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It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.
Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.
He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school.
But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.
Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.
There was sewage spreading onto the yard.” Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. “It still is.” Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.
Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. “She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord.
Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. Got it.” At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here.
SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).
Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.
* * * After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging.
He might register one or two workers on a good day. Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while.