This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
The air was heavy and humid on the morning the three Cuello sisters joined their mother in the tobacco fields. The girls were dressed in jeans and long-sleeve shirts, carried burritos wrapped in aluminum foil, and had no idea what they were getting themselves into. “It was our first real job,” says Neftali, the youngest. She was 12 at the time. The middle sister, Kimberly, was 13. Yesenia was 14.
Their mother wasn’t happy for the company. After growing up in Mexico, she hadn’t crossed the border so that her kids could become farmworkers. But the girls knew their mom was struggling. She had left her husband and was supporting the family on the minimum wage. If her girls worked in the tobacco fields, it would quadruple the family’s summer earnings. “My mom tends to everybody,” Neftali says. This was a chance to repay that debt.
The sisters trudged into dense rows of bright green tobacco plants. Their task was to tear off flowers and remove small shoots from the stalks, a process called “topping and suckering.” They walked the rows, reaching deep into the wet leaves, and before long their clothes were soaked in the early morning dew. None of them knew that the dew represented a health hazard: when wet, tobacco leaves excrete nicotine, which is absorbed by the skin. One study estimated that on a humid day—and virtually every summer day in North Carolina is humid—a tobacco worker can be exposed to the nicotine equivalent of thirty-six cigarettes.
Their mother told the girls to stick together, but Neftali soon fell behind. “I was seeing little circles, and the sky started to get blurry,” she says. “It felt like my head was turned sideways.” Her mother ordered her to rest in the shade, but Neftali sat down only briefly. “I wanted to show that I could work like an adult,” she recalls. She soldiered on through a splitting headache and waves of dizziness. Several times, about to faint, she sank to the ground between rows to rest.
“I would find her looking confused,” Yesenia says.
Later in the day, Neftali heard someone retching. One row over, Kimberly was bent double, throwing up on the plants. Afterward, feeling slightly better, Kimberly resumed work, only to throw up again. When the twelve-hour shift finally came to an end, the sisters trudged back to their car. Neftali fell asleep on the short drive home, but that night, despite her fatigue, she was woken several times by the same dream: she was back in the tobacco fields, stumbling around in a daze, surrounded by suffocating plants.
The next morning, ignoring their mother’s pleas, the sisters went back for more. In all, the girls would spend four summers in the tobacco fields, working sixty hours during a typical week, their earnings usually $7.25 an hour. For many teens, memories of summer include a nostalgic mix of freedom and boredom, with lazy afternoons spent doing next to nothing. But the Cuello sisters mostly remember feeling exhausted, dizzy and nauseated. Only later would they learn why: the fields were poisoning them.
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Tar from the tobacco leaves stains the hands of young workers.