Advocacy & Activism, Education, Farmworker Children

Special Series on Education: Down the Dusty, Dirt Road: Migrant Education Outreach in Appalachia

Part of the Forum’s special series on migrant education programs.

From, Society for Applied Anthropology, Mary Beth Schmid, Migrant Education Outreach Specialist, 1 Nov 2010.

Mary Beth Schmid

Farm work as a Latino labor niche has a long history in the U.S. and we have heavily relied on it for over 150 years. Many times farm workers bring their families along with them and they have to readjust every time they arrive in a new place. The Migrant Education Program was created to help migrating families and youth. The evolving systematic changes in global agricultural regimes, food and migration are reshaping places and realities every day; these changes are especially apparent in rural classrooms in the Deep South or as it is being called today the Nuevo South where I work.

The Migrant Education Program was created under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (previously known as No Child Left Behind). It is a federal program run by local education agencies in agricultural counties dedicated to helping migrant students and youth meet high academic challenges; the program aids these children and families to overcome the obstacles created by their transient lifestyle, educational disruptions, cultural and language differences, and health-related problems.

The inequities found throughout the industrialized world are evident in the farm worker’s reality here in the U.S. Yet, their agency is also undeniable; they realize their opportunity and strategize for social mobility. The general economic break down of the food industry is as follows: 71% of every income dollar goes to corporate food processors, 23% goes to growers, and 6% goes to farm workers. Farm workers’ average annual income is $11,000 which makes them the second lowest paid workforce in the nation. Farm workers who live in the East Coast States like North Carolina earn about 35% less than this national average; however, each farm worker contributes over $12,000 in profits to North Carolina’s economy annually.

Promotora de Educación (Education Outreach Worker)

When I first started this job, I did not know what to expect, but I did know that my background in Anthropology would serve me well as I explored my new surroundings. Working as a migrant education outreach specialist in Henderson County, NC, I have met hundreds of migrants and driven down many dusty, dirt roads. One of the most important parts of the job is reaching out to the migrant community where they live and work.

A worker trailer park, Henderson County, NC

A worker trailer park, Henderson County, NC.

We serve families with children from birth until they turn 22 years old or have graduated from high school. We assist the families and youth with their educational and basic needs; we are a lot like the Centro Latinos in many communities in that people come to us with many types of problems and questions. We also go out into the field and meet the migrant youth who are here for the season without their families.

Behind every apple and tomato, there are farm workers and their stories. Many are multigenerational migrant families who have been living the tradition of moving back and forth, up and down the East Coast for their entire lives. Most of our families are first or second generation immigrants, some children are documented and others are not. Lots of the transnational families I work with have origins in Mexico in states like Hidalgo, Guanajuato and Michoacán and many are from the same town. The majority of our migrant families and workers split their time between Western NC and Immokalee, FL: acá y el otro lado (here and the other side) whether that be NC, Florida, or Mexico.

In my county, farm workers come from Georgia or Florida to work primarily in apples or tomatoes. When the season begins, huge Ford Excursions and produce trocas (trucks) with Florida license plate tags start to discretely flood the county roads and countryside. Thetomateros (tomato workers) come straight from Florida where they will return in October to work until June. The apple pickers come from all over in August to start picking the apple harvest season and leave by the end of October. Their concept of time is structured around the harvest seasons, and due to my job, so is mine.

Soccer is an important recreational outlet for workers.

Soccer is an important recreational outlet for workers.

The families’ and youths’ needs vary. This migrant community is always on the move, uprooting to start again; the parents and children are almost constantly transitioning. Always referring to this lado (side) or the other, this season or the coming one, a mother told me “We are like birds. We move with the seasons to the other side”.

When I sit in trailers throughout the county, I typically find them filled with sacred symbols as varied as icons of the Virgen de Guadalupe to dried corn hanging from the ceiling. There are photos of grandchildren with their abuelita (grandma). The children live many worlds and make sense of many cultures, identities, values and behaviors, and they learn to navigate the systems along with their parents as they act as interpreters and translators throughout the community.

For the families, I am a culture broker. I try to explain what seems to them to be unusual situations, misunderstandings, or incomprehensible ideas. Since most of the parents I work with speak mainly Spanish and little to no English, I have to bridge this language divide though it is fraught with complications. Their lived experiences are apparent in the educational context especially when trying to understand elementary school level homework and work sheets about culturally relative stories like the reindeers at Christmas. I help them navigate the school system, communicate with the teachers, and understand the numerous requirements.

Students must make readjustments between states and their different education systems. Their schedules for life don’t match up well with the school-year restraints; many of our high school migrant students go from a four period schedule in North Carolina to a seven period schedule in Florida. I’m an advocate for these families while they are trying to get services that many agencies and even teachers don’t want to give them, because they will only be here for a few months. There are seemingly invisible barriers to overcome daily, such as trying to help a parent’s child be granted a preschool spot.

The out-of-school youth that I work with in Appalachia work in many phases of crop cultivation from planting to staking tomatoes, or pruning apple trees to picking the apples. Many seem to be alone here but are really with their collective family, brothers, cousins, or home town buddies. These youth are at a variety of different educational levels; some haven’t gone to school while others have completed up to the 9th year in Mexico, and others are U.S. citizens who have dropped out of school to join the migrant stream. One youth explained the U.S. to me this way, “We come here first to work in the fildes (fields). It is full of opportunity but also very dangerous for us”.

Though the majority of my time is spent doing outreach in the afternoons and evenings, the Migrant Education Program in my county also implements programs like tutoring and a summer camp at the Boys and Girls club for school age children. For our youth who are here working, we go to each camp and teach mini-lessons (about 20-30 minutes long) to help them to learn English, to learn about health, or to learn about regional geography in order to aid them with understanding where they are since many simply ride in a van and don’t ask many questions. We also echar un ride (give them a ride) to the local health clinic and listen to their perceptions of their chanza(chance) here in the US.

This local agrarian community is happy to have the seasonal labor but angry when Latino migrant families want to settle here. The families and workers have to make sense of the local dynamics of this small town in Appalachia. Here, there is a local, NC Christian church effort to unite the community with the ‘Welcome the Strangers’ campaign, but this is contradicted by the implementation and expanding racial profiling of 287g, the Sheriff’s campaign and part of Operation Endgame, authorized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The local social constructs can be confusing. As for me, I go around on my tip toes attempting to convince both rancheros (farmers) and the Latino community that I won’t disclose incriminating information.

In the context of poverty and discrimination, it is axiomatic to think that these extenuating circumstances help to mold these workers and their families lived realities. The complex system of the local economy depends on these workers and yet denies their existence. And still, migrant workers piece it all together and I suppose that is broadly what my job aims to support. One mother told us at our last focus group, “You help us not to feel so alone in this foreign country. We know who to talk to and who can help us”.

As the leaves change colors and the trailer parks start to empty, our migrant community begins its journey back to Florida and the cycle continues. The experiences that I’ve gained from working in the Migrant Education Program have been thought provoking and challenging. These dynamic people have taught me a lot, not only about their lives, but about mine as well.

Mary Beth Schmid is a Migrant Education Outreach Specialist for Henderson County, North Carolina Public Schools.

Source:, Society for Applied Anthropology, “Down the Dusty, Dirt Road: Migrant Education Outreach in Appalachia” by Mary Beth Schmid, Migrant Education Outreach Specialist, 1 Nov 2010.


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