Life in the Fields
CARING FOR MIGRANT WORKERSThe New Physician
My parents moved to Texas before I was born. They came across the border from Mexico in search of work. For as long as I can remember, my family was on the road. My parents were migrant farm workers; picking and moving was a way of life.
And so began my introduction to Adrian, whom I met on a hot, muggy, summer afternoon during a rotation with the University of Michigan Medical School. As part of this fourth-year rotation, I spent one day a week with the pediatrics department, providing health care to migrant farmworkers in Lenawee County, Michigan. Adrian was one of several community volunteers at Clinica Rural, which is held every Thursday evening during the summer. Translators and social workers join the physicians and residents, meeting at a restaurant for dinner before heading out to care for migrant farmworker families. Tonight, we were to meet at Café Rendezvous, a Mexican restaurant in the small town of Blissfield.
Known for little more than the Old Road Dinner Train—a two-and-a-half-hour murder-mystery dinner show that entertains hungry tourists as they travel throughout the Michigan countryside—Blissfield is an indistinct, sleepy town. Although I wasn’t expecting much of a greeting when I pulled in, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered either.
It was barely dinner time, and Blissfield, with its 3,123 residents, was dead-quiet. Resembling a ghost town, the main street stores and restaurants, including the Rendezvous, were closed. Everything felt surreal, if not eerie. Little did I know that more than 50 million people from New York to southeastern Canada had just lost power as a result of FirstEnergy’s Ohio grid failure; Blissfield fell victim, too. Unaware of the power outage and unsure of what else to do, I planted myself in front of Café Rendezvous, hoping other volunteers would soon appear. I didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, Elda, Chris and Adrian arrived in a Community Action Agency van filled with medical supplies.
They told me about the blackout, and we wondered if we would still hold the clinic—all pager systems were down, and major roads were clogged as most traffic lights across the state were out. We decided to wait and walked to a corner café that appeared to be serving whatever cold drinks and hot coffee it had left.
I hadn’t met Adrian before, so I thought I’d drum up some conversation. I told him I was compiling a photo essay as part of my rotation documenting the lives of migrant farmworker children in Lenawee County. This was only Adrian’s second time volunteering at the clinic, but he told me he was quite familiar with the lives of migrant farmworkers, for he grew up in the fields. I asked him to tell me his story, and he was eager to share:
Picking and moving was a way of life. My first childhood pictures are those of me playing in the fields while mom and dad worked. We lived in Texas, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio before I started elementary school. My mom was strict about education. She knew it was the only way I could escape migrant farming. She pushed me from the beginning. She’s a strong woman.
I remember one summer when the harvest on a farm here in Lenawee County was really good. The grower made the migrants work late into the night. He had a huge row of lights on his tractor. The migrants would pick a row, and the tractor would move up. One night, after 14 long days in the field, my mom had had enough. She turned around and told the farmer she wasn’t going to work anymore. She flipped her bucket over and took a seat. The farmer was so mad. He climbed off the tractor and threatened to hit her. My dad stepped in and said if the farmer hit her, he would kill him right there. Soon, other pickers sat down on their buckets, too. The farmer’s wife heard the yelling and came out to see what was going on. My mom told her she couldn’t work any longer. She hadn’t had time to wash her or her children’s clothes in two weeks.
Since that night, life on that farm has never been the same. Farmworkers now have a half day off every week. I guess the farmer realized he was wrong. I also think he respected my mom for standing her ground because he no longer gave her a hard time or came to our door yelling, “Mojados!” in the morning to wake us up. He’s actually a nice guy now.
But my mom wanted me to have a better future so she kept me in school. I can’t remember how many elementary schools I attended because there were too many; same with middle schools. I went to six high schools and managed to graduate through a module-learning program. If you worked well on your own, you could get through. I also tried to do well because I was scared that if I didn’t, the school system would discover that my parents did not have papers and would deport them back to Mexico.
I would usually work in the fields before school in the morning and after school from about 3:30 p.m. until dark. There wasn’t much time for homework. It was difficult, but working in the fields as a teenager wasn’t that bad because I could meet girls. If a girl talked to you while picking, you knew she wasn’t after your money. The most exciting part of the day was racing for a shower, especially if you had a date. There were only two stalls for all the workers and their children. Everyone would run to catch the first and only two hot showers. But even a cold shower was better than none, for if you didn’t rinse off, you would be itching all night.
After graduating from high school, I got out of migrant farming by joining the U.S. Marine Corps. I knew I could make good money if I worked for Uncle Sam and that my parents would be safe from deportation. I also knew I would have a good shot at getting a job later on. I guess I was one of the lucky ones. My mom was right; education was the key to escaping the migrant farmworker life.
After hearing Adrian’s story, I felt as though I was witnessing something special. Sure I’ve spent hours chained to a desk to make it to this point in medical school, but my accomplishments seem small compared with Adrian’s.
Unfortunately, not all migrant farm children are as fortunate as Adrian. For many families, the economic reality of what an extra pair of productive hands can do hits as the children become teenagers. By the time they reach high school, the children often drop out of school or only go a few days a week—the pressure to work in the field is too great. This is not to say the migrant Latino community does not value education; rather, the family’s immediate survival takes priority.
As future physicians, we must ask ourselves what we can do for these kids. How can we help them break free of the migrant workers’ cycle? Every complex social question has more than one answer. To begin, most of these children lack the basic necessities—a safe and clean living environment, an adequate and balanced diet, access to health care and such injury prevention measures as car seats—to support a healthy life. These are basic human rights. Yet, in the most affluent country in the world, human rights are at risk for the migrant farming population.
But we can help. Whether by working in a migrant farmworker clinic, fund raising for needed child car seats or conducting research on migrant farmworkers, we can increase the chances these children will grow up to become productive members of mainstream American society.
A 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, Suresh Rangarajan is working at the Hospital del Niño in La Paz, Bolivia. He will return to the United States in June to begin a medicine–pediatrics residency.