“Children can [legally] work in the summers, although less in the school year. For the most part, child labor is treated entirely different for farmworkers…In most corners of the Country, child labor is legal for farmworkers.” — From the documentary Harvest of Dignity
“But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
— 1 John 3:17
When I was a young boy, I played a lot of soccer and football — “fútbol y fútbol Americano.” One of my good friends was an immigrant named Luis. My mother and his would talk in Spanish during our games and practices, his mom teaching my mom several Mexican recipes and cooking styles. Luis and his siblings lived in a similar, lower-middle class neighborhood to my family, in the middle of Colorado-Springs, Colorado. He was able to go to a public elementary school, and in my mind, his story was not too dissimilar from mine. After I moved from Colorado, I forgot about Luis, until I met Hector.
Hector reminded me of Luis, in that he was very good at soccer and had a lot of siblings. The Latinx immigrant community in North Carolina was different than the one in Colorado that I had seen, in that it was much more concentrated (although, many communities like this did, in fact, exist in Colorado, outside my sphere of understanding). One day Hector mentioned that he and his siblings were going to work in the field with the family. I don’t remember a whole lot of the exchange, but I remember thinking, “Aren’t some of your siblings pretty young?” As a youth myself I thought, “That’s pretty cool, the whole family works together, gets family time, and is able to bond.” What I didn’t realize is that, whereas I could come in from the excruciating heat whenever I wanted to, they were out in it for the duration of the summer. Whereas my family was able to go on a weeklong vacation, his family probably wasn’t. Whereas I worked in food service for minimum wage, his family was probably paid by the weight of what they harvested, probably making in some cases less than minimum wage.
The truth of farm work and child work on farms eluded me until I became an adult. How could it? How could I have known people who were being paid a paltry sum and thought of it as a good thing? White culture teaches people to look on the good side, particularly for themselves. Without my knowledge or permission, my emotions were programmed to think that the underclass were not only beneficiaries of work exploitation but that they might enjoy it, for the family time. My brain was not taught to critically question how the families might struggle from prolonged hours or how their children might miss out on summer camp and other things that I enjoyed.
We are programmed to think and act in the best interest of our families, and we are also programmed to think of people who look and think like us as an extension of our families. This tribal thinking is the end result of how human civilization has come to be. However, we need to start thinking of how our own tribe’s existence affects others. When you eat a double cheeseburger at McDonalds or Wendy’s, think about the possibility that some family picked the lettuce and tomatoes for you, and that they won’t be able to enjoy a family vacation, together.
In this short devotion, I won’t offer one of the many possible solutions to this problem, and I know that this problem will only get worse with automation and the technological revolution that is happening. What I want to encourage you to do is to see the families that are affected by the corporatization of our food. If you are able to see the families that struggle, their children working hot and long hours in the summer sun, it will be one step closer for you to challenge the systems to treat them with dignity. You will also be one step closer to building a relationship in which you can love these neighbors, I pray, even as you love yourself.
Consider: When have I seen immigrants working in the fields? Have I ever seen their children working with them? How can I show them love and help them seek a better life for their children?
Pray: Lord Jesus, you came into this world as an immigrant who worked hard with his father, learning carpentry. You probably also saw the poor farmworkers who lived hand-to-mouth, in the fields, one step away from starvation and extinction. Help us to be like the Good Samaritan, who was unlikely, but still chose the good of the person outside of his tribe. Help us to be able to see the length and breadth of the human family, so that we can embrace those who toil in the fields, making our lives possible. And help us to champion for better rights, for those families who feed us by the fields. Amen.