July 15, 2017


Her work is back-breaking. A rule that splits her from her kids is heartbreaking.

By Sergio Lopez

They’re just words on paper. Aracel Fernandez can’t read them, but she knows what those words mean.

California’s Office of Migrant Services has something called the 50-mile regulation The policy – which defines migrant workers differently than any other state or federal agency – requires that those who live in any one of California’s 24 migrant housing centers move every six months, at least 50 miles away.

The state created the housing in the 1960s with the best of intentions, to provide migrant farmworkers with clean, safe places to live. At the time, most migrant farmworkers were single men. But that has changed, and now, the centers, which are only open half of the year, are solely for migrant families, housing about 10,000 people.

The regulation helps define who is a migrant farmworker and therefore eligible to live in the state-run housing. But it is also responsible for splitting up Fernandez’s family, and making her children’s future more uncertain. The obscure rule means that twice a year, usually right before exams, thousands of kids like hers are uprooted and have to switch schools.

Predictably, students struggle. The dropout rate for migrant worker children living in state housing is an unconscionable 90 percent, according to the San Jose-based advocacy group Human Agenda.

Activists have sought to change the rule for years, but it has received little public notice until recently. Last month, the California Office of Migrant Services convened a meeting to air views on the issue – an important and welcome first step, as the department moves to reconsider the policy.

Fernandez, a U.S. citizen and a migrant farmworker, spoke at the meeting through an interpreter. Afterward, she explained to me that she cannot read the policy because she can’t speak or write in English. But she understands all too well the impact the policy has had on her family.

In one sense her family is an anomaly: Thanks to their collective determination, her three oldest children have managed to graduate from high school, and her youngest son, age 7, is still in school. She has benefited from the housing. But it has cost her, too. One of her sons was only able to complete his education because he could stay with a relative for part of the year, separated from his parents and siblings.

“Very painful,” is how she describes the experience. “For a mother, it’s very hard to know that –” Her voice trails off. “When I’m not here, I’m constantly calling my son.” She would ask him what any mother would ask: “Are you OK? Did you eat? Are you getting sick?”

When he was sick, he would ask for his mother. “Yes, I know you want your mom,” she’d say, “but we can’t be together.”

Fernandez’s parents were migrant workers. They would come to Watsonville, where she lives now, to pick strawberries. Then they would go to Modesto to pick peaches, then back to Watsonville for the apple season. It was too difficult for her to go to school in the U.S. under those circumstances, so her parents put her in school in Mexico, where she could learn year-round.

Today, she and her husband are migrant workers. She recounts a typical day: waking up at 4:30 a.m., making lunch for herself and her children, cleaning the house, and reporting for work by 7 a.m. She is doubled over picking fruit, usually strawberries, until 10 a.m., at which point she gets a 15 minute break.

As soon as the bell rings to signal her break, she races to the bathrooms, far removed from where she works, trying to get there before other farmworkers. She has to fit in breakfast during that break, and be back in the fields by the time a bell signals the end of the break.

At noon, she gets a half-hour for lunch and at 3 p.m., a 10 minute break during which she races, again, to the bathrooms and back. She finishes work around 5:30 p.m., comes home, makes food for her children, cleans the house, takes a bath, then passes out, exhausted, to be ready to repeat the process again, six days a week.

Fernandez says she doesn’t mind having to move – it comes with the work. She just wants her kids to be able to finish their schooling, even if that means the family finding temporary housing elsewhere in town while they take their exams.

And she is grateful for the work, but doesn’t want the same for her children: “I would like to break the cycle that the children of farmworkers can’t be someone important.”

For her, education is her children’s ticket to a better life, their way out. She’s saddened that the current policy disrupts their studies and causes her family so much heartache. She believes children like hers should have the same chance as any child in California to “be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer. Even a president.”

All she wants for her kids is an opportunity. And a change to some words on paper is all it would take.