The Lives of Migrant Farmworkers

A teacher introduces his suburban students to the often-ignored issues of migrant farm labor.

By Dirk Frewing

My parents took us on a driving excursion just about every weekend when we were young. My sister and I would escape the green suburbs of Seattle for long, hot forays into Oregon, Idaho, and the dry plains of the eastern half of Washington. My mom always said she had to find some sunshine. We usually found it east of the Cascades.

I remember watching endless rows of apple orchards and wheat fields. I would take breaks from mercilessly teasing my younger sister and gaze out at white shacks on dusty frontage roads, amazed that people lived in the tiny shacks, which looked no larger than tool sheds. I remember my parents explaining about the hard lives of the people who worked picking fruits and vegetables in the sun.

Beyond those first childhood glimpses at a largely ignored aspect of the U.S. economy, my official introduction to farmworker life was during a college literature class through the book Plum Plum Pickers. After college, I frequently visited work camps and fields around Woodburn, Ore., with a friend who worked for the farmworkers union PCUN (Piñereos y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste). My Spanish language fluency has also allowed me to work with many migrant students and families in the two high schools and one elementary school where I have taught. During this 10-year period of learning, I have remained astounded that farmworkers’ desperate working and living conditions are so accepted, unchallenged, or unknown.

My interest in introducing others to the largely unnoticed lives of migrant farmworkers now finds me in front of an 11th-grade U.S. history class at a large, suburban high school in Oregon. My students are primarily white, from relatively affluent backgrounds. Our introduction to the study of migrant farmworkers begins on a sunny May afternoon in which most students seem to be focusing their attention out the window, daydreaming of summer and not anything related to social justice. Inspired by Bill Bigelow’s soccer ball exercise, I bring a slightly worn Red Delicious apple and a large stalk of broccoli to class. [See “The Human Lives Behind the Labels,” Rethinking Schools, Summer 1997.] I ask students to sit in a circle. There is not enough room, so the class turns into a large u-shape. I ask them to pass the apple and broccoli around, observing, feeling, and smelling each item.

Their comments are primarily related to the smell of the broccoli, which is beginning to show some signs of wear. I then ask the students to list all the things that went into the production of this produce. A few students look uncertain and ask for clues. I give them five minutes to come up with their own list and then record their contributions on the overhead projector. The students list the following: water, sun, seeds, sugar, chlorophyll, fertilizer, pesticides, time, labor (planting, picking, shipping), trucks, boats, planes, plastic, wax, soil, air, vitamins, store workers, nitrogen.

I ask the class to think about the price of an apple. Someone offers, “They’re cheap.”

I next ask the class to think about their parents and any talk of grocery bills they might hear or be involved with at home. I ask the class, “What percentage of yearly family income after taxes goes to pay for food in the United States?”

The class starts to lose focus as they are somewhat unclear about the question. Attention shifts to the sunlight outside. Someone asks, “What’s the question? In a week, month, or year?” We refocus and I explain the question again. I call on several members of the class and all guesses are above the 30% range. By the looks on their faces, this is a difficult concept for some students.

“Okay, let’s look at some other countries.”

We move down a list on an overhead transparency I have prepared. India, 50 percent. China, almost half. Mexico, 31 percent.

“In the United States, we spend roughly 10 percent of our after-tax income on food. What does this mean? What does this have to do with anything?”

A student offers, “We have more money to buy other stuff.”

Someone else adds, “They [migrant workers] work for cheap. We don’t have to pay them very much so our food is cheap.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re illegal or not citizens or something like that.”

In our discussions of migrant life, students return again and again to the idea that citizenship and legal status are directly tied to the degree of suffering farmworkers can expect to endure. For my students, notions of social justice or inequality are overshadowed by paperwork and legal status. Students seem to justify or explain the poor and desperate conditions of migrant families by repeatedly reminding me that the migrant workers are not “legal” and not entitled to expect the same levels of pay, conditions or housing. We talk about using the term “illegal” to describe human beings and the class agrees that the word has a negative, derogatory connotation.

As farmworkers and their families have settled out of the “migrant stream,” or changing path of produce harvests, during the last 60 years, immigration status has become more of a complicated issue. My students repeatedly express the common misconception that most migrant workers today are physically present in the United States only to work and then take or send their money back to another country. In fact, many farmworker families are permanent or semi-permanent residents in various states of “official” residency status. The class agrees that those workers here as a result of “guest worker” legislation or those without any official documentation are the most vulnerable when it comes to exploitation by employers. It seems difficult for them to imagine a connection that transcends official paperwork or political borders on a map: the fundamental connection between human beings who produce food in desperate conditions and different human beings who consume the product of their labor.

I believe that any discussion or study of civil rights and social justice in secondary social studies curriculum needs to include a look at the lives of migrant farmworkers. Unfortunately, most traditional high school social studies classes do not include issues related to migrant farmworkers. Our United States history textbook contains just three sentences related to César Chávez, farmworkers, and the Hispanic/Latino civil rights struggles of the 20th century. As Daniel Rothenberg notes in his excellent book With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, the human costs and socially invisible problems of modern agriculture demand that we take a second look at hard work, opportunity, and social justice in the United States.


I attempt to demonstrate the power of farmworker union organizing during one of our discussions. I tell the class to imagine that I am a prospective employer rather than their teacher. They immediately stop talking and sit up in their seats.

I say to the class, “I have a job that is not particularly dangerous or terrible but it has to be done soon and I will pay $14 an hour for someone to do this job. Who will work?”

Hands shoot up across the room.

“Pick me! Dude! Right here! I’m ready to go!”

I am delighted to see some of the more reticent and reluctant students waving their arms in the air and smiling animatedly. Students laugh and look at those around them, laughing. I continue to lower the hourly rate of the job until I reach a level equal to minimum wage in Oregon. A few of my students work in restaurants so they are quick to inform me of the current rate.

I walk around the room, loudly announcing each new pay rate and asking the class, “Who will work?”

At each lower pay rate, fewer and fewer hands stay up. I finally am left with only one hand up; only one student willing to work for minimum wage.

I then ask the class, “Suppose you had all gotten together before I came in the room and agreed that no one would work for less than $8.50 an hour. I need this particular job done. I am still the boss. I sign the paychecks. Do you as workers have any more power? Does your agreement that nobody will work for less than $8.50 change the equation?”

Several students reply that yes, they had more power as long as I couldn’t go and bring in any other workers.

I add, “Now imagine that one-third of you have to leave the room every 15 minutes and be replaced every time you agree that no one will work for less than $8.50. You have to explain what is going on to the new arrivals while I, the boss, am trying to find workers.

“What is the only power that migrant farmworkers have that permits them to try to gain better working and living conditions?”

A student in the back offered, “Not to pick the fruit.”

Someone else added, “Or to agree on their pay.”

“Exactly. That’s the idea behind a union.”


I realize that I have been using a term that causes some puzzled looks in our discussions. I attempt to make an analogy for the term “marginalized” with the overhead transparency that displays my outline notes on the more notable struggles of the farmworker unions. I ask the class where the most important information is located on the page.”

“In the middle where all the writing is.”

I draw some dots on the edges of the overhead.

“Here’s the margins. What’s going on in the margins? Anything good?”


“So what does it mean to be marginalized?”

“Left out of the good stuff.”

There are so many statistics in Social Studies classes and to this overwhelming collection of numbers I add a few more. According to Daniel Rothenberg’s book, fruits and vegetables in the United States are a $28 billion-a-year business. The average migrant farmworker makes $6,500 a year. As this last number goes up on the board, many students gasp audibly and a girl in the back says in an awed voice, “I make more than that.”

Class time has run out but students who were squirming in their seats at the beginning of class are now mildly inflamed. There is a request to go and visit a migrant camp. One girl says we should do a project or somehow help. I agree and list on the board a few local organizations that I know work with migrant families, but I fail to successfully channel the students’ enthusiasm. In the future I would love to see a field trip or service learning project as the culminating activity for this unit. I am moved by her comment and I truly realize for the first time that my enthusiasm can easily carry over to students. Our unit on migrant farmworkers produces the most engaging discussions and genuine questions of the year.

In our unit on migrant farmworkers, students read firsthand accounts of farmworker life in Daniel Rothenberg’s book; they do readings and presentations of several different voices from farmworker life. We also have discussions, analyze photographs, and watch the PBS documentary The Fight in the Fields. Students are engaged by the colorful news footage in the film and seem particularly impacted by one of César Chávez’ hunger strikes. This is the detail of the film that has the greatest effect on my class. As we discuss the film, most questions seem to relate to the scenes of police with nightsticks breaking up striking workers or the fact that César Chávez stopped eating to draw attention to his cause. Students keep saying, “You mean he didn’t eat anything? At all? Did he drink water?”


Throughout the year, I constantly ask students to think about the relationship between success, hard work, and opportunity in the United States. I ask them to think about their idea of the “American Dream” or their view of success. I then ask them to think about what kinds of assumptions are made about successful people. Students agree that those who are successful have undoubtedly studied hard, worked hard, and generally exerted a great deal of effort to achieve their successes.

I list the student descriptions of what it means to achieve success and the personal qualities needed to be successful on one side of the board. On the other side I ask students to list qualities that define being “unsuccessful.” Students identify poverty, a low-status job, or having to depend upon public assistance. I ask students to make the leap and think about the assumptions they have formulated about successful people; if we assume that those who have “made it,” according to whatever criteria they used, deserve their success, what do we then assume about those who are unsuccessful?

It takes a minute but someone offers, “That they’re lazy.”

“Think about all that you have seen and read related to migrant farmworkers.” I ask, “Do these workers and their families you have seen strike you as lazy? Why is it possibly dangerous to make assumptions about hard work and opportunity? Are there any things that might be changed to improve opportunities for groups such as migrant farmworkers?”

Students aren’t sure and seem overwhelmed by the grim variety of obstacles facing farmworkers and their families. It is hard to end on a positive note as there are so many problems and barriers to improving living and working conditions.

At various times during this unit, I find myself thinking of our family drives through farmland and orchards. As the tiny white farmworker shacks flashed by the window, I remember feeling like I was in another country rather than in the other half of the state. Seeing those shacks was the first time I really paused to consider inequality and poverty in the United States. Lacking any perspective outside my own affluent, suburban childhood, I struggled to imagine what life was like for those who lived and worked in the fields and orchards.

Ironically, the very different worlds of farmworkers and affluent suburban neighborhoods are growing increasingly closer right down the road from the high school where I teach this unit. Fueled largely by explosive economic growth in information technology, farms and orchards have been replaced by housing developments, parking lots, and office parks. The transformation of the landscape makes the stark disparity between two very different worlds more and more evident. Even though physically close, the lives of migrant farmworkers in work camps remain invisible to those shopping at the new supermarkets and moving into the new subdivisions. I explain to the class that there are farmworker families living in houses made of two-by-fours and blue boat tarps in migrant camps less than a half-hour drive from the high school. Some refuse to believe it even after I tell them I have visited a similar camp and seen the living conditions firsthand.

While we aren’t able to tie everything together in a culminating activity that sums up our experience, I know that students had an opportunity to learn about a facet of life in America that is almost invisible to most people. I see in their faces and hear in their voices the same frustrations and confusion that I feel: amid such large-scale affluence and prosperity in the United States, how can the grim working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers remain so desperate and invisible?


The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle, a film by Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles, from Paradigm Productions ( There is also a companion book to the documentary, written by Ricardo Sandoval and Susan Ferriss. Schools, libraries and community groups can purchase the film, book, study guide, and poster from: The Fight in the Fields, Department A, Box 3250, Sparks, NV 89432, or call 800-903-7804.

With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, Daniel Rothenberg. (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.)

Dirk Frewing teaches at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. A version of this article was first published in Teaching for Justice in the Social Studies Classroom, edited by Andra Makler and Ruth Shagooury Hubbard (Heinemann, 2000);; 800-793-2154.