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Our unknown neighbors

It was only 11 in the morning, but the sun was already scorching. I wanted to wipe the sweat off my face and swat the bugs off of me, but my hands were sticky from touching the tobacco leaves. I knew the nicotine would make me itchy and nauseated if I touched my face. We were only halfway through one row of tobacco plants, and the field seemed to stretch forever. I struck up a conversation in Spanish with my fellow workers, who seemed in remarkably good spirits considering they would be working until seven that night. I would return from the field to my air-conditioned apartment, but the other eight workers would return to a small, hot trailer on their grower’s property. It was my first day off this summer during my internship with Student Action with Farmworkers and I decided to work in the fields alongside some farmworkers I had met to get a better idea of what their life is like.

I was a health outreach intern with Carolina Family Health Centers in Wilson, N.C., and there were 29 other SAF interns doing outreach in health, legal aid, organizing and education in towns in North and South Carolina. One of my favorite things about the internship was that most of the other interns came from farmworker families, most of them originally from Mexico. During our orientation in June, my fellow students shared their stories: Juan crossed the border at age three and was so scared that he bit his mom’s arm hard enough to give her a permanent scar; Alicia gew up in a single room with her 10 brothers and sisters with no refrigerator, air conditioning or heat; Walter’s mom woke up at four every morning to prepare breakfast and lunch before heading out to work in the fields. Almost all of the interns from farmworker families expressed a desire to buy a car or house for their parents as soon as they could earn enough money. My friends’ deep gratefulness for their college education and their passion for giving back to the farmworker community humbled and inspired me.

Before this summer I was largely unaware of the 400,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina who pick the cucumbers, sweet potatoes, apples and bell peppers we all eat. The workers live in small trailers or concrete buildings with group showers and unsanitary toilets. Their bosses, or “crewleaders,” usually drive them to Wal-Mart on Sundays to buy groceries, which the workers often have no place to store because growers are only required to provide one refrigerator per 27 workers. Growers are not required to provide mattresses for workers, and the regulations concerning numbers of toilets and showers are less stringent than they are for North Carolina jails. The worst part is that even the minimal regulations that exist are impossible to enforce with only four state inspectors covering thousands of camps.

Sometimes at Duke it is easy to forget that our campus is not the real world. We often act as though it is the norm to be well-dressed, well-educated and high-achieving. We act as if people who don’t fit the mold should just try harder. The people I worked with in Wilson this summer were some of the most caring, sincere and humble people I have ever met, and it has been somewhat of an adjustment coming back into Duke culture where the goal is always to keep moving and get ahead. The SAF internship had a greater impact on me than I ever imagined it would.

I encourage you to join the boycott of all Gallo wines (which are popular among college students since they’re cheap) because Gallo grape-pickers are underpaid and receive no health benefits. And even more, I encourage you just to remember the farmworkers—we eat their produce every day and drive past their camps on North Carolina’s highways, and maybe someday we will start treating them with the respect they deserve.

Lori Hall is a Trinity senior.

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