Former migrants themselves, women help rescue children from fields
Oct. 23, 2003
ROCKY POINT, N.C. - When Celia Rodriguez and Lilia Villalobos bounce along
the rutted back roads of North Carolina looking for migrant children in the
fields, the path often takes them back to their own childhood.
The two women only recently left the fields themselves, and Rodriguez's husband
and parents still pick fruits and vegetables for a living. Now, the women's
harvest is human - getting children out of the fields and into Head Start.
The East Coast Migrant Head Start Project helps 8,000 children from Florida to
Maine learn to read, eat better and pick up basic skills such as how to brush
their teeth. The project is part of the federal Head Start program that helps 20
million children nationwide.
In slacks and boots, Rodriguez and Villalobos march undaunted through fields and
confront men in a way that runs contrary to the Hispanic culture. But they are
not reckless - they leave their van doors open in case they run into trouble and
have to flee.
"They're able to see both worlds," said Christine Alvarado, administrator for
the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, based in Raleigh. "They see what it
takes for families to succeed outside of farm work. And they understand what you
need to do to get there."
The women's official-looking green van sometimes scares off the workers who
think they are immigration agents. But more often than not, crew leaders are
glad to see them.
Children under 12 are not allowed to work in the fields. And though they
regularly do during blueberry season, the women do not report violations.
Instead, Rodriguez and Villalobos talk with the growers about the programs
available to get children into classrooms and bring farmers into compliance with
On a typically humid North Carolina day in early August, Villalobos and
Rodriguez approached the field where Teresita and Zenon Hernandez were picking
grape tomatoes for $2.50 per 10- to 20-pound box.
The women had just found someone to donate shoes for the couple's two oldest
children, who were entering public school. Their two youngest go to the Long
Creek Migrant Head Start Center.
With Villalobos translating, the Hernandezes talked briefly about their life on
the move, shuffling between Florida, North Carolina and Mexico, picking
strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes.
The Hernandezes and their four children share a three-bedroom trailer with
Zenon's brother, his wife and their three children, who also attend Long Creek.
They want more for their children.
"That's why they are doing it," Villalobos said, translating for Teresita
Hernandez. "She says she will do everything she can for her children to be in
school so they can graduate and have a career."
There is never enough room for all the children the women find.
The Long Creek Migrant Head Start Center has space for only 114 children up to 5
years old whose migrant-worker families qualify based on the federal poverty
In the Long Creek area alone, hundreds of children were in the fields during
blueberry season from May to the start of August, Alvarado said.
As Villalobos and Rodriguez approached the end of their seventh season working
for Long Creek, they said they still see plenty that frustrates and angers them
- landlords who overcharge for housing, workers without cars, families living in
tents or cars and wives too frightened to report domestic violence.
But overall, the women believe conditions have improved since the days when they
met while picking blueberries in North Carolina.
Housing has improved, and workers now know how to seek help, mainly because the
language barrier is falling as more advocates speak Spanish.
"They know how to ask for help," Rodriguez said. "In the past, you don't ask
Rodriguez knows that past. She was one of six children, born 30 years ago in
Mexico, and traveled between there and United States until she was 8. She went
to work in the fields at 11. She married at 16 and briefly stopped picking
crops, then returned for a couple of years before earning her high school
Villalobos, 23, the third of seven children, started in the fields at 13 and
worked there each summer for five years. "It was hard," she said. "At the same
time, I like it because I was feeling so good helping my parents."
That sort of understanding makes Villalobos and Rodriguez exceptional, Alvarado
"They don't just sympathize and empathize with the families," Alvarado said.
"Culturally, they're coming from the same place."