The harvest (la cosecha)

Bear Lake teen gains national acclaim in documentary on life of migrant teens

Bear Lake Schools freshman Zulema Lopez holds the certificate commemorating the full ride college scholarship she was given by the community stakeholders of the United Independent School District of Loredo, Texas after appearing in the documentary The Harvest/La Cosecha. The movie focuses on migrant students in America working in the fields and struggling to get an education. (Ken Grabowski/News Advocate)

Zulema Lopez looks like a typical 14-year-old you would find in the hallway of any school in America.

However, looks can be deceiving when you hear the story behind this friendly smiling teen. Lopez lives the life of thousands of migrant children in this country, moving from state to state to follow the work in the fields harvesting the food America eats.

It is a hard life, but the only one Lopez has known in the short time she has been on this earth. It is something that generations of her family have done before her going between Bear Lake, Texas and Florida over the course of every year.

“My great-grandma used to come here, and my grandma has been living in the same house in Bear Lake for 35 years and my mother has been coming for 30 years,” said Lopez. “I don’t know how they started coming here, as I never asked my great-grandma.”

The smile on her face as she talked about her life belies the fact that Lopez works long days in the fields next to her family members, harvesting crops during the hot months of summer, while her classmates play video games and go to the beach. Her family often works 12 hours a day during those months and it is not uncommon for her to carry 45 pounds of strawberries while moving through the fields on her knees.

“It is pretty tough as we get up at 5 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.,” said Lopez. “We make pretty good money, but it is still hard work.”

She is joined in the fields by her mother, Jessica, who also attended Bear Lake Schools as a child, and her 12-year-old sister, Alexis Juarez, and her 10-year-old brother, Jose Juarez. They are living life like thousands of other migrant families spread throughout Michigan and other northern states this time of year.

“I also have a 2-and-a-half-year-old sister America and our grandmother often brings her out to the fields while we are working,” said Lopez.

The plight of children like Lopez is finally being brought to light in a national documentary called “The Harvest/La Cosecha, directed by Robert Romano and produced by “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria. The storyline centers around three migrant children who toil in the fields for long hours, and try to work in school at the same time. One of the three children featured in that documentary and on the movie poster promoting it is Zulema Lopez.

“The filmmaker Robert Romano was looking for kids to tell their story, and I was one of 300 children he interviewed in Loredo, Texas,” said Lopez. “He interviewed me and my two cousins at my home after my migrant coordinator at Saeaeor Graci Middle School in Loredo told him about us. He asked us if we liked working as migrants and if we had dreams or wanted to go to school.”

Dreams for future

Something that struck Romano about Lopez from that first interview was when he asked her about her dreams for the future. She looked at him and said that she didn’t have any dreams. It was the stark reality of not only her situation, but thousands of other children just like her.

Once she was selected as one of the children to be featured it began a three-year experience starting when she was only 11 years old. Film crews would follow her family between Texas, Florida and Michigan to tell her story. It was an experience Lopez admitted she didn’t mind sometimes, while other times she felt like it was intrusive.

“Well, I am here during the summer and fall, and then we leave during the winter because there isn’t any crops being harvested,” said Lopez. “In Texas, we harvest onions in the winter, and sometimes we go to Florida because they have oranges, strawberries and cucumbers. We go where there is work.”

“The film crew would usually follow me around for two or three weeks at a time. I was hard to work with sometimes, as there were some mornings when I wasn’t too happy when they would put that camera on me with bright lights first thing in the morning.”

Lopez was not alone in that situation as the documentary also focused in on 14-year-old Perla Sanchez of Texas who had the choice of working in the fields or being drawn into gang life. It also was centered around Victor Huapilla of Florida whose family migrated to the United States to seek a better life for them and their children. They got caught up in the migrant lifestyle when there wasn’t any other work to be found.

Bear Lake Schools principal Marci Augenstein presents Lopez with a certificate commemorating her work in the documentary The Harvest/La Cosecha detailing life of migrant teens trying to mix school with working the fields to survive. (Ken Grabowski/News Advocate)

Another focal point of the film is the difficult task these children face trying to keep up with their studies when they are being called upon to work the fields for so many long hours during the harvest season. It is something that Lopez admits has been a problem with her over the years.

“It is hard to go to school, and sometimes I am late in catching up on my work,” said Lopez. “Last year, I was almost held back because I fell behind in my studies, so it is pretty tough.”

That is one of the reasons Romano decided to tell the story of these migrant children in his documentary. He told Box Office Magazine in an interview on the subject that children being allowed in the fields is the result of two things — a loophole in the 1938 Fair Standards Labor Act and the simple fact that the migrant families need the extra income.

“Migrant workers are a portion of farm workers in the United States,” Romano told the Box Office Magazine. “But what’s happened is that because of a loophole, their children qualify. And because their children qualify, I suspect that’s one of the reasons why we have so many child laborers, and why migrant wages are as substandard as they are.

“An average migrant family makes less than $17,500 a year, so you have to understand, these children really have no choice but to work. Even in poor conditions. It’s basically this: They don’t have the right to minimum wage, they don’t have the right to overtime, they don’t have they right to a day off, they don’t have the right to collective bargaining. The people with the least amount of rights today are farm workers, and the people with the least amount of rights in farm workers are farm worker children.”

Shocking statistics

What he wanted to show through this documentary is that there are almost 400,000 children working in American produce fields every year and the children only earn roughly $60 a week during harvest season. What is even more shocking is the fact that these children are often subject to the extremely hot temperatures and pesticides that are common in the fields.

Most of her classmates can’t perceive the lifestyle of traveling between two different regions of the country, or having to move back and forth just to survive. However, Lopez has a much different perspective of the lifestyle she has known since she was a baby.

“I have gotten used to it, as this isn’t something that just happens one year — it is every single year of my life,” said Lopez.

The moves have been so frequent that Lopez has to look to Bear Lake Principal Marci Augenstein to refresh her memory about her past time spent at the Bear Lake Schools.

“I have never finished a school year have I?” asks Lopez.

Augenstein told her that she hadn’t, and even though Lopez said it doesn’t bother her, it is obvious she would like to enjoy some of the things at school with her classmates like any other teen.

“I know we are moving again soon, and it’s tough,” said Lopez.

The Bear Lake principal said they presently have 14 migrant children enrolled in the school, and most will soon be leaving for other parts of the country. Augenstein has found the difference with Lopez from other migrant children is people from her school in Loredo have contacted the Bear Lake principal since the documentary was made to see if there is something the two school districts can do to assist Lopez in her studies. There has been talk of using technology and online resources to try and make the transition easier and to keep Lopez’s grades up.

“They gave her a laptop, and we are seeing what we can work out,” said Augenstein.

When the documentary premiered on Oct. 13, Lopez was flown to Loredo to watch it with more than 1,000 people at the TAMIU Auditorium. It was then that the reality of what she had accomplished began to sink in to the young teenager.

“I didn’t think there were people out there who cared,” said Lopez.

College scholarship

While in Loredo she was also presented with an award by the community stakeholders of the United Independent School District. The award is a full-ride college scholarship upon completion of high school.

It is an award that the 14-year-old takes very seriously. What Lopez also learned during the premiere of the documentary is that she has become a role model for other migrant children. It is an area where she shows great maturity beyond her young age.

“I want to do a big thing with the scholarship, because I feel that I am an example to other migrants,” said Lopez. “The movie changed me, as I feel like I am more responsible now than when they started filming.”

Lopez said that being only a freshmen in high school she doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life yet. However, she knows it can be much more now that she has the opportunity to get a good college education.

The girl who told Romano during that first interview that she didn’t have dreams now has them about getting a better life. It is something that can not only help her, but her family as well. Lopez realizes it will be a chance for her to give back to her family.

It is a point that Augenstein eloquently portrayed to members of the Bear Lake student body a week ago when they honored Lopez for achievement in the documentary.

“I would like to start this assembly with a quote,” said Augenstein. “‘The end of all education should surely be service to others. We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about the progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others for their sake and for our own.’

“That quote I just read was from Mexican-American labor activist and leader of the United Farm Workers Caesar Chavez.”

The hope of the producers of this show and Lopez is that the documentary will draw attention to this great injustice in America. Their hopes are that it will do something to change the system for thousands of others like Lopez and allow these children to just be children instead of being stuck working long hours in the fields.

It is a change that is long overdue.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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