On Tuesday June 14, 2016 at the Department of Labor for the World Day Against Child Labor, I presented a part of my life. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins as I sat in the front row awaiting the announcement of my name. I felt short of breath as the anticipation overcame me. This was my first time giving a speech in front of a crowd without my fellow interns. It was a big step for me to stand behind the podium and begin to tell my story. A story that I have kept locked away because it was a hard time in my life. Throughout my speech I felt as if I was reliving each moment. There times when I was chocked up but I composed myself because I had a message I needed to get across.
She stands in the middle of the blueberry field, covered from head to toe in an attempt to protect her skin from the hot rays of the sun and the stinging pesticides. She hunches over, searching for the next set of blueberries perfect for picking. She can feel the sweat drip down her face and exhaustion course through her entire body. Though she feels tired, she hides it all with a warm smile as she looks up at me. I watched her from the van as I took a break from those hot summer days out in the blueberry fields.
The woman in the fields is my beautiful, hardworking mother and I, her second-born child. I am the daughter of farmworkers, born in La Piedad, Michoacán, Mexico. My name is Griselda Tule-Aguirre and I was a child laborer.
My childhood was not one similar to my peers. While they ran around carefree in the sun after school, I worked hard picking blueberries. For five years between the ages of eight and thirteen, it seemed normal for me to work alongside my parents and siblings in what seemed like endless rows of trees with little to no shade — where I examined the dirt where my footprints were added to showcase the hard work that rummaged these very trees previously. Mark after mark, each one representing the numerous rough hands that yearned for a better life — a better life many do not get to experience.
At first I enjoyed myself in the blueberry fields because I was able to spend more time with my parents, and I was doing something new. As the days went on, my body became fatigued and I grew tired of the work. I still remember the pain in my neck that I would get from the weight of the blueberries as I filled up my bucket. Despite the fatigue, aches and pains, the work was something I knew I needed to continue doing.
Growing up in poverty was difficult. I never owned anything that was brand new. Most of my clothing was hand-me-downs from my older sister, or came from yard sales. Once I was older, I would work in the blueberry fields to purchase things I needed for the upcoming school year, such as a pair of shoes, clothes or school supplies. I would work countless hours helping my parents fill white buckets with blueberries. These same buckets were sold to local grocery stores anywhere from 15 to 20 dollars each, yet we were only paid a dollar-fifty. I was so upset when I first discovered this injustice. I risked my health and I reluctantly gave up part of my precious childhood for what at the moment felt like a lot of money. Yet, others were profiting so much more from my sacrifices, and my family was still stuck in poverty.
I saw the struggles of not only my immediate family and friends but that of my larger family as well. My cousins traveled to the U.S. from Mexico to get a taste of the “American Dream” — the dream that many spend their lives chasing, yet receive almost nothing in return for their hard work. Because of their desperate poverty in Mexico, the little money they made felt like riches to them. They became used to the hard labor, long hours, and the intense weather conditions, so their need to make money began to overshadow any interest they had in pursuing an education. Without support or encouragement for higher education, they became another statistic – another farmworker youth who didn’t finish school.
That could have been my story too. I still remember pushing myself to pick blueberries as fast as I could in order to make more money, but I was never as fast as my parents. As the years went by I hoped to one day surpass them in speed so that they could be proud of me. Is it sad to think that this was my future goal as a child? Thinking back, it is heartbreaking to realize these were my aspirations and not those of higher education.
Getting an education is not easy for a child working in the fields, especially those from migrant farmworker families. I had several friends that came and went with their families between Michigan, Florida, Texas, and California. They all shared the same struggle: they were behind in their classes because they would spend more of their time in the fields than studying. Most of them would attend summer school with me but their attendance was terrible and so were their grades. They never caught up, but it didn’t matter – soon they were on the move again. They too became another statistic – another farmworker youth who didn’t finish school.
I was able to overcome my educational barriers thanks to the sacrifices my parents made. Instead of taking us to the fields, they began to push us to continue studying after middle school, receive our high school diploma and continue onto higher education. My parents led by example, they obtained their GED and excelled in the college courses they took. My mother works for the Tri-County Head Start and my father works for the Coca Cola Company.
This is why I am now here, standing in front of you as a recent college graduate with a diploma from Michigan State University. My parents expected the best and so I gave them my best. I wanted to become a different kind of statistic – a farmworker who didn’t drop out of school.
Above all, the greatest lesson I learned from working in the fields was that I didn’t belong there. Children do not belong in the fields. They should be just that — kids playing outside and enjoying the carefree lives that kids are supposed to have.