Children of Labor

What I particularly like about Harvey Pekar’s adaption of Studs Terkel’s Working is that it tells the stories of working class families from different perspectives. In the Robert Acuna’s “Farmwork” story, it is told in the perspective of a child whose parents are migrant workers. We have definitely encountered child labor in Christ in Concrete, but to be a child laborer and a second-generation immigrant, adds a second layer of problems.

A large part of being a kid is learning to fit in, and for immigrant children and children of immigrants, they especially have a hard time assimilating to the dominant youth culture. This is demonstrated in the story when it says, “I’d go to school barefoot. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because we’d bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and they’d laugh at us because all we had were dried tortillas.” (13) The social hierarchy is demonstrated through food, as food is representative of one’s culture and heritage. If one’s food is anything besides the standard PB&J or bologna sandwiches, he or she is labeled as an outsider. Thus, this passage shows how food is used as a rite of passage. This explains why the author felt especially ashamed when he had to go on welfare, eating canned goods with a label that says, “US Commodities Not to be sold or exchanged.” (13)

The education system also plays an important role since children’s education are sacrificed for the benefit of profiting off of their labor. “During these years the growers used to have a Pick-Your-Harvest week. They would get all the migrant kids out of school and have em out there pickin the crops at peak harvest time. A child was off that week and when he came back to school he get a little gold star that would make it seem like something civic to do.” (11) The education, as an institution, is shaping them to become “good citizens”, by rewarding them for their labor. Thus, because these children have been taught that being a “good citizen” is to serve your country by picking crops, they will eventually be laborers for the rest of their life. Simply, these children do not know that there are other ways to contribute to society.

Migrant children are also policed in school and criticized for their inattentiveness and poor grades. “By the time we got to school we’d be all tuckered out. Around maybe eleven o’clock we’d be dozing off. Our teachers would send notes to the house telling Mom that were inattentive.” (15) Not only do they have to fulfill a quota in the fields, but they also have to satisfy the requirements and standards that are set by the school. These children are always being watched and “graded” on their performance as a student and as a worker, and if they do not satisfy the requirements or the quotas, they are met with consequences.

I also did a little bit of research on Child Labor in the US and according to the Human Rights Watch, “Hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farmworkers in the US. The often work 10 or more hours a day with sharp tools, heavy machinery, and dangerous pesticides, and die at 4 times the rate of other working youth.” What is more alarming is that it is legal for children to work as long as they have their parents’ permission and are at least 12 years old. Furthermore, they earn less than minimum wage. I am shocked that US child labor laws fail to protect child farmworkers and that this issue is not as concerning as it should be. 

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