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.
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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.
* * *
Tar from the tobacco leaves stains the hands of young workers.
On a steamy July afternoon, Neftali and Yesenia are seated on a teal couch in Melissa Bailey’s double-wide trailer. “Miss Melissa,” as she’s known in these parts, lives in the heart of tobacco country, along a rural stretch outside Kinston, a town of 22,000 in eastern North Carolina. A rooster crows nearby and clouds gather in the distance, promising relief after days of scorching heat. Neftali, about to start her senior year of high school, runs her fingers through bangs she recently dyed red. “It’s hard to explain what it’s like to work in tobacco,” she says, scrunching up her face. “It’s just horrible.” She shows me a photo taken of her in the fields; her hands are black with tar.
“OK, let’s get started,” calls Bailey. At 43, her sparkling eyes and easy laugh don’t quite conceal the stress of a lifetime spent juggling emergencies. She recently lent her van to a homeless family and is now collecting food donations for a migrant family with eight children. Meanwhile, Bailey is struggling to hold together NC Field, a scrappy nonprofit she co-founded in 2010. Young farmworkers face a workplace fatality rate four times that of children in other industries, and Bailey’s goal is to move kids into less dangerous work. It’s a job with long hours and long odds. Many parents depend upon their children working just to get by.
Today, only four kids show up. “It’s really hard to keep things together in the summer,” Bailey tells me. “Everyone’s working tobacco.”
From a “hillbilly mining family” in West Virginia, Bailey moved to North Carolina in 2001 and soon got a job enrolling the children of migrant laborers in school. The hard edges that characterize life for North Carolina’s 90,000 migrant farmworkers felt familiar. Bailey’s grandfather entered the mines at age 12 and died at 32 in 1949 from a methane explosion; her grandmother, who helped raise Bailey, was evicted from company housing after the accident. When Bailey was a toddler, a coal company dam burst, killing several other relatives. Like many of her peers, she got married and had a child right after high school and spent most of her 20s getting by on welfare.
Still, she was surprised to discover that child labor was still legal in the fields; the more she learned about the hazards of tobacco, the less those fields seemed like a place for kids. A 2001 study found that one in four tobacco workers suffers from acute nicotine poisoning, or “green tobacco sickness.” Symptoms range from dizziness and vomiting to difficulty breathing and heart rate fluctuations requiring hospitalization. The pain can be so excruciating that some workers call it the “green monster.” A tobacco farmer in Kentucky said the sickness “can make you feel like you’re going to die,” a phrase I’ll hear others repeat.
These hazards have led countries like Russia and Kazakhstan to ban anyone under 18 from harvesting tobacco. The United States has played a role in such global efforts, recently spending at least $2.75 million to eliminate child tobacco labor in Malawi. But no such prohibition exists here. “Why do we ban cigarettes to minors,” Bailey asks me, “but somehow it’s perfectly OK to have 12-year-olds getting nicotine poisoning in the fields?”
* * *
Underage laborers blackened with coal dust at Bessie Mine in Alabama, 1910
It’s long been understood that some jobs should be off limits to kids. More than a century ago, Lewis Hine of the National Child Labor Committee traveled to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania, where he found children as young as 10 laboring underground. “[T]he air at times is dense with coal dust,” he wrote, “which penetrates so far into the passages of the lungs that for long periods after the boy leaves the breaker, he continues to cough up the black coal dust.”
Although he carried a notebook, Hine’s real weapon was his camera. One of his photos captured a man with a metal pipe towering over the boys, ready to strike any who disobeyed. His intimate shots of young miners, with their hardened faces and sunken eyes, made the “breaker boys” an icon in the fight against child labor.
The photos caused an uproar, but it wasn’t until 1938 that Congress finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. Along with establishing a minimum wage and overtime pay, the FLSA banned “oppressive child labor,” preventing youth under 18 from working in mines and factories. The FLSA was a seminal achievement, but it has significant loopholes. Influenced by racist Southern politicians, who argued in the 1930s that “you cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis,” the law left out minimum wage and overtime protections for agricultural and domestic workers—the industries that employed the majority of African-Americans at the time.
Children topping and suckering tobacco plants in Buckland, Connecticut, at the turn of the twentieth century
Child labor standards, too, are considerably weaker in agriculture, where children—then mostly black, now mostly brown—can begin work at the age of 12. Limits on work hours, put in place to ensure that jobs don’t interfere with study, are more permissive for field workers. A tobacco grower who hires a 12-year-old to work seventy-hour weeks in the summer is well within the letter of the law.
No one knows how many children work in America’s tobacco fields each summer, helping to bring in our nation’s deadliest crop. When I put the question to Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, he wasn’t willing to concede that such a workforce even exists. “It’s hocus-pocus,” he said. “I couldn’t drive you to a farm this afternoon in North Carolina where anyone under 16 is harvesting tobacco, unless it was the farmer’s children driving a tractor.”
Wooten is wrong. I spent a week driving down winding back roads and visiting remote labor camps, where I found more than a dozen tobacco workers under the age of 16.
And when I joined a tobacco crew, I happened upon a 15-year-old from Guatemala with two friends who looked even younger. But no one tracks these kids, and growers aren’t anxious to discuss the topic. When I reached out to the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, they first wanted an assurance that I would convey a “positive message”; when I declined that condition, I didn’t hear back. A spokesman from R.J. Reynolds told me that the company’s farmers abide by “all applicable laws,” but said he had no idea how many minors might be working in grower-contracted fields. But North Carolina, where Bailey does outreach to more than 100 child tobacco workers every year, accounts for 80 percent of the flue-cured tobacco grown in the United States, the most popular variety found in cigarettes. Two of the big three US tobacco companies—R.J. Reynolds (Camel) and Lorillard (Newport)—are headquartered in the state.
Wooten didn’t challenge the idea that tobacco workers can get sick from nicotine, telling me that he worked in the fields as a kid and would throw up when the leaves were wet. But he downplayed it: “Take a 10-year-old boy and give him two cigars and it’s the same thing.”
Scientists first started to take nicotine poisoning seriously in 1992, when Kentucky began to monitor hospital visits by farmworkers. During a two-month period, emergency rooms in five counties admitted forty-seven people who complained of vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness and difficulty breathing. Twelve required hospitalization, and two were placed in intensive care. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued an advisory, putting the likely number of ER visits statewide at 600. “If the numbers found in Kentucky are any indication of the magnitude of this problem, then we are dealing with an illness which is inflicting a tremendous burden on this nation,” said Dr. J. Donald Millar, then director of NIOSH.
Nicotine poisoning makes the flu seem like a cakewalk. “You start out feeling dizzy,” says a woman I’ll call Martha, whom I visit one warm summer evening after she’s finished a shift in the tobacco fields. “Then come the headaches, and suddenly you start throwing up and can’t stop.” Martha often hallucinates during bad episodes, with the objects in her trailer growing so large that she fears they’ll topple over and smash her.
I swing by Martha’s trailer again a few days later. It’s immediately obvious something’s not right. Her skin is pale, and she struggles to keep her balance as she leans against the stove, cooking tortillas for her two children, who race around the cramped living room. Three days ago, she worked in a wet field, growing dizzy and nauseous on the ride home. She’s spent the last forty-eight hours in bed or stumbling to the toilet to vomit, popping Tylenol like candy to mute her unbearable headache. “I feel so weak, it’s like my entire body is asleep or drunk,” she says. Yet she plans to be in the fields tomorrow. She can’t afford another day without pay.
* * *
The surest way to prevent nicotine poisoning is to keep workers out of wet fields. Wearing waterproof clothing and gloves can help, but such outfits can also be an invitation to heat stroke. Martha tells me that her contractor doesn’t let the crew wear gloves because he fears they’ll damage the plants. Other growers, according to a study led by Thomas Arcury of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, advise their crews to start smoking in order to build up a tolerance.
Even workers who don’t develop acute poisoning absorb dangerous amounts of nicotine. Researchers at Wake Forest took saliva samples and found that by the end of a season, “non-smoking workers had nicotine levels equivalent to regular smokers.” Nicotine has been associated with bladder cancer and has been found to increase the size of other tumors. Last year, researchers at Brown University found that it may also increase the risk of heart disease.
Pesticides pose another threat. Many pesticides sprayed on tobacco are used on other crops, but tobacco requires an especially heavy application. Only five crops use more pesticides per acre. Thanks to a 2009 study by Wake Forest and the Centers for Disease Control, we know those pesticides are getting into the bodies of workers. Urine, blood and saliva samples taken from North Carolina farmworkers, most of whom worked in tobacco, found repeated exposure to six types of organophosphates—a common pesticide used on food crops and tobacco, and a neurotoxin.
“With pesticides, there is no safe level of exposure,” says Dr. Jennie McLaurin, a specialist in children’s health with the Migrant Clinicians Network. To protect workers from pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates that they stay out of fields for a period of time after spraying. While the EPA insists these standards “are protective of all workers, regardless of size,” the guidelines are based on an adult farmworker who weighs 176 pounds. McLaurin suggests there are special dangers to adolescents because they are smaller. Also, their livers and kidneys aren’t as proficient at excreting toxins, and their nervous systems are still developing. “Anything you throw at a kid,” she says, “whether Tylenol or pesticides, is going to have a higher effective dose.”
* * *
In the summer of 2009, Bailey invited several dozen young farmworkers—including kids working in tobacco—to sit down with a researcher from Human Rights Watch. The following spring, HRW released “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” based in part on these interviews. The report, which included detailed descriptions of acute nicotine poisoning, was praised by then–Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. “We simply cannot—and this administration will not—stand by while youngsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood,” she promised.
Solis has long displayed a special affinity for farmworkers. Her father came to this country from Mexico to work in the fields, and she renamed the Labor Department’s auditorium after Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers. In praising the report, she said her agency was currently “exploring regulatory changes to further protect children in the fields.” It turned out she was referring to a clause in the FLSA that gives the Labor Department the power to ban children from particularly dangerous work by issuing what are called “hazardous occupations orders.” (Although, in yet another example of the FLSA’s weaker protections in agriculture, field hands may perform “hazardous” jobs once they turn 16, while kids in other industries must wait until they’re 18.)
Those orders hadn’t been updated in agriculture since 1970. During the Bush years, NIOSH, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, published a list of recommended changes, but they’d languished until Solis took office. In August 2011, the Labor Department proposed a sweeping set of updates to the hazardous occupations orders. They included a ban on hiring children to do work in grain silos, which can swallow workers like quicksand; to handle pesticides that pose long-term health risks; or to work at heights above six feet. They also included a requirement that tractors, the most common cause of death for young workers, be equipped with seat belts and rollover protections.
And they prohibited children working in tobacco.
In introducing the proposals, Solis struck an urgent tone. “Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” she said. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department.” The official in charge of drafting the proposed rules, Nancy Leppink, recalled a traumatic episode in which a tractor killed a friend’s brother. “I have thought of her and him often as my staff has worked on the regulations,” Leppink wrote on the Labor Department’s blog. “No sister wants to bury her younger brother.”
These weren’t bureaucrats. These were people on a mission.
* * *
In early 2011, before the Labor Department unveiled its child farmworker proposals, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, stood before a large crowd in Atlanta. “We face challenges from regulators who are ready to downsize American agriculture, mothball our productivity and outsource our farms,” he warned. Government overreach, he said, presented a “clear and present danger to American agriculture.”
Stallman is at the helm of one of the most powerful forces in US agriculture. While the Farm Bureau bills itself as the voice of family farmers and ranchers, its anti-regulatory agenda often reflects the interests of agribusiness giants instead. It fights against labeling GMOs, wants to ease restrictions on the spraying of pesticides over waterways, and sued the EPA for trying to clean up the agricultural runoff that turned large parts of the Chesapeake Bay into dead zones. Board members of Farm Bureau affiliates include representatives from industry powerhouses like Monsanto, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland.
Seven months later, when the Labor Department proposals were announced, Stallman had a new target in his sights. The bureau trained its firepower, including forty lobbyists and $5 million a year in political spending, on stopping the new hazardous occupations rules in their tracks. It launched a national letter-writing campaign and formed a coalition of agricultural trade groups. The resistance grew to include Monsanto and the national trade groups representing pork, turkey, beef, dairy, cotton and rice producers.
When labor advocates hit Capitol Hill, as one recounted to me, they realized the Farm Bureau had beaten them to the punch.
The main argument against the rules was that they’d hurt family farms. “That’s why we opposed the rules,” says Mace Thornton, a Farm Bureau spokesman. “They would have impacted farm kids and their ability to be a part of the family farm or ranch.” In a letter to the agency, the Farm Bureau and its allies asked the Labor Department to withdraw the rules to allow “family farms to continue to operate as they have for generations.”
That the rules would be a blow to struggling family farms held tremendous narrative power. The only problem: it just wasn’t true. No child labor laws, including these, apply to family farms, or to the estimated half a million children who work on them. They cover only the 300,000 or so children who work as hired hands.
True, early on, the draft language said the exemption would cover only farms “wholly owned” by parents. But after the Farm Bureau protested, arguing that family farms are now often joint partnerships, the Labor Department made a fix, expanding the exemption to cover farms owned even partially by a parent.
But the “family farm” narrative had taken root. A month after the fix, members of Congress in both chambers introduced the Preserving America’s Family Farm Act to block the Labor Department from enforcing the rules. Among the key forces behind the lobbying push was agribusiness giant Monsanto.
A key opponent in the House was Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican who sat on the House Appropriations Committee. During a House hearing, he threatened to attach a budget rider stripping the Labor Department of the funds needed to enforce the rules. A multimillionaire rancher, Rehberg said he’d once hired a 10-year-old to herd his flock of cashmere goats. It was “impossible” to get hurt on his ranch, he said, claiming that a 5-year-old could safely run the entire operation. Others piled on. A Daily Caller article claimed the rules banned “farm chores.” Sarah Palin wrote that Obama was trying to “prevent children from working on our own family farms.”
“In the beginning, I thought people really were confused,” says Mary Miller, a child labor specialist with Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries. “But it was just a big disinformation campaign.” Even members of Congress refused to absorb the fact that the new rules would leave family farms alone. During that same House hearing, Representative Roscoe Bartlett, a Tea Party Caucus member from Maryland, had the following exchange with the Labor Department’s Leppink:
Bartlett: How old does a child have to be before they can drive a tractor?
Leppink: On their parents’ farm?
Leppink: They can drive the tractor on their parents’ farm at any age.
Bartlett: My time is running out. I just have a real problem with our regulations.
* * *
I’m only hours into the shift, but sweat and dew have already soaked through my long-sleeve shirt and jeans. I reach between tobacco leaves to tear off another sucker and straighten up to wipe my face, the black tar from my hands leaving a sticky residue on my forehead. Ahead in the distance, I can make out several other members of the crew, who push forward between the rows before disappearing behind walls of tobacco leaves. I’ll be playing catch-up all day.
I’m in the middle of a tobacco field in Wilson County, but that’s as much as I know about my location. Yesterday afternoon, I pulled up to a field and spotted a crew in the distance, their heads bobbing above the plants like buoys in a green sea. I eventually found the person in charge, a squat man named Alejandro. “If you want to work, show up at 5:30 tomorrow morning,” he said in Spanish, giving me directions to a parking lot. When I arrived in the morning, I found dozens of Latino workers sleepily climbing into idling vehicles. I asked for Alejandro and was pointed to a white passenger van, where I squeezed into the back seat between two large men. One, wearing a flannel shirt and tattered straw hat, offered me a slice of cantaloupe. “Bienvenidos,” he said, before closing his eyes and leaning his head against the window. Welcome.
We pulled out of the lot and headed north, turning left onto a dirt road and zigzagging over a series of trails that became progressively bumpier. It was still dark, and I soon lost any sense of direction. By the time the van stopped, the sky had begun to lighten, and I could see that we were surrounded on all sides by tobacco. Alejandro came hustling over.
“The work is easy,” he said. Like the Cuello sisters, we would be topping and suckering, the last step before the leaves are picked and hung in barns to dry. I shadowed him as he moved down the row, tugging off shoots.
“The important thing is to look up and down the entire plant,” he told me. “Suckers can be everywhere.” Then he jogged ahead to check in with the other crew members. Several had donned plastic trash bags in an attempt to protect their skin from the dew.
Though the crew quickly leaves me behind, it doesn’t take long for me to get the basic idea down. But I soon find out that what the task doesn’t require in skill, it makes up for in pain. My back aches with the constant bending, but the heat and humidity deliver the real punishment. The leaves of the head-high plants reach across the rows, trapping the air and stifling any breeze. Stooped beneath that arch, with the leaves reflecting the sun’s rays, I can feel my brain start to overheat, turning the sharp edges of life fuzzy.
I stumble on the uneven rows and trip twice before the morning break, though it’s hard to say if it’s the nicotine or the heat that’s causing my dizziness. I join a line that’s formed in front of the water coolers. “You look hot,” a shirtless man in front of me says, letting out a squeaky laugh. “This is nothing.” When he gets to the cooler, he soaks a rag in water and wipes down his stomach, arms and back, which are crisscrossed with red welts. “Pica el spray,” he says—the pesticides sting his skin. He’s not the only one whose back is lined with streaks.
After drinking up, we sit in the shade of the van. A number of the men are curious about my presence and come over to chat. I ask whether they’ve gotten sick from nicotine. Javier, a thirtysomething Mexican immigrant who previously sold ice cream from a cart in Austin, nods. “Of course. It’s a poison, but it’s not a real problem. You get sick for two days and throw up. Then you feel better and come back to work.”
Another man jumps in. “You don’t have to go home. If you feel sick, walk to the side and throw up. And when you feel dizzy, drink milk.”
“Not milk—suck lemons!” yells a bearded man still wearing a trash bag over his shirt. “Throw up, then suck lemons.” If the workers in my crew are any indication, a lot of throwing up goes on in the fields.
I notice three younger workers standing apart from the group. I walk over to chat with one of them, whose boyish face is shaded by a red-and-white North Carolina State cap, and learn that he is 15 and from Guatemala. Our conversation is interrupted by a call to return to the fields.
Tobacco leaves are loaded into crates for curing and drying.
The rest of the day is a blur. We break thirty minutes for a lunch eaten in silence—no one’s joking about the heat anymore—and by afternoon, all signs of urgency have disappeared. Even Alejandro is encouraging us to take it slow, and after each row we return to the van to pour cold water over our heads for a moment of delicious relief. The air has taken on the heaviness and temperature of exhaust, and despite my sluggish pace, I can barely catch my breath. It feels like I’m sucking through a straw stuffed with moss. Finally, a new supervisor arrives and tells us to pack up. “It’s too hot,” he says. “Day’s over.”
It’s 5:45 pm when I get back to my motel, having earned $65.25 for nine hours of work. My head has been pounding for hours, so I take Advil and drink two large cups of water. There’s a severe heat advisory in effect: it’s 95 degrees, with a heat index of 111. It’s no surprise that North Carolina farmworkers suffer the highest rate of heat-related fatalities in the nation.
In the spring of 2012, as the battle over the child labor rules reached fever pitch, Neftali and Yesenia boarded a plane and flew from Raleigh to Washington, DC, for a conference on young farmworkers. The event, organized by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, included youth-led panels and workshops, with participants creating plaques to recognize the efforts of Labor Secretary Solis and Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, who introduced legislation in the House to increase the protections for young farmworkers.
Roybal-Allard came to accept her award on the first day of the conference. Solis, however, never showed. The reason for her absence soon became clear. That afternoon, the Labor Department quietly issued a press release announcing that it had withdrawn the proposed changes, citing the administration’s firm commitment “to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life.”
The retreat was absolute. “To be clear,” the statement continued, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.” Instead, the Labor Department would be working with “rural stakeholders” to “develop an educational program.” The first “stakeholder” listed was the American Farm Bureau. Not a single group advocating for migrant youth was named.
The dramatic about-face left public health advocates reeling. “I’ve been following worker safety and health for twenty years,” says Celeste Monforton, a professor at the George Washington School of Public Health and a former OSHA analyst. “I have never seen anything like that statement. It was a sucker punch. It ran completely counter to what we would have expected from an administration that claims to be advocates for vulnerable people.”
Details on who made the decision to drop the proposed changes aren’t clear. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Oregonian, the White House refused to release 600 pages of information, arguing that doing so would “inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making.” But the Labor Department did tell The Oregonian that it was the White House that sent the announcement over, with instructions to release the news on department letterhead. (The Labor Department, Solis and the White House declined requests for comment about the decision-making process.)
There were, as is typical, a handful of problems with the proposed rules. The Labor Department’s definition of “power-driven” equipment, for example, was so broad that it could have banned youth from using flashlights. But these are the sorts of issues a public comment period is designed to address, says Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and an expert on the regulatory process. “Agencies propose rules, and if there are problems, they solve them with the comment period,” Steinzor explains. “That’s part of the fine-tuning process. That’s what’s been happening for a hundred years. Instead, we had somebody at the White House blow it up.”
* * *
Just before leaving North Carolina, I head to a shopping center to meet up with a 13-year-old boy that Bailey sent my way. Along the drive, I pass through tobacco fields stretching to the horizon. The tall plants, backlit by a dropping sun, are striking, their white flowers sprouting toward the heavens. But it’s an ominous beauty. Just one acre of the crop produces enough tobacco for more than 1 million cigarettes.
The boy, whom I’ll call Ventura, is wearing cargo shorts and an Aéropostale shirt. He greets me with a tentative nod and slides into a booth at Subway. With thick black hair and bronze skin, he speaks in the quiet voice that young people often adopt for adult strangers, his eyes gazing down at the table. When he finally looks up, I notice fatigue lines beneath his eyes. He grimaces when he places his hands on the table. “They hurt from pulling the plants,” he says, spreading his fingers open to reveal tar-stained nails.
Ventura is vague about why he came to North Carolina, saying only that he is living with his uncle for the summer because his parents, Mexican immigrants who now live in Florida, “cannot support a lot of what I want.” He’s been working in tobacco for two months, with a crew that includes two other teenagers, 14 and 17 years old. The workday runs from 7 am to 7 pm, six days a week; sometimes he works Sunday as well. He makes $7 an hour—just shy of the minimum wage—and as a farmworker he’s not entitled to overtime.
“When it’s rainy, I prepare myself with plastic bags,” he says. But the bags don’t always prevent the nicotine from seeping into his skin. “When I’m out there, I get dizzy… so dizzy,” he tells me. “Sometimes I fall down. Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna die.” He says he has seen pesticides applied on adjacent fields while he works. He cracks a wry smile that turns into a grimace. “Man, they’re crazy. It smells horrible. I go home after that, and the walls are moving.”
Before leaving, I ask Ventura if there is anything else he wants to tell me. So far, he’s mostly given me brief answers. But he pauses to consider this request, looking down at his sore hands.
“Don’t be asking people for stuff you want,” he says, speaking slowly. It’s an odd remark. Isn’t “asking for stuff” what being a teenager is all about? After a moment, Ventura goes on, his voice rising, his eyes still glued to his hands. He wants to work slower, he tells me, but there’s a guy on the crew who rushes him. He wants to take longer breaks, but they’re not allowed. He wants to stop working when the leaves are wet, but no one ever does. He wants to go home.
It’s now dark outside. The burst of talking has left Ventura looking depleted. He’ll soon be heading to the fields for another twelve-hour shift. We say goodbye—I remember to shake his hand carefully—and he shuffles out the door, carrying a chicken sandwich in a plastic bag as he disappears into the night.
A rule protecting kids is killed, thanks to industry pressure. Then at least four young workers lose their lives. See the report by Mariya Strauss, also in this issue.