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In this statewide project, journalists explore the high costs of the pandemic for children and young adults. The project is supported in part by the Hammer Family Charitable Foundation and the Education Writers Association.

A Florida Farmworker Talks About Why He Took His Teen Daughter To Work In Fields

WUSF reporter Kerry Sheridan sits outside at a table and interviews a migrant farmworker, Jose, who is shown from the back
Daylina Miller/WUSF
Jose is a migrant farmworker who began working in the tomato fields when he arrived in the United States from Mexico.

Throughout history, each generation has wanted better opportunities for the next. And for many migrant farmworkers, getting a better education for their children is a key value. But economic hardships often force teenage migrants to leave school early and go to work.

When Jose crossed the border from Mexico, he was in his early 20s. Fifteen years later, sitting in his backyard east of Tampa, he reflects on what brought him here.

"Looking for a better future, right? For me and for my children. At that time, well, I didn’t have children. I told myself I'd come for one year, to work then return to Mexico and study for a career," says Jose. WUSF is not using his full name because he is undocumented.

But in the U.S., he met a woman, also from Mexico. She soon became his wife. They stayed. In the years since, they've had four children together.

Jose is now in his late 30s. For most of his adult life, he has found work in the fields. He says he started out picking tomatoes.

RELATED: Finding The Lost Children Of Migrant Farmworkers

“My respect for those that keep working in the tomatoes. It’s very tiring. You are running all day. There was a moment when I thought: 'What did I get myself into?' But I said: 'Well, it is an opportunity. And this is a country of opportunities. I am here and I have to work hard and progress.’"

Lately, he has been picking strawberries. Some days, he says he might get paid $50, some days $100, some days nothing.

"Sometimes we can work all week, real hard. Then all of a sudden, the price of the product drops, and the rancher tells us: 'Tomorrow, you’re not going to work. There is no work.' And that is when things go bad for us in the fields, and sometimes that’s what happens,” he says.

Migrant farmworkers move as the crops demand. Many of those who pick strawberries around Tampa leave when the season ends in March.

Their children get pulled out of school about two months before the end of the year. Jose says his family doesn't do that.

Jose and wife, shown from back, as they look at the house they have bought east of Tampa.
Daylina Miller/WUSF
Jose and his wife stand outside the house they have bought east of Tampa. They do all they can to ensure their children succeed in school.

“For me, I come from a family in which my parents never had an education, so, since I was a child, my parents used to say: ‘An education is essential,' " says Jose.

That's why he and his wife wait until school is over before heading north for more work — so that their kids can finish the school year.

Jose says he'd like to get a GED himself, and then a technical degree.

"My passion is being a mechanic — mechanic or plumber. This has always been my dream."

It's a topic of friendly competition between him and his kids.

"Sometimes I tell my daughter: ‘If you all don’t work hard and have a better future, I think that I will surpass you.’ It’s a game, right? Trying to tell them that I will surpass them, so they will work hard and study,” Jose says.

His 13-year-old daughter, Ashley, confirms his story.

"He would always tell me, 'If you don't keep on learning, then I'm going to catch up to you,'" she says with a laugh.

"And that's kind of also motivation that gave me to have good grades, better grades, so he wouldn't beat me."

Four people sit around a glass table outdoors: Carol Mayo who heads the migrant education program in Hillsborough County Public Schools,  Jose and wife, and WUSF reporter Kerry Sheridan.
Daylina Miller/WUSF
Jose and his wife talk with Carol Mayo, director of the Hillsborough County Migrant Education program. Jose met Carol years ago at a parent meeting at school, and has advocated for the education of the children of farmworkers at state-level meetings.

All jokes aside, Jose is serious about motivating his children to stay in school. He says too often, the children of farmworkers give up on their education out of financial need.

"I have seen many parents that opt to take their children to the fields," Jose says.

"I have taken my daughter to the fields. And not because I want her to be there, working. I've taken her so that she can see how difficult of a job it is.”

His daughter remembers that day in the strawberry fields, too. It was a couple of years ago, she says, and it made an impact.

"I remember that there was a lot of people there. They were stressing out about where to put stuff. They were saying how their back hurts or that they were really tired," she says.

"Before I went, I was kind of like, I wanted stuff right then and there. And after I went I kind of understood more like, why I shouldn't be doing that. That I should value what I have."

Jose, a migrant farmworker from Mexico, is shown smiling, from the side, as he talks with WUSF reporter Kerry Sheridan.
Daylina Miller/WUSF
Jose believes that if migrant farmworkers without documents could at least obtain a legal driver's license, they would become more involved in their children's schooling.

Ashley says she has managed to stay on the honor roll, despite the added challenges of attending school during the coronavirus pandemic. She hopes to go on to study agricultural engineering, or animal production systems engineering.

Jose believes one way to help the children of farmworkers stay in school would be by helping their parents. For instance, 16 states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented people to get a driver's license, but Florida is not among them.

"I would ask that the government have compassion for us and allow us to obtain a driver's license," says Jose.

"That would be very good for us. Things will change ... Many more parents would get involved in the schooling of their children. They would go to the libraries. They would go to the centers that offer help for their children. There would be more children that finish school, and more success stories.”

WUSF's Jose Jimenez contributed to this report.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.