Traverse City Record-Eagle


March 8, 2012

Film documents child migrant labor

TRAVERSE CITY — Zulema Lopez can't imagine a life beyond arduous labor, grinding poverty and interrupted education.

"I have no dreams," said Zulema, 12, already a veteran of the migrant lifestyle.

She is one of three youths featured in the film "The Harvest/La Cosecha." The 2011 release documents the lives of approximately 400,000 children in the United States who work as migrant laborers. One of Lopez's earliest childhood memories is anchored in Manistee County's Bear Lake, where her mom taught her to both pick and clean strawberries.

The stark documentary hopes to boost awareness about child migrant workers, who help harvest an estimated one-quarter of the produce Americans eat, said film co-executive producer Susan MacLaury. "The Harvest/La Cosecha" keeps the issue alive with national conferences and community screenings.

The movie will be shown tonight at the Garden Theater in Frankfort.

"But there's always more effort to be made," said MacLaury, of New York City. "Prior to, and since its release, the film and the issues it documents have been publicized to members of the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Congress."

The Benzie Area Women's History Project is screening the film as part of its annual celebration of International Women's Day.

The group will sell copies of the film as a fundraiser, said Kathi Houston of the Benzie Area Women's History Project.

"We all live here in the land of beautiful fruits and vegetables and we only have passing acquaintance with how hard it is, day in and day out, 12-hour, 14-hour days, harvesting them," Houston said. "Especially kids, how many teenagers do you know who can settle down and do this?"

The film's exploration of generational migrant labor connected with Diana Pena, who nearly five decades ago was a 10-year-old working with her family in the fields.

Pena's father bought a farm in 1965 and ended the family's migrant lifestyle. She entered Bear Lake Schools in the seventh grade and graduated from Bear Lake High School.

Pena also attended Northwestern Michigan College and in her career served as a migrant services worker for the Michigan Department of Labor. She now resides in San Antonio, Texas.

"I'm just appalled that it's still happening, that there are no laws," she said of migrant child labor.

Introducing the film tonight taps bittersweet memories for Pena, who recalls both the grueling lifestyle as well as fun times and family unity.

As for Zulema, Pena hopes to visit her this summer and help spark some dreams.

"My dreams were to finish school and have a better life for myself and my family," Pena said. "It is hard to break the cycle."

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