Migrant Farmworkers

15 Aug

Throughout the spring I took a class about the situation of migrant farmworkers and then I spent the summer working at a migrant camp teaching them English. Despite all the readings that we did and the other preparations we undertook, I still didn’t really understand the realities of the migrant farmworker lifestyle and its affects on the children. Not until I worked with them one-on-one did “migrant children” become real to me as Marisela, Jose, Susana, Jesus, Brenda, Adela, Lucero, etc. The same thing happened with the women. I saw them only through what I had read and it wasn’t until I started working with them that I became more aware of their difficulties and hardships.

Once I started working with the children and talking with them about their lives I realized how difficult it must be to live in two very separate worlds. The world with their parents and relatives at the camp speaking Spanish and the world with teachers and schools and other children where they spoke all English. Very rarely did these two worlds ever seem to meet or come in contact and I can still only vaguely imagine how difficult it must be for the children to have two very separate and distinct realms that they must function in. Each world has its own rules of conduct and acceptance and they must somehow find themselves a balance between the two to avoid confusion about their own self-identities. What struck me the most when I went to the camps and worked with the children was how happy they were despite the instability of their lives. These children move constantly with the harvest from state to state and some of them even return to other countries, like Mexico. The constant changing of schools and teachers and friends must be very wearying on the children, not to mention the change in language from school to home. Yet, despite all these difficulties, the children seemed very happy with their lives and glad to talk to us and spend time doing the activities and lessons we had prepared.

Working with the women was a very different experience from working with the children. Whereas the children had a strong command of the English language and most were native speakers, the women had a very limited English vocabulary. It wasn’t until they explained their difficulties in ordering Happy Meals for their children at McDonald’s that I truly grasped the difficult situation they were in. These women were in a foreign place with little knowledge of the language spoken. They could barely communicate with others in everyday situations. My respect for these women and their attempts to adapt to their environment increased mightily each time I met with them. They showed their willingness to take time out of their busy schedules of caring for their families and spend what little time they had to learn what we taught them. These women’s motivation was amazing to witness. Despite so many difficulties that could have kept them from learning, such as their need to watch over their children, they realized how useful English would be for them to adapt, or at least function, in this society and they worked hard to learn. Each lesson they pushed their learning farther and farther. When we would have taught them numbers from ten to a hundred they pushed to learn up to ten thousand. The determination of these women was awe-inspiring and something that I would never have known had I not met them and worked with them.

My thoughts about the migrant lifestyle revolved around an image of following the harvest and ensuring a fair wage and safe health practices. These in and of themselves are not exactly simple, but they do seem rather direct and obvious. However, by meeting with the women and children I glimpsed different aspects of the migrant farmworker struggle that I did not fully realize before. By coming face to face with the reality of these people living in a way so different from my own, I came to realize that every lifestyle has its struggles and its triumphs. No matter how much we read or try to imagine, we cannot really understand what a lifestyle is like for those who live it and many times we overlook the beauty and the happiness that a person can bring to their own life despite its struggles.

Working with the migrants made all that I had read about more real and understandable. By talking and interacting with them I came to realize that although I had read about the struggles they go through I had not really understood them. This caused me to realize how much respect the migrants are owed to be able to still be happy despite their struggles. Without the experience of meeting the migrants in the summer term I would never have understood as much as I do now about their lives and its triumphs and struggles.

As a final reflection on all the work I did, I wrote two poems, one from the view of a migrant child and the other from that of a mother, to best express what I learned from teaching these two groups. The child’s poem is mostly in English because the children we worked with were mostly native speakers of English whereas the women could barely speak a few words. The poems capture the feelings and thoughts that I believe the women and children must feel in their daily lives. I hope that these poems will open your eyes to a few of the struggles facing migrant farmworkers or at least make you interested enough to look into the present situation.

From a Child’s Eyes

I stand beneath the hot, yellow sun
Dirt beneath my feet
Staring out across the fields
Mis hermanos, mis primos, mis tíos
Bent and stooped between rows verdes
Unnaturally straight.

Running to the bus,
I leave this world behind,
Entering that place where those people are
Who are so different from mi familia.
“Hola” becomes “Hello.”
Don’t say “¿Como estas?”
Say “How are you?”

And yet this place seems so similar.
I play the same games with these different friends
I am the same as I am at home.
Only my words change,
But the meanings are still the same.

Whether in Español or English,
Still I go to school all day
And then back home,
Back to mi familia y mis amigos.

The others, they come and go.
Who is it this week? Christy? Sarah? Jeff?
No, it seems.
New faces, once again.
Oh well, let’s play, I say. “¡Vámonos!”

I am used to new people every time
So rarely do they remain the same.
When I come to visit this place again
New faces will be here too.

Doctores, personas de las iglesias, maestros,
Siempre personas differentes
Who come to play with us.
Cada semana, cada día un grupo differente
Come to see us.

Los Ojos de una Madre

Antes de mi esposo o los niños
Necesito levantar
Preparo todas las cosas para el día
Estoy despierta antes del sol.

Perspiro, trabajando en la mañana
Antes de mis niños se levantan
Trabajando con mi esposo, mis hermanos, mi padre
Todos mis parientes.

Ahora, les despierto a mis niños
Hago el desayuno y despúes, ellos me dicen ¡Adíos!
Entusiasmados por un día en la escuela,
Jugando con otros niños.

Salgo a la casa,
Cargando a mi bebito más joven.
Entro a la supermercado.
Necesitamos muchas cosas para la casa.

Pero cuando entro,
No comprendo nada.
Los signos no son en español.
Probablemente ellos son en ingles
Una lengua que no leo.

¿Qúe debo hacer?
Busco una persona que trabaja en el mercado.
Espero que la persona puede ayudarme.
Allí, una mujer trabajando.

“¿Excusame, can you help me?”
“What? What did you say?” Ella me pregunta.
Otra vez, trato.
“¿Can you help me?”
“Sorry, I don’t speak that. Maybe someone else can help you.”

9 Responses to “Migrant Farmworkers”

  1. the imaginary friend Friday, 18 August 2006 at 2:24 am #

    Wow. I loved the español with the poems, but they made me sad. (That was probably part of the point.) They reminded me a man and his wife who were checking out at my store. They were going to scan their credit card through the machine, where it first gave a choice between English, Español and Francais. He looked at it for a second, scoffed and then turned to his wife. “Look at this! What do they mean what language? Geez, this is America! Our language is English. What is this? Look at what this country is coming to.” Yeah. I know, huh?

  2. Tia Sunday, 27 August 2006 at 3:31 am #

    This is truly AWESOME. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. God’s Peace, JOY and LOVE conitue to grow in you. Love and Hugs, Tia

  3. ym Sunday, 27 August 2006 at 4:36 am #

    I do love the poems and as for the “migrant farmworkers”. it allowed me to understand alittle about their lives though their eyes and not only about what we may just think we see.

  4. The Voice of Truth Monday, 28 August 2006 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m glad that you all read and were moved by the poems.

    I know what you mean, The Imaginary Friend, about how people act at times like that. It makes me sad that these same people would have no difficulty excepting something like that in a foreign country and may even expect there to be an English option and yet they have complain about it in the US. As a tourist in Europe, I especially value having the option to read something in my native tongue and I’m glad that people are kind enough to offer it.

    Ym, I’m glad that you could see beyond most people’s perceptions and prejudices to better understand a bit of what they must experience.

  5. Christine Thursday, 15 November 2007 at 12:40 pm #

    Hi! i love your site… i am a senior Spanish major at Siena Heights University and I have been doing some research on the education of migrant farm children in Lenawee County… I was wondering who your contact was for the summer English teaching?

  6. Hayley Piper Saturday, 2 February 2008 at 12:33 pm #


    I am a graduate student studying bilingual education and I would like to teach English in a migrant farming community. Might you share the name of the program you worked with? How can I apply for such an opportunity?


  7. Michelle Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 11:41 am #

    The migrant program I worked with was through the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. If anyone is interested, I would suggest searching for the current instructors via the U of M website.

  8. Dody M Sunday, 11 April 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    I’d love to share your poem from a migrant child’s point of view with my 4th grade gifted students to expand their awareness of the effects of the Great Depression and accomplishments of Cesar Chavez. I hope you will grant us permission to analyze your work. I love the challenge for them to experience what it is like for our ESL students when they can’t read all the words, but are expected to comprehend text. Awaiting your response.

  9. Michelle Monday, 12 April 2010 at 7:43 am #

    Dody, You are welcome to share my poem in an academic setting as long as it is sufficiently credited and not used in any commercial form.

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