Published on Narratively on September 3, 2014…
An innovative college program opens privileged young eyes to the million undocumented laborers who toil away in an invisible America. Story and photos by Michael Durbin…
It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.
“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.
I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.
Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.
The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented migrant farmworkers in the U.S. and the issues they face: workplace hazards, inadequate housing, low wages.
Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.
Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?”
“There’s Delaney’s, in Five Points,” answers Christine Burke. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. “They have pint nights on Wednesday.”
“Delaney’s. Got it.”
At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here. He is deep-voiced, slim and fit — an avid soccer player since age four — and wears glasses on a face rarely devoid of a smile. When I ask what brought him here he doesn’t hesitate:
“For me it’s all about the language.”
Eric’s Spanish is already quite good for a non-native. He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school. But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.
Around half of the Safistas are already fluent in Spanish. It’s their native language. Unlike Eric, these Safistas come from farmworking families. Working with SAF broadens their view of farmworker issues beyond their personal experience. Their participation also allows Safistas from more privileged backgrounds to learn about the farmworker experience not only from workers the meet in the fields, but from their peers as well.
Eric Britton was born in June 1992 — the very month SAF first sent students into the fields. Every summer since, while Safistas worked in some of the poorest counties in America where farmworkers live, Eric was growing up in one of the wealthiest.
Montgomery County, Maryland, lies just outside of Washington, D.C. Its tonier parts are home to country clubs, houses with seven-digit price tags and private schools where tuition can top $30,000. Eric and his two sisters went to public school in Rockville, one of the county’s more middle-class areas. Their upbringing on a tree-canopied street was typical of the area: nice brick house, weekend movies at the Regal cinema and summer vacations to places like the Florida Keys. He took up skydiving when he turned eighteen, something he enjoys now whenever he can.
After five rainy days in Efland, the 2013 Safistas pack their cars and disperse across a multi-state triangle spanning both Carolinas and some of Virginia, an area of more than 70,000 square miles. SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).
Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.
Authorized by Congress in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the MEP provides educational services — from supplemental classes to private tutoring — to migrant children who struggle to keep up as they move from one school to another.
“I think I’ll be translating documents and helping teachers,” Eric tells his parents.
He’s right about the Columbia part. The rest is just a guess, and not a very good one.
Eric is assigned to the Lowcountry District of the South Carolina MEP. His training in a sleek office tower in Columbia is brief and loaded with jargon: His job is to ID and R (identify and register) OSYs (out of school youth) on COEs (Certificates of Enrollment) then return to camps to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). That’s about the extent of formal training.
Most of what he learns comes during ride-alongs with his supervisor, Zach Taylor. In contrast to Eric’s slim frame, Zach Taylor has the upper body of a weightlifter. With his Anglo skin and crew-cut hair, farmworkers used to mistake him for a cop. He fixed that by buying a baseball cap with Viva Mexico! on the bill. He never goes to a camp without it.
Zach is only a few years older than Eric. When he was fifteen, his father, an English teacher, moved the family from a small town in Maryland to Costa Rica, where Zach developed a fluency for Spanish and Latin American culture.
This is the first year the MEP is using SAF interns, and when Zach heard about it he had some doubts. Could they handle the long hours? The minimal supervision? Were they only here to grind a political axe or make a statement about social justice?
Zach knows as well as anyone how bad farmworkers have it, but he can’t stand so-called “toxic charity” where wealthy people give stuff away or drop in for a vacation service project. He thinks what farmworkers need most is empowerment. And that, he learned from his dad, begins with education.
Eric peers at a Google Earth map that Zach uses to record locations of farmworker camps across the state.
Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “Which ones do we hit first?” he asks.
“Dude. These have already been ID and R’d,” says Zach. “That’s how they got on the map. You gotta find new camps.”
The term “camp” is misleading. It just refers to any place a farmworker might live. Finding a camp is all about profiling, Zach explains. You look for clues at rundown houses and trailers on the side of the road: clotheslines, cars with out-of-state plates and windows covered with sheets.
“I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. “The house was right on the highway. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. There was sewage spreading onto the yard.”
Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. The mom was delighted and Eric was impressed.
“She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. We signed up three or four families, right on that one stop.”
Later they approached a house with all the right signs: clotheslines, windows blocked by droopy bed sheets and a car with Florida plates.
The first thing they noticed was the stocky man’s pale skin and sleeveless white t-shirt, followed by the face of a woman, equally irritated, yanking the door wider to see who it was.
“Sorry,” they explained in retreat. “Wrong address.”
One evening Eric is looking out of Zach’s slow-moving Hyundai at some trailer homes. Only nobody calls them trailer homes. Just trailers. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight.
Eric wonders why he and Zach are here. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. But Zach insisted they visit before calling it a night.
Just beyond the trailers is an old building made of wood, its shape vaguely familiar to Eric. They approach it on foot.
“Was this a stable?” asks Eric.
Zach bangs the door. “It still is.”
Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. But most stables keep horses in their stalls.
These contain men.
It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.
At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.
Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord. Were all three running at once it’s a safe bet this dry wooden structure would go up in flames. The only water comes from a spigot outside, at the end of a pipe in the ground, and there’s neither a bathroom nor outhouse in sight.
Eric knows they could report this place to state inspectors. He also knows they won’t. He’s heard of outreach workers forced to contend with a cruel compromise: If you report every housing violation, the grower might not let you back.
Zach introduces Eric to a farmworker with a smiling but weather-beaten face a man of sixty might sport. Eric guesses he’s probably more like forty.
On Zach’s last visit the man implored him to sign up his teenage daughter for English classes. She is very interested, he insisted, but wasn’t at the camp that day.
“¿Cómo se llama su hija?” Eric asks the cheerful man. What is your daughter’s name?
“Linda,” he answers. “Se llama Linda.” (All farmworker names have been changed for this story.)
“¿Y dónde está Linda?” asks Eric. And where is Linda?
The smile falls off the father’s face. Again the girl isn’t here and it’s not clear where she is or even if her dad knows. His daughter appears to be missing.
Where Eric grew up, a missing child would set off alarms throughout the community. Police would be called and radio stations would broadcast Amber Alerts.
Eric is pretty sure those things won’t happen here.
After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging. He might register one or two workers on a good day. And not every day is a good day.
Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while. One is a cluster of trailers alongside a wooded highway.
Gabriela came from Mexico as a young girl so she speaks English reasonably well — a relief to Eric. Even with his strong Spanish it’s less work to speak in English.
Her four young boys swarm to Eric like puppies. He gives them books, asks about school and takes them on a nature walk at the edge of the trailer cluster. It reminds him of his own childhood escapes to the woods at the end of his street in Rockville.
Escorting the boys back to the trailer, Eric sees elements of normalcy in this family. The kids and their parents look healthy, and Gabriela seems to have things under control. She even drives the kids around in a minivan just like his own mom did. In another setting, he realizes, Gabriela might be just another soccer mom.
Standing at the door of her trailer, Eric asks Gabriela about the kids’ school when she interrupts with a question of her own.
“Do you have any food?”
This is no soccer mom. Gabriela’s refrigerator is broken and the crew leader hasn’t paid her yet. Some employers cheat undocumented immigrants and withhold pay, she explains, or pay less than minimum wage. It’s happened to her.
Gabriela and her kids have only ramen noodles and cereal — without milk — for dinner. Eric fetches a USDA emergency food box, donated by the Lowcountry Food Bank, from the trunk of his car.
Carrying the heavy box of dry goods, Eric navigates all manner of debris, spills and damp clothes hanging from a clothesline strung inside the trailer. Gabriela apologizes for the mess. Eric assures her it’s fine.
Eric had thought seventy songs on his iPod would get him through the summer. But with hours each day behind the wheel, by week three he’s hitting the skip button on the opening chords of even his favorites, from Fleetwood Mac to the Cave Singers.
He turns to audio books (free of charge, courtesy of Pirate Bay) starting with Hard Times by Charles Dickens. After that, Great Expectations.
Listening to tales of economic cruelty and social injustice in nineteenth-century England, Eric cruises the Carolina blacktop like a detective, viewing every rundown trailer as a potential opportunity to register some workers, teach some English or just hand out some food.
One evening Eric pulled off the highway at the sight of several Latino men kicking a soccer ball in the orange light of sunset. He asked the guys what team they followed in Mexico (Eric knows them all) and complimented them on their technique.
They asked if he played fútbol and he responded by gesturing for the ball. Seeing the heavy boots on his feet, they expected him to catch it with his hands. He caught it on the tip of a boot, tapped it to the other boot, and dribbled it perfectly before sending it back their way.
This impressed the guys even more than his excellent Spanish. He signed up every last one.
Eric’s soccer experience came in handy more than once. His comfort talking with strangers also helped. He stopped people at roadside fruit stands and gas stations, and hung out at stores where many Latino people shopped.
Following a lead one day from a tienda owner, Eric found a large trailer park he didn’t recognize. The camp wasn’t on Zach’s Google Earth map and may have never been scouted. He put some extra COEs on his clipboard.
“Mija es una estudiante excelente,” the man at the door of his trailer beams with pride, introducing Eric to his teenage daughter. She makes very good grades but, Eric learns, they have no money for college. After high school she’ll work in los campos. The fields.
Where Eric went to high school, going to work after graduating was practically unheard of. You went to college. And for the handful of kids who did go straight to work from Richard Montgomery High, it sure wasn’t to pick vegetables.
Eric produces his clipboard and asks for their names. But the man just smiles and shakes his head. Zach told him to expect this. Someone in the family is probably undocumented, and Eric’s assurance that the information will be used only by the school system does no good.
On his way out, Eric apologizes for not being able to register the family for MEP services, but does ask the girl if she has access to a computer.
“Yes,” she answers. “At the library.”
“Google CAMP,” he tells her. “It’s the College Assistance Migrant Program.” Eric learned about the program from farmworking families, some of whom used it to get into college.
Farmworking parents Jorge and Luisa invite Eric into a front room packed with piles of clothing, secondhand toys and furniture that looks reclaimed from a dump. The arms of an overstuffed loveseat are worn down to exposed wood.
Their daughter, Rosita, is an energetic first-grader who seems as typical as any other, except for one thing: Luisa has to wave a hand in her daughter’s face to get her attention. Rosita is deaf.
Eric asks if she knows sign language but her parents don’t seem to know what he’s asking. He makes a mental note: Sign language tutor!
Eric gets to work. There is something fulfilling, bordering on selfishness, about helping someone who needs exactly what you have to give. Eric feels that buzz as he prepares a fresh COE.
Jorge and Luisa go silent. Peering at Eric’s clipboard, they too, don’t want to give their names. Moments pass. He promises the information will be used only by the schools. More moments pass and, again, Eric senses opportunity vanishing.
He wonders if everyone at this camp will refuse to give their names. This camp is a waste of time, he thinks.
Then they agree. “Está bien. Te damos los nombres.” We’ll give you our names.
He races to complete the form before they change their minds. He just needs to confirm they meet the three MEP requirements. Working in agriculture? Check. Children ages three to twenty-two? Check. Moved in the last thirty-six months?
“¿Cuánto tiempo han vivido aquí?” he asks. How long have you lived here?
“Cinco años,” says Jorge. Five years.
If this is true then they’ve lived here too long and don’t qualify.
Are you sure? Yes. You have lived here, in this same place, for five years? Yes. But didn’t you go to another place to work, even for a short time, like even for one night? Not even one, single, night? Eric feels his frustration turning to disbelief.
Driving away, Eric wonders if he should have just fudged the form. No. Zach says everyone suffers if the state does one of its routine checks. He was right not to take a chance.
He did the ID but couldn’t do the R.
One day Eric signed up an entire family — by invitation. A crew leader had called the MEP and asked to have his children registered, and the office dispatched Eric his house.
Also known as patrones or contractistas, crew leaders play a key role in the farmworking community. They are like the vassals of Medieval Europe, paying homage to their lord the grower who owns the land but wants nothing to do with supervising his peon farmworkers.
Crew leaders also allow a grower to shed virtually all responsibility for anything having to do with a farmworker. Wage complaints? Talk to the crew leader. Housing complaints? Documentation issues? Medical needs? Talk to the crew leader.
Listening to the muscular patron introduce his family, Eric sees things here he doesn’t see in other farmworker housing, things like carpeting, air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV.
Eric also notices a bedroom door ajar — with someone peeking out. It’s a girl with a low-cut shirt who looks to be in her late teens. When the girl spots Eric eyeing her, she quickly closes the door.
After Eric signs up the kids he asks if there are any other youth in the house. No, answers the crew leader, nobody else. Eric waits for the crew leader to mention the girl in the bedroom. But he doesn’t.
A few days later Eric is delivering another box of food to Gabriela. Her sister Elena is there, telling about a bossy crew leader acting strangely to her friend, a nineteen-year old girl. According to Elena, the much older crew leader is controlling her friend too much and even telling her what to wear. Eric hears Elena refer to a low-cut shirt.
Eric asks the girl’s name. “Linda,” says Elena. “Se llama Linda.”
Eric recalls the girl peeking out the bedroom at crew leader’s house, and the missing teenage daughter of the farmworker living in the stable. And now Gabriela and her sister are talking about a nineteen-year old girl and an overbearing crew leader.
Might these girls all be the same Linda? He asks the women.
“Sí por supuesto,” they answer. “Of course it’s her.” According to the women, Linda used to live in the stables but now lives at the crew leader’s house.
Eric also learns this crew leader is a coyote, smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S. for huge fees. Coyotes have been known to entice impoverished clients with the promise of a good job, convincing them they will have money to pay the coyote in no time.
Then, when the workers arrive and learn the jobs are not so good, they have to pay off their debt another way.
Eric relays all this to Zach and together they formulate a disturbing theory: Linda’s father can’t pay for the family’s crossing — the summer of 2013 is one of the rainiest anyone can remember, and farmworkers often don’t get paid when rain keeps them off the fields — so his daughter is paying off the debt in sexual servitude to the coyote.
It’s only a theory, but a plausible one.
At the beginning of summer Eric promised his girlfriend Sara he’d come back to Charleston on weekends. He enjoys the first few trips back, hanging out with Sara and enjoying burritos and tequila shots at Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, a popular hangout near campus.
But it doesn’t take long for Eric to notice a surreal disconnect between affluent Charleston and the much larger part of Lowcountry where farmworkers live.
“It’s only twenty miles from the center of Charleston to a tomato pickers’ camp on Jones Island,” says Eric. “And it’s like nobody in Charleston knows. Or cares.”
Walking past a King Street shop selling honey for $100 a jar, Eric thinks about the emergency food boxes. Seeing shoes at another store going for $700, Eric recalls opening the trunk of his car filled with donated clothes at a camp and watching women rush to pick through it.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing people with not a care in the world,” says Eric. “Even to my friends at school it was like, ‘Oh where am I going to go drinking tonight?’ And I was just talking to a family and their main concern is how to pay for food.”
Zach kept his promise to Linda’s father, on a visit back to the area, to help his daughter with English.
He called the crew leader and got the okay to meet with Linda and give her an MP3 player with self-guided English lessons. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more of her story, a story he shares with Eric.
Linda traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her dad, partly by foot but mostly on the top of a train. She called it el tren de la muerte. The death train.
When they arrived in South Carolina they took shelter in a horse stall at the stable. There, she was the only woman among fourteen men. Her father offered her as a prostitute.
Eric struggled with what to do with this new information. He recognized his limitations. Linda was nineteen, no longer a child. And maybe, he wondered, she wasn’t being kept by the crew leader so much as protected from a demon of a father. He didn’t know the full story.
He never learned full stories.
One farmworker claimed to have miscarried in the fields when a crew leader wouldn’t give her a break. Was it true? Another woman had a face covered in what appeared to be bruises but she claimed it was a birthmark. Really?
More than once he was forbidden entry to camps with flimsy excuses from growers when workers were expecting him for lessons after hours, even after showing his MEP credentials. It made him think of slavery.
As summer drew to a close Eric knew he could only do so much. He was determined to help as many people as he could, starting with someone who seemed to need it the most. But he’d have to bend some rules.
Rosita sat on the floor in her silent world, playing with her baby sister. Her parents hadn’t expected to see Eric again. But here he was handing out books and food and hygiene kits and treating them much like any qualifying family.
“Puedo buscar una escuela especial para su hija. ¿Quieren que lo haga?” “I can look for a special school for your daughter. Do you want that?”
Of course they said yes.
The Kudu coffeehouse on Vanderhorst Street, where Eric goes for free wifi on his weekends in Charleston, is across from St. Matthews Church. Eric is so used to the bells he hardly notices them booming every fifteen minutes as he Googles for schools for the deaf.
And maybe the clanging from the house of worship brings good fortune into the coffee shop, because Eric can hardly believe his luck when he finds the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and gives them a call.
The principal describes a program especially for children like Rosita — free of charge — that extends through high school. It will change her life, Eric thinks. It will change her entire family’s life, all for free. They even provide transportation.
Luisa and Jorge listen as Eric describes the school. Thankful and intrigued, they interrupt him with gracias over and over.
The school is far away, Eric explains, but the school will pick up Rosita on Sundays and return her on Thursdays. Eric reminds them everything is free of charge — lodging, meals, and a private education tailored to her needs. But the parents have stopped listening.
“No,” they interrupt. “Ella no puede asistir a esa escuela.” She cannot go to this school.
Eric repeats his pitch, emphasizing how the school is just for children like Rosita. He says they need to visit — they have to visit. He’ll drive them there and back. “¿Cuándo podemos ir?” When can we go?
They tell him again: Rosita cannot go to this school. Eric wants to tell them they are making a big mistake. But he doesn’t. He can tell the parents won’t budge.
Walking to his car, Eric realizes what he hadn’t considered: Rosita can neither hear nor read — in any language. Nobody could explain why she was being taken away from her mom, dad and baby sister. The first time she was put on that bus, Eric realized, would be not just baffling but terrifying.
Walking to his car he hears someone yelling his name. It’s the girl he told about CAMP.
“Hey, I looked up the program like you said,” she tells him. “I never heard about it but I got the application.”
Eric wishes her luck and thanks her for telling him.
“Sure, it’s cliché to say I grew a lot this summer,” Eric tells me. “But I did.”
We’re at the Kudu, talking about the summer between bell chimes from St. Matthews.
“A lot of things I used to find really fun and fulfilling, like going out and getting hammered on the weekends, I find trivial now. It’s like, why do that when there’s actually real stuff to do?”
After his last days with SAF, and a celebration on the lawn of Duke University where Safistas gathered to swap stories, eat and dance late into the night, Eric joined his family at the beach to unwind. And to jump from a plane.
Plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, Eric feels the skin on his face ripple. The rush of air is like sticking your head from a speeding car — only way more intense. And the view from high above the Outer Banks of North Carolina is stunning: Endless blue ocean on one side and vast, flat land — farmland — on the other.
There are thousands of farms down there. The last time Eric fell to earth he didn’t think about those farms and certainly not the farmworkers. Now he can’t help it.