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No choice but the fields

Like thousands of other children of migrant workers, Clara Morales, 19, spends summer picking crops.

Published June 20, 2005

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Clara Morales, 19, clears plastic from last season's cantaloupe crop. She doesn't tell her classmates how she spends her summer. Since she was 12, she has helped her parents, migrant workers from Mexico, in harvesting the fields. "I hate being out here," she said.

PLANT CITY - With the heat index near 100 and the smell of rotting cantaloupe hanging over the field, Clara Morales, 19, dreams of a mall job.

It's shortly after noon as she leans up against a truck trailer for a water break.

She peels off the pink rubber gloves she wears to handle the hot plastic that protects crops against weeds and bugs. Melons gone, it's time to get ready for strawberries.

This isn't the life for her. She wants to go to college.

But for now, she'd be happy in an air-conditioned store. Inside, she could wear the black slacks and smart black boots she shed hours earlier to put on work jeans and layers of T-shirts. She wouldn't have to hide her silky black hair under a scarf and ball cap. She wouldn't have to worry about tossing dirt in her face with every tug on the plastic.

Classmates will head off to summer resorts and university campuses in the coming months.

Clara will leave the state with her family, too. But they'll head to Michigan to pick blueberries for the summer.

There are thousands like her in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, children of illegal immigrants, spending their summers stuck in a life they never chose.

Clara slaps the pink gloves against her legs and edges her fingers back inside them, before returning to the field.

"I hate this work," she says. "But I have no choice."

* * *

Summertime for millions of American teenagers translates into camp, swimming, reading, visiting college campuses and working.

For many children of migrant workers, summers usually involve only the latter.

In the Hillsborough County School District, 4,800 students are in migrant education programs, said Rogelio Villanueva, who recruits students and helps run the programs.

"I would say more than half leave the area to go work with their parents," Villanueva said. "Young kids work, too, everybody works."

In Pasco County's school district, 350 students are part of migrant programs, said Sharyn Disabato, who works with children from low income families. More than 80 percent of the migrant children leave to work crops in northern states with their parents during the summer.

"I have found that migrant families are so close that everyone pulls his or her weight," she said.

Sometimes the parents don't have another means of child care, so when school gets out, the children must go with them. While older children work, younger ones play in the shade within eyeshot of the adults.

Teens with legal work permits or who were born in the United States get better-paying jobs in restaurants or stores, away from the fields, Disabato and Villanueva said.

Increasingly, both see a trend in Hillsborough and Pasco where parents stay year-round, working jobs in construction or plant nurseries between agriculture seasons. That way their children can take advantage of summer classes or activities at the schools.

"They're very responsive to the school system to make sure the children get an education, to make a choice of following their steps or make a choice to do something else," Disabato said.

But when children are illegal immigrants, like their parents, the choices are few.

* * *

Clara was born in Baja California, Mexico. At age 8, she crossed the border, walking three hours with her family in the desert.

Her parents brought her, her baby sister and two brothers with them to Florida, where they hoped to find better work in the fields.

When Clara was 12, her sister, then 6, died from complications of a burst appendix.

Since then, Clara has wanted to be a nurse.

About the time of her sister's death, she started helping her parents in the fields.

During the school year, on weekends and spring break, she woke around dawn, helped her mother cook and set out at about 7:30 a.m.

In the fall and winter, they planted and harvested strawberries, which paid her $25 a day.

In the spring, cantaloupe paid $6 an hour.

During the school year, she took classes in nursing and patient care; she volunteered as a nurse's aide at a hospital.

"Sometimes they have Hispanic patients and they don't speak Spanish and sometimes I interpret," said Clara, who speaks English, Spanish and a dialect from her parents' home state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Whenever friends talked about plans for family trips, Clara dreaded summer.

As soon as classes ended, her family packed up the van and drove to jobs in North Carolina and Michigan. Blueberries were easier to pick than strawberries, she said. And they paid better: 31-cents a pound.

Clara could pick 200 pounds a day, for a little more than $60.

Still, Clara never told her friends how she spent the break.

"They think I have a fun summer," she said. "I don't tell them I work all summer."

The older she got, she learned why she couldn't just go get a job at a store.

She had no Social Security number.

Her options would always be limited.

* * *

Clara clears the kitchen table of lunch plates and leftover tortillas.

Her parents and two brothers go outside and pull on sweatshirts, hats and scarves.

The clothing envelops them in heat and sweat but protects their skin from sun and dirt.

They've been tearing plastic from the fields since 7:30 this morning, a recent weekday.

It's time for the afternoon shift.

Clara missed the morning work only because she was reviewing for the FCAT in a local classroom.

She's failed the reading portion twice - still struggling with English poetry and long stories - and must pass it before receiving her diploma.

The family will leave for Michigan after she retakes the test in late June.

Clara trails behind the others walking from their concrete block home to the adjacent fields.

"I want to sign up for a scholarship and go to college," she says, waiting for the crew leader to scan her time card. She was promised help from a guidance counselor to apply for a Social Security number.

But unless Congress passes one of a number of proposed immigration bills anytime soon, Clara's illegal status likely won't change. And that means she won't be eligible for government loans or scholarships to afford college tuition.

Clara works silently amid about 20 adults dotting the field.

She grips the black plastic and fights a tug of war with spindly arms of weeds.

Trucks and SUVs rumble along the nearby road. Some honk their horns at the workers.

Clara sighs. If she can't go to college here, she says, maybe she can go back to the town where she was born and stay with relatives while working to pay for college there.

But she doesn't know them, she says, and she has no idea what college costs in Mexico.

Her only other option?

"I don't know," she says, "I guess I just work."

And then, she fears, the rest of her life will be just like summer break.

--Times news researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 226-3383 or

[Last modified June 20, 2005, 01:35:17]

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