They are children, yes. But is this childhood?
She sweats into the soil of a vast Ohio field. A baseball cap keeps the sun and her unruly dark hair from her almond eyes. Adult rubber gloves engulf the small hands that snap cucumbers from their vines. Her name is Alejandra Renteria. She is 6.
Six hundred miles away, a girl who dreams of being a fashion designer fingers a cheap jacket in a Manhattan sweatshop where rats scurry across dirty floors. Amid noisy machines and the hubbub of women stitching, Li-qing Ni laments: ``I like New York, but not this place. It smells.'' She is 15.
Ervin Smith once had free time to play baseball, but no more. ``I know there is another world out there,'' the Amish boy says, ``but I have to work.'' He has been a construction worker in Ohio since eighth grade. He is 14.
Some are very young. Others are approaching adulthood. From America's fields they harvest onions, peppers, mushrooms, beans, berries, pecans. In garment factories, they iron pants, hang shirts, trim clothing. In meat-packing and egg-producing plants, in sawmills and furniture factories they toil.
Among them are an estimated 61,000 child field workers, ages 14 to 17, who live apart from their parents, according to an unreleased U.S. Labor Department survey. In thousands of cases, their parents aren't even in the country. In all, about 123,000 children in that age group work in America's fields, the survey said. Younger children in the fields are an all-but hidden, untracked work force.
At least 13,100 more children worked illegally last year in garment industry sweatshops -- factories that repeatedly violate federal wages and hours laws -- a study commissioned by The Associated Press found.
Many of America's working children are not the ones you see. They are not the teen-agers who flame-broil Double Whoppers at Burger King or bag groceries at Food Lion, though they are governed by the same laws.
Federal law bars children under 16 from working while school is in session. Outside school hours, anyone 14 or 15 may work in farm jobs that the U.S. Labor Department deems safe. Younger children, those 12 or 13, can work only on farms and at a few other specific jobs.
Many of the children working in America are frequently underpaid, often unaccompanied and largely unprotected -- a shadow generation made prematurely adult, moving from coast to coast, border to border.
Listen to Mercy Gandarilla, 10, kneeling in a cold New Mexico field since 6 a.m. Dew has soaked her shirt and a deep cough has taken her voice. "Cutting the chili,'' she rasps. "I like it -- in the sun.''
Listen to Omar Cruz Gonzales, 15, who rises at 2:30 a.m. to pick mushrooms for 12 hours in a windowless Pennsylvania shed. He sees no sun until midafternoon. "I have to work,'' says Omar. "The dollars are here.''
Listen to Jaime Guerrero Jr., who loads crates of cabbage six days a week in Delaware. Three years ago, when he was 12, he heard his arm break as a conveyor caught his sleeve. ``I'll do something else someday,'' he says.
These children are sometimes punished financially for small istakes: Omar's employers, for example, occasionally withhold his pay if he drops or dirties mushrooms.
"Farmers used to own slaves. Now they rent them,'' says Diane Mull, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Farm Worker Opportunity Programs in Arlington, Va. ``The agrarian myth is dead.''
Few myths ever surrounded sweatshops. In New York City, the hub of the American garment trade, a group of reformers known as Progressives led the anti-child labor movement of the early 1900s, leading to a 1938 law to protect children.
In 1997, that progress has not reached the Chinatown factory where Li-qing, the girl who dreams of being a designer, prepares clothing for her mother to stitch. They immigrated from China's poor Fujian province months ago, and this third-floor assembly line of women and sewing machines is now their America.
Li-qing doesn't know where her father is, and one day recently a state labor investigator who visited the factory told her she couldn't help her mother earn a living. ``Don't come back again,'' he said. "It's illegal.''
Some kids want spending money to buy into the consumer culture they see as necessary to being American. But many, especially migrant children, work because their parents don't earn enough.
"If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor,'' says Ann Millard, a Michigan State University anthropologist who studies migrant labor. Three out of four migrant families say they earn $5,000 or less yearly according to a national database of 54,000 families compiled by Mull's group.
Near Homestead, Fla., sisters LaKesha Brooks, 11, and Marie, 10, are already training the family's next breadwinner -- their sister, Angelica, just 20 months old. ``She can pick the beans one by one,'' LaKesha says.
Eluding rarely enforced laws, these workers bypass the modern Western concept of children as virtually a separate society -- one to be protected, educated and prepped for adulthood rather than forced into it. When Jose Madrid picks chilies in New Mexico's blistering heat, he dreams of Colorado mountains covered with vanilla ice cream. But he is pragmatic beyond his 11 years. "I'm not good at math,'' he says, "but I'm good at money.''
Jose finishes the day exhausted and falls into a bottom bunk, his feet caked with mud. He hopes the rickety top bunk won't collapse on him. His mother can't afford a new bed; together they make about $30 daily.
Jose's cousin, Victor Perez, 10, trembles as he lugs 25-pound buckets of peppers. ``I'll pick chilies when I grow up, because what else do I do?'' he says. His mother, working nearby, wipes away a tear.
Many working children endure such lives. In some Manhattan garment shops, children eat lunch in dank, urine-soaked stairwells. Others sleep in overcrowded apartments or houses. Pennsylvania mushroom picker Rigoberto Rosales, 17, shares a house with more than 25 other Mexicans and carves a certain privacy for himself by erecting a cardboard box around his bare mattress. ``I look around and say to myself, `Is all this worth it?''' he says. And near Ohio cucumber fields, the five members of the Mares family live in a one-room shack with no running water. The children fantasize about what many American kids take for granted, -- "our own house, with my own room,'' says Fabiola Mares, 12.
For them, even normal childhood friendships aren't easy. When Laura Mares, 10, received a rare invitation to a classmate's birthday party, ``she couldn't go,'' says her mother, Elvira. ``We just didn't have the money to buy a gift.''
In Bowling Green, Ohio, American flags grace nearly every block of Main Street. Those who work the surrounding farmland rarely venture into this college town. They are moving specks in the lush landscape, forgotten among red barns, white steeples and stretches of corn, tomatoes and wheat.
This is where Alejandra, the 6-year-old with the oversized rubber gloves, spent the most recent summer of her childhood. She and her family rode 1,000 miles from Florida in a faded green Oldsmobile to pick cucumbers.
Alejandra's toenails are painted green. ``I like green because grass is that color. And I want to be a grass, 'cause it gets watered every day, and it's cool.''
Her father, Marcelo Renteria, a 30-year-old with a third-grade education, voices a hope that has driven immigrant America for generations. ``I want the kids to study,'' he says, ``so they don't end up like me.''
Alejandra wants to work with computers, and her 9-year-old sister wants to be a teacher. But for now they must help the family survive.
"When I grow up and have kids, my kids will not work in the fields,'' says Jose Madrid, the boy who dreams of ice cream-covered mountains. "It's not a good place for children.''
Some, like Yvonne Li, do get out.
When she was 6, she went from school to a New York City garment factory to help her grandmother button, sew and trim clothing with scissors. "It was hot and humid,'' she remembers. "The bathroom was always yucky.''
That stopped when her mother found out. Now a happy 9-year-old, Yvonne can no longer remember the name of the factory. She's far more concerned with professional basketball standings and her favorite subject in school -- math. Asked what she wants to be, she raises both fists and shouts, ``The best at whatever I do!''
The working kids she leaves behind have their hopes, too, reaching beyond produce fields and garment shops for education, careers, success -- and a need to just be kids.
"I won't be doing this forever,'' says Jackie Villegas, a 17-year-old girl from Florida who has been picking produce for six years. ``I have plans.''
Alex Ledezma, 11, harvests sorghum, cotton and onions near Lubbock, Texas. Though he misses weeks of school each year to follow the crops, he has reached sixth grade. He makes $2.25 an hour hoeing. He wants to become a policeman.
Beside the sorghum plants that tower above his head sits a van that carries his family and the hoes to the field. On its rear window is a sticker.
It says, "I believe in America.''
Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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