Children harvest crops and sacrifice dreams in Mexico’s fields
An estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay. Alejandrina, 12, wanted to be a teacher. Instead, she became a nomadic laborer, following the pepper harvest from farm to farm.
Last of four stories
Reporting from Teacapan, Mexico
Alejandrina Castillo swept back her long black hair and reached elbow-deep into the chile pepper plants. She palmed and plucked the fat serranos, dropping handful after tiny handful into a bucket.
The container filled rapidly. Alejandrina stopped well before the pepper pile reached the brim.
She was 12, and it was hard for her to lift a full 15-pound load.
One row over was her brother Fidel, 13, who couldn’t keep up with her. He was daydreaming as usual. Their 10-year-old cousin, Jesus, was trying harder but falling behind too.
Alejandrina looked in the distance for the food truck. It was almost noon, five hours since she had a tortilla for breakfast. The sky was cloudless. It would be another 90-degree day in the palm-lined coastal farmland of southern Sinaloa.
“I wish I was home with my baby brother,” she said.
Child labor has been largely eradicated at the giant agribusinesses that have fueled the boom in Mexican exports to the United States. But children pick crops at hundreds of small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, and some of the produce they harvest makes its way into American kitchens and markets.
The Times pieced together a picture of child labor on Mexican farms by interviewing growers, field bosses, brokers and wholesalers, and by observing children picking crops in the states of Sinaloa, Michoacan, Jalisco and Guanajuato.
Produce from farms that employ children reaches the United States through long chains of middlemen. A pepper picked by a child can change hands five or six times before reaching an American grocery store or salsa factory.
In Teacapan in Sinaloa, The Times watched Alejandrina and dozens of other children fill buckets and sacks with chile peppers. The farm where they were working supplies produce to a distributor in Arizona, which ships it to wholesale markets and other outlets across the U.S.
In Guanajuato, children were seen harvesting peppers at a farm whose produce eventually reaches a U.S. distribution hub in Texas.
Data on child labor are scarce; many growers and distributors will not talk about it. About 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay, according to estimates in a 2012 study by the World Bank and other international agencies. It is illegal to employ workers younger than 15.