What I did this summer: Virginia farm camps
Editor's note: Anna Walton is a biology/Spanish major from Columbia. She plans to graduate from Carolina in May 2010 and begin medical school in 2011. She wrote this piece about her summer experience.
“A veces pienso que esta es mi casa pero después pienso que no es mi casa.” Carolina, a 31-year-old migrant farmworker from Veracruz, México, shared her conflicting sentiments of home (“Sometimes I think this is home but later I think, no, this isn’t my home.”) with another intern and me.
The three of us sat in the kitchen of one of 50 shared apartments in the migrant labor camp dubbed Campo Verde, which would be Carolina’s home from March to November. Upon the shift of the seasons, Carolina, her husband, their nine-year-old son, and what will be her one-month old child will pack up their few belongings, carried by the hopes for a better future or at least enough money to pay rent and food, and return to Florida to search for work in the citrus harvest until the following spring.
This summer, I learned the history of farm work in the United States, issues around the oppression of minorities, popular education techniques, community organizing, and the Farmworker Justice Movement as part of Student Action with Farmworkers’ “Into the Fields” internship program. This program placed me and 28 other students to work with different agencies across the Southeast on legal, education, or health projects with migrant farmworkers.
I worked with Telamon Corporation in Exmore, Va. Exmore is on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, or, as some of the natives told me, the “land that time forgot.” However, this small peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay has a quiet majesty; Route 13, which stretches from the tip of the peninsula to its connection to the mainland, is surrounded by fields -- tomato, corn, and soybean. In the mornings, I saw the old school buses, some painted bright colors, others with Mexican or Guatemalan flags on the side, drive the farmworkers to the fields to pick tomatoes.
As dusk settled and I was leaving my office, I saw those same buses drive those farmworkers, by then sweaty and covered with pesticides and soil, to their camps like Carolina’s Campo Verde.
Though migrant farmworkers constitute almost 10 percent of the population on the Eastern Shore in the summer (about 5,000), they are a relatively invisible community. At Telamon, I worked with one of the largest tomato distributors to train nearly 2,000 farmworkers on pesticide safety. During my classes, many of which were in Spanish, the workers would say they were not allowed breaks to drink water or use the bathroom; they would have to keep working even if pesticides were being sprayed on top of them, and they were threatened with losing their job if they stopped work because they were showing symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
Unsafe working conditions are only part of the story. Migrant farmworkers are often isolated, have only modest legal protection, and have an entire agricultural system against them. As a student interested in the health of underserved communities, my experiences this summer exposed me to one of the most underserved communities in the United States.
I hope to become a general physician who will provide medical care to the underserved like Carolina. Until then, I will continue to raise awareness about the issues faced by the individuals without whom we would not have food on our tables.