Voices From the Field: Mexico
By Karen Fanning

Four-year-old Audelia taking care of her younger brother while her parents work the tobacco fields in Mexico. (Photos by Robin Romano)
Each day, Audelia heads to work on a tobacco farm in Santiago Ixcuintla Nayarit, Mexico. Her job? To watch over her 14-month-old baby brother while her poverty-stricken parents labor in the fields to try to make ends meet. Audelia is 4 years old.

The Mexican preschooler is among hundreds of children who leave their homes in the surrounding mountains each January to work in tobacco fields alongside their parents.

Many children, like Audelia, care for younger siblings. Some fetch water from the nearby river for cooking and bathing. Others sort tobacco leaves.

Often, families work from sunrise until sunset for little more than $1 an hour. Low wages make it impossible for many of them to afford housing, so they are often forced to live in the fields.

"Families build little shacks with no walls next to where they work," says Viky Sosa of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILF), an organization that advocates for the rights of workers worldwide. "They use tree branches, plastic carpets, or tobacco leaves as a roof to protect themselves from the rain and sun."

Mexican children as they:
Still, during the days, it's hard to escape the sweltering heat. With surging temperatures and little or no drinking water available, kids often suffer from dehydration. It's also difficult to avoid pesticides, the poisonous chemicals sprayed in fields to kill bugs. Pesticides can cause skin irritations, breathing difficulties, brain damage, and other health problems.

Laboring in the fields not only jeopardizes children's health, it also costs them their education. A staggering 86 percent of children in the surrounding communities of Nayarit do not attend school.

"Children are missing the opportunity to learn," says Gema Lopez Limon, a professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California.

Ten-year-old Inocencia at work in a tobacco field. Inocencia is one of the lucky ones. She and her 9-year-old brother get to go to school when they are not in the fields. (Photos by Robin Romano)
Inocencia Lopez, 10, and her brother Ambrosio, 9, are two of the lucky ones. They go to school in the morning before returning to the fields in the afternoon. Still, after a long day of labor, their fragile bodies are tired and learning can be difficult.

Sadly, Audelia may never get the chance to learn. Instead, she will likely spend the rest of her life laboring in the fields.

"Children have no business in the workplace," says Lopez Limon. "The place for children is in school."