Image: Students engage in a vocabulary lesson in a newcomers ESL class at Worthington High School in Worthington, Minnesota, on September 5, 2019.COURTNEY PERRY / WASHINGTON POST
When Guatemalan immigrant Jose Velasquez was 13, he began spending his summers working alongside his mother in North Carolina’s tobacco fields.
“I worked 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week in the Goldsboro area,” he told Truthout. “I had to get up at 4:30 am. A rusty van would come by, cram 20 or so people in, and take us to wherever we were needed. We were never told the destination in advance. I earned $7 an hour at first, but by the time I was 18, the pay went to $9.”
Velasquez also worked between 25 and 30 hours a week during the school year. “I had a job in an ice cream store and was paid $6 an hour in cash. The people who owned the shop knew I was undocumented,” he says. “They understood that I had to help my family.”
Velasquez admits that balancing work and school was difficult, but despite the pressure, he says that he was determined to excel. And he has. Now 21, he recently completed his second year as a scholarship student at Tufts University.
Nonetheless, he is concerned that the five summers he spent in the tobacco fields will eventually have a deleterious impact on his health since nicotine poisoning, called green tobacco sickness, is pervasive among leaf harvesters.