. Roberto Romano, director, cinematographer, producer

I know I have to write about a documentary when I can't stop thinking about it. The Harvest or La Cosecha is a riveting documentary that concerns all people because we all eat the food harvested by migrant laborers.

The Harvest focuses on three underage people who work in the fields alongside their families and travel from job to job. Twelve-year-old Zulema works with her mother, grandmother, and younger siblings in Michigan, typically picking cucumbers, apples, and strawberries. Sixteen-year-old Victor is based in Florida and often works in the tomato fields. He carries 25-pound buckets of tomatoes all day long and moves 1,500 pounds of tomatoes in a day. Although Victor looks as strong as a tug boat, he laments that he can't keep up with the grown men and that the work is hard. Despite the hardship that includes triple-digit heat, he moves gracefully up and down the rows with a serene face and a heavy bucket on his shoulder. He works so hard because he sees that his family needs the money and his heart compels him to help provide. Soft spoken and devoted to his family, Victor projects all that is good in a man. He does not ask much of the world but longs simply for a secure job that pays him well enough to live and lets him do his work calmly.

Fifteen-year-old Perla in Texas bares her feelings to the filmmaker about what it is like to be told "to go back to Mexico" when she was born in the United States. Tearfully she confesses her misery about not being wanted in what is truly her own homeland. Her rejection was exacerbated by the death of her 16-year-old brother who was shot and denied treatment at a local hospital and bled to death. Her agony deepens because her parents' health is failing after too many years of hard labor, and she is tortured by worry for the future. Perla also explains how difficult it is for her to go to school because she is always traveling with her family. She has been held back a grade because her grades from one school did not reach a new school, which means she can't advance. It appears to be a hopeless cycle for her although she remains determined to someday lift herself out of her grinding poverty. But the migrant life owns her. Just when she is looking forward to being able to stay home, things go bad and she must seek work in the fields. Stoically she accepts her heartbreak and packs her bags.

Young Zulema with her lingering aura of childishness drives home the exploitation of child migrant farm labor. When she bites into an apple while high in a tree on a ladder with a heavy bag over her shoulder, she made me think of every time I've handed an apple to a child. The wonder of a child picking a fruit in Zulema's case is replaced by hunger in the middle of a grueling day. Everyone turns a blind eye to the children working in the fields. Zulema explains how she gives the name of someone else for the payroll. Nobody cares.

Heartbreakingly, at the end of the documentary when Zulema is asked about her dreams, she says, "I don't have any dreams."

I watch documentaries like these to keep me motivated. I grow a lot of food for my family and I go to U-pick farms to get fruit in quantity and then preserve it. I also shop the farmers' markets and get food from local producers. I believe that these activities reduce my contributions to large agribusiness commodity systems that pay workers poorly and profit from exploiting children in the fields.

A few weeks ago I took my family to a local orchard to pick apples. It was a lovely day and my young kids had a nice time. They picked apples for about half an hour. It's fun if you don't have to do it all day for weeks and then be out of work when the harvest is over.

When my family was done picking apples, my husband and I admonished our boys to consider the people in the fields who had to pick food for everybody.

The Harvest La Cosecha is a touching film. It left me really caring about the young people featured in it. Next time you're at the store and the prices of food seem high, think about how only a tiny fraction of that pricepoint compensated the backbreaking drudgery of people leading lives on the margins of society.

Buy The DVD Now!