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New documentary highlights the struggles of teenage farm workers in California

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It takes a lot of work to get those fruits and vegetables that we eat every day from the farms where they're grown to the packaging facilities where they're separated and stored to the grocery stores where we buy them. Well, a new documentary called "Fruits Of Labor" gives a peek at what life is like for the teenage farm workers who work in the industry. The film features a then 18-year-old high school senior named Ashley Pavon. She lives in central California and has worked since she was 15 years old to help support her younger siblings and undocumented mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FRUITS OF LABOR")

ASHLEY PAVON: My pathway towards the future has become a narrow hallway collapsing on itself. No butterflies, no kissing bees, no fruit blossoms - my spirit rots.

CHANG: Ashley Pavon joins us now, along with Emily Cohen Ibanez, the director of "Fruits Of Labor."

Welcome to both of you.

EMILY COHEN IBANEZ: Thank you.

PAVON: Thank you so much for having us here.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being here. So I just want to start by hearing how the two of you met. Emily, do you want to tell us the story?

COHEN IBANEZ: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, I was teaching visual sociology. I'm actually an anthropologist by training.

CHANG: Wow.

COHEN IBANEZ: Yeah (laughter). So and I - there was the idea to bring together my college students with youth in Ashley's town in Watsonville. Ashley and her community there, you know, did this amazing fight for three years to reclaim city land to create this community garden. And many of these are farm-working families. And it was an initiative for them to grow their own food and to create a safer neighborhood for themselves. And Ashley was one of these young people, and she just really stood out. She not only cared about her own dreams and aspirations, but that of her entire community. And it was really after 2016 that I approached her when I noticed increased ICE raids in her community and that all the young people that were a part of this collective, you know, who were from her town were going to work in the fields. And I felt like this wasn't a story told in mainstream news media - that there was a real labor gap as a consequence of these raids and that children, even though they've worked in the field since slavery, really, in the United States...

CHANG: Yeah.

COHEN IBANEZ: ...Were taking this labor gap.

CHANG: You know, Ashley, I was particularly drawn to the piece of your story where you can just see there is so much pressure on your shoulders. I mean, your mother, who's undocumented, has limited options for jobs. So you - as the next oldest female in the family, you become a breadwinner. Can you just talk about how you see your own role, your own responsibilities within your family?

PAVON: Yes. At that time, I remember that it was all girls in our house. There was - the only man in our house was my brother, but he was a little bit too spoiled. So that's...

CHANG: (Laughter).

PAVON: ...When my mom - you see in the movie she'll say in Spanish, we have the pants in the house now. We have to get them up...

CHANG: I love that.

PAVON: ...And start doing our stuff. I've always heard that, like, if you work hard, you'll get the stuff you wanted. So I feel like we often normalize that phrase to the point where we become inhumane at a point. And it's the pressure with, like, school and having to work at night in the fields during the summer and not having fun during the summer how we usually were when we were pretty small.

CHANG: Does it feel overwhelming sometimes? I mean, did you feel like you had to grow up too fast when you were in high school?

PAVON: Yeah. I felt that I matured really fast and I was able to see everything in another way. I was able to see that my mom struggled with money. I did not want to be that daughter that just asked and asked and asked. So in the movie, you'll see that I sort of did not tell my mom I started working overnight. And when she finally found out, I did get a little bit in trouble. But...

CHANG: Because she wanted you to rest. You were resting.

PAVON: Yes. Yes. And I was like, you know what? All I'm doing right now is for my sisters, and I just didn't want her to know that I gave up in school. But I'm really happy stuff went another way and I was able to be resilient enough. And a lot of young people don't have that.

CHANG: Yeah.

PAVON: So I wish this documentary helps people with stereotypes of youth, people that end up dropping out and just think because we're lazy. But there's a lot of pushing factors that we often normalize and are notched (ph) and, like, pawned onto them. Because these youth people like me, we're living in the shadows.

CHANG: Emily, I mean, obviously you are telling a much larger story in this film. Yes, it is about a single family, but it's also about the reality of farm work in this country. What did you want the audience to understand about this kind of work and how it's regulated?

COHEN IBANEZ: Yeah. So, you know, there is a history to child labor in agricultural fields. It's one of the only forms of labor that allows children as young as 12 to work 40 hours a week and in some states, limitless hours in the fields. And this really is a vestige of slavery and then Jim Crow. So when we see the New Deal was an amazing piece of legislation that created worker protections across this country, including minimum wage and many things - but to appease Dixie Democrats, basically, you know, they wanted to first eliminate these protections for Black and brown workers. Weren't able to do that, so FDR, Roosevelt's compromise was to exclude entire sectors of the economy - that being agriculture and domestic labor.

There is a history to this. It's not - this isn't new. You know, if we look at the history of labor in the United States, it's bringing in immigrant labor for forms of labor that many folks don't want to do or don't have the skill set to do and then to control that labor when it starts to organize, then deportations. And we could see this with the railroads...

CHANG: Right. Right.

COHEN IBANEZ: ...For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act. We can see this today with many immigrants from Central America and Mexico. Yeah.

CHANG: You know, Ashley, as we've said, you have been working in agriculture since you were 15 years old, which is just remarkable to me, all the time while trying to graduate from high school on time. What do you want ultimately for people to understand about the work that you do?

PAVON: Yeah, I would say that it's a really hard-working job, and it should be treated with the dignity it should have. And most of the time, people don't see this. I remember working in the fields. We were bending to try to pick up the strawberries, and I didn't even - I didn't want to get up from the fields I was doing because I knew once I got up, I would feel that pain in my back. I'd rather just stay crawling and just go to the next field. So it's really hard work that should be paid better and with dignity.

CHANG: The documentary is called "Fruits Of Labor." It features Ashley Pavon, and it was directed by Emily Cohen Ibanez. Thanks so much to both of you. This was a really remarkable conversation.

Thank you.

COHEN IBANEZ: This was a pleasure. Thank you.

PAVON: Thank you.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Fruits Of Labor" airs tonight on PBS' "POV." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.