“The Harvest/La Cosecha” is a documentary about children farmworkers working in U.S. agriculture without the protection of child labor laws and how this impacts them and their families. Julia Perez, Associate Director, discusses the film.
José Cárdenas: A new documentary is bringing attention to migrant children working in U.S. agriculture. The story follows three children and their families through the farm season. We will talk to the associate director of the film in a moment, but first we want to show you a short clip from "The Harvest/La Cosecha."
José Cárdenas: With me tonight is Julia Perez, the associate director for the "Harvest/La Cosecha." Julia, Thank you for joining me on "Horizonte." I want to talk about how you got involved in the project, but before that, I want to talk about the why. And, I understand it relates to your own personal upbringing. Tell us about that.
Julia Perez: Well, my motivation for working on the harvest was because I myself was one of these children. I started working at the age of five and I didn't have a choice. A child doesn't have a choice. And it always bothered me despite my success -- academic success, that this is legal in this country.
José Cárdenas: So you lived a life of the three children that are the focus of the film. You were able, though, to go on and get a degree in college and work as an engineer.
Julia Perez: Yes, what I did was not normal. Most kids cannot miss school, switch schools, and have that academic success. Most of the kids that work in the fields will face a dropout rate four times the national average. So I recognized that what I did wasn't normal. In my own family. 10, I was the first one.
José Cárdenas: To go to college?
Julia Perez: To go to college, yes.
José Cárdenas: And you wanted to do something about this, and your first efforts were not in filmmaking, you were trying to get some legislation passed.
Julia Perez: Yes, thank you Jose for mentioning the legislation. There's HR2234. The congresswoman who had been trying to pass the bill and I was very excited and making phone calls and just using my voice. And then I was heartbroken when the bill didn't come out of committee again and that's when I found out about the documentary and the director who was working on the documentary and I contacted him.
José Cárdenas: When was this?
Julia Perez: This was in early 2009. And I remember because I was so frustrated that something as simple as wanting to protect all children equally couldn't be done in this country and he wrote to me from Africa and we talked and I -- you know, he told me you want to change the law, you make a film. And that stayed with me and it was very, very powerful and I said, I'm on board. And that's how I became involved. I really believed that the power of media to raise awareness, because I honestly believe most people do not know the child labor is legal in this country.
José Cárdenas: And when you say you were on board, you really were on board. You were deeply involved in the making of this film. Describe that for us.
Julia Perez: As associate director I had many roles. One was to write interview questions. Help with most of the interviews, especially the Spanish interviews. I did translation, transcription, ran the sound boom and the director was just incredible. He guided me on my interviewing techniques and he let me become involved in the editing and just have a say in where the film was going.
José Cárdenas: And we're talking about labor of love over -- what? -- a two-year period?
Julia Perez: For me, it was a two-year period, specifically being out in the fields. Filming across the U.S. But it's been going on for four years in terms of trying to change the law.
José Cárdenas: And with respect to the filming, as we mentioned, it focuses on three of the kids who work in the fields and we're going to put their pictures up in a little bit, but those were the three you were able to focus on over a long period of time because you had quite a few that you actually interviewed.
Julia Perez: Yes, we interviewed over 50 kids and some of them were great kids, great stories. But something kept happening, the uncertainty of agriculture, maybe there was a drought, maybe a freeze and there was no tomato season. Our California family, we couldn't follow them because the mom died due to cancer, a cancer she believed was pesticide induced. A great family and story but we needed to show the full cycle these kids endure and in the end, we had three complete stories.
José Cárdenas: We want to start showing some of the pictures of the people we're talking about. In this first picture this is Perla. I think in the trailer, she mentions her own reaction to some of the pesticides.
Julia Perez: Yes, in her family -- they're an incredible family, they stayed together for so much. But her family has been burdened by illness. In the middle of filming, the mom collapses in the middle of the field, she almost bled to death. At some point, they can't find work and you'll see this in the documentary, so her father goes to work on the B.P. oil spill doing something different and then becomes ill and her family has struggled so much but the kids in general are exposed to pesticides.
José Cárdenas: Which is a bigger problem for them than it is for adults?
Julia Perez: Yes, thank you for reminding me. Yes, children in general metabolize more slowly toxins and what that means is that the toxins will stay longer in their body and affect their development long term. A lot of kids who are exposed in the womb, perhaps, face leukemia. There are studies that show pesticide exposure is affecting diabetes and obesity. So the pesticide exposure is a long term thing, it's not always immediate like Perla. We know it's there, and the problem is that the standards are set for 160-pound man but legally, we know kids as young as 12 or 10 who work in the field.
José Cárdenas: I want to talk about the age restrictions. Before we do that, one of the other students or kids in the field was Victor and we'll have his picture on the screen. Tell us about him.
Julia Perez: Victor is a quiet giant. He works selflessly for his family. Lives for his family. In the film, you'll learn his desire to get his parents out of the field and his desire to not let his younger sisters go into the field so that they have a better opportunity than him. He works long hours in the tomatoes. I think we did a calculation of 1,500-pounds in a day. And he -- again, the exposure to pesticides, you'll hear about that, and the general living conditions that he has to face.
José Cárdenas: And the last of the group is Zulema. We've got a picture of her as well. Tell us her story.
Julia Perez: She's our youngest in the film. She was 12, 11-12 when we started working with her. And the thing about her that most people won't see is that she had a fire in her. And towards the end of filming, she lost that fire and shared with me at one point, "there's nothing I can do to get out of the fields. I have to settle for this life." She has to settle for this life. And to me, that meant that she had no hope and she -- she shared she doesn't have dreams and I really felt that in this country, no child should ever have to settle for that life. Not legally.
José Cárdenas: There are other who is feel the same way. Most notably, the actress Eva Longoria who provided -- funding for this project.
Julia Perez: Eva, you know, I like to call her our benevolent activist. She is involved with so many activities, specifically with The Harvest, she was instrumental in raising the funds. We were struggling to raise the funds to make the documentary and she put a lot of time. Grabbed her friends and colleagues, to enlist the community and raise the funds and then she went even further and used her time and her celebrity status to raise awareness, talking to the media. And shared at one point, she wants to be the voice for these children because the children don't have a voice.
José Cárdenas: We've only got a few minutes left. Let's talk about some of the dangers they face. You mentioned pesticide, death in the fields.
Julia Perez: Yes, the most obvious is the heat. Especially here in Arizona, we can relate to that. There have been many documented cases of heat-related death. Just recently in Illinois, Jade Garza and Hannah Kindle, 14 year old girls who were electrocuted and eight other kids who were injured. Two boys in Oklahoma, Tyler Zanders and Brice Gannon, lost their legs to a grain auger. And I feel strongly if you spoke to the families, they would probably agree that it's time to say that it's not good fun, it's not good clean work; that agriculture is hazardous, and that kids don't belong there.
José Cárdenas: Let's talk going back a little bit to legislation. There's legislation you want it see passed. I want to talk about that in a moment. But the legislation on the books exempts agriculture from a lot of the other regulations that would otherwise apply, you can have child labor in the fields that you couldn't have in a McDonald's or anywhere else.
Julia Perez: That's correct. Several things happened in the 1930s. 1935, the Wagner Act excluded minimum wage in agriculture over time and and the right to organize. In 1938, when they were getting kids out of the factory, they excluded agriculture because it was a different time, perhaps. I don't want to go into the reasoning that existed for that exception, but that exception allows kids 12 and younger in some states to work in agriculture unlimited hours. And that is wrong in this country. We in 2008, the Farm Bill put in regulations saying we didn't want forced and child labor coming in from other countries- products done by forced and child labor to enter our country. That same year, the Care Bill didn't pass again. It seems, as a logical engineer that I am, something wrong.
José Cárdenas: We've got the Shine Global website up there where people can get more information on. We've only got about 20 seconds left. Final thoughts on this subject and what people can do.
Julia Perez: I think people can exercise their voice for the children. I think people, once they know this is legal, will want to change the law and I hope they do. They can go to the harvestfilm.com and learn about the legislation and they can speak to their congresspersons, and I hope they do.
José Cárdenas: And on that note, Julia Perez, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte."
Julia Perez: Thank you.
José Cárdenas: That's it for tonight. I'm José Cárdenas. Have a good evening.
Julia Perez:Associate Director, The Harvest/La Cosecha