English Feature #7-35848 Broadcast January 28, 2002

Between two and three million migrant farmworkers in the United States help provide Americans with the fresh produce that they take for granted. About 80 percent of these workers are Mexican immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Today on New American Voices, we talk to Ramiro Arceo, whose entire family came from Mexico to work on farms in California, about the experience.

Ramiro Arceo had been in the United States three years and had finished high school here when, at age nineteen, he started working in the California fields alongside his father and older brothers, picking almonds.

"We'd go out to the field, and what I would do is after the shaking machine, the one you know that grabs the trees and shakes them to make the almonds fall to the ground, and there's still some stuck up in the tree, so our job - the people who were walking, like my dad and I and some others - we would have fiberglass poles and hit the almonds, like all day we're looking up with these fiberglass poles in our hands knocking almonds down from trees."

During the almond harvest from mid-August to November, when the work was most intense, Ramiro Arceo and his co-workers spent twelve hours a day, every day, in the fields. The pay they received was just above the minimum wage established by law at the time, 10 years ago.

"Actually, it was like fifty cents over. I think I got about five fifty-five an hour."

The men working the almond orchards were all Mexican immigrants. Most of them knew each other, having grown up together in the same village in the state of Colima on the western coast of central Mexico. The work was hard, hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

"The hardest for me was just having to walk all day looking up all the time, with a long stick in my hands, and getting yelled at, and being afraid that if I leave three almonds on the tree, you know? And it's just dusty, and then during the winter it's really cold, and we have to prune the trees and there's ice all over?"

The living conditions were difficult, as well.

"When you get home, it's not like you're going to be able to rest, because you just live in this cramped trailer, and then to go take a shower you have to go make a line, because there's only one shower and like fifteen people, and it's like way outside, it's like a hundred yards from where the trailers are, and it's just a wooden shack. And the bathroom facilities, you know, there's only like two portable toilets, that's all there is for everyone, for men and women. So just to live there - you know, it's very friendly, but it's not attractive or comfortable."

Mr. Arceo's father had been the first to cross the border to the United States to find work. Eventually, over time, his wife and nine children joined him in California. After working for a while in the fields, Ramiro Arceo's older brothers all moved on to other work.

"My older brothers probably did it from like fifteen until they were like twenty, and then they got jobs in the city, working in the, you know, trash collection industry or whatever it's called, and then they moved up, and now they're truck drivers for the garbage trucks. So everybody moved up."

A year in the fields convinced Ramiro Arceo that this was not the kind of a life he wanted, either. He took a different route out. A counselor at a local high school told him about the College Assistance Migrant Program, which helps the children of migrant families get a higher education.

"I didn't know anything about college, and I went and once I got in I just realized that there wasn't much to it, and it was like a whole new world of opportunities opened up to me."

Mr. Arceo studied Spanish and journalism in college. He spent a summer working as a student intern for an organization in the southeastern state of North Carolina called Student Action with Farmworkers, which seeks to improve the life of farmworkers there. North Carolina is one of the states to which immigrants, including migrant workers, have been flocking in recent years. Two years ago Mr. Arceo moved to North Carolina to work for this organization full time. As its education director he runs programs to encourage the children of migrants to stay in school.

"Cause migrant students have one of the highest, if not the highest drop-out rate, at leasthere in North Carolina, of any other group of students. According to one study at least 50% of the migrant students don't graduate from high school."

Ramiro Arceo's younger brother and sister followed his example, and also went to college. He himself now works to help other children of migrant workers take advantage of the opportunities America offers. But he is respectful of those of his countrymen who continue to work in the fields, as he once did, and his father - at age 67 - still does.

"The people who do farm work - we are proud of it. We don't want and we're not looking for people to feel sorry for us. There's some people like my father who would not leave farm work, because he likes to be outside. So I guess that's the redeeming factor, is knowing that people are eating what we pick with our own hands. It's like an invisible link in our lives that we don't realize. We're mistreated, we live under really bad conditions, but we know that we're doing something good for society, for people. Even if they don't see us, we're still there, and they depend on us."

Next week the focus will be on Brazilian immigrants in the northeastern state of Massachusetts.