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“Now They Can’t Get Me to Stop Talking”: How a Teenage Tobacco Farmworker in North Carolina Found Her Voice

In North Carolina, when school gets out each summer, a stream of young people—nearly all Latino—head into the fields to help bring in the state’s most profitable crop: tobacco. Neftali Cuello was twelve years old when she first accompanied her family into the fields.

This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Tobacco workers photo by Jim Dollar

North Carolina tobacco harvest. Photo by Jim Dollar.

Age: 17
Occupation: High school student, tobacco field worker
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Interviewed in: Pink Hill, North Carolina

Tobacco
Explainer: Agriculture and Human Rights

In North Carolina, when school gets out each summer, a stream of young people—nearly all Latino—head into the fields to help bring in the state’s most profitable crop: tobacco. Neftali was twelve years old when she first accompanied her family into the fields. At the time, she and her older sisters wanted to help their single mother pay the household’s bills. Now seventeen and a senior in high school, Neftali has spent five summers in the fields, working sixty-hour weeks and contending with extreme heat and humidity, along with nicotine and pesticide exposure.

We first meet Neftali at a gathering of young farmworkers advocating for better wages and working conditions, held in a doublewide trailer not far from her home in Pink Hill. At the gathering, Neftali speaks eloquently of the pressures that forced her parents and many of her peers to leave home and search for work in the United States, many of them uprooting themselves and their families year to year to pursue available work to avoid the attention of immigration authorities.

Over the course of several subsequent phone conversations (occasionally interrupted by the sound of roosters crowing in the background), Neftali talks about the challenges of working in tobacco, her plans for the future, and how her activism has transformed her from a shy girl into a gregarious teenager who enjoys addressing large crowds.


BACK THEN, ALL THE KIDS SLEPT TOGETHER IN ONE ROOM

Pink Hill is a town of about five hundred in southeast North Carolina.

People say that it’s dead in Pink Hill because nothing goes on here. But it’s not dead—it’s just peaceful. People don’t really notice the beauty of nature. I live in a trailer park, and outside my house I am surrounded by fields. From the trailer park you can drive three minutes and be in the town. You know how a teenager is like, “I’m gonna go play video games or watch TV”? Well, for me it’s a little bit different. I’ll go and get one of my friends, a neighbor—the other trailer houses are filled with migrant farmworker families—and we’ll walk around, see the birds, play with my dogs and cats. And we got a duck. It adopted itself onto our porch, so I feed it.

I was born in Los Angeles. That’s where my parents met. My mom is from Cuernavaca, Mexico. My dad is from the Dominican Republic. I was one when my parents separated and we moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina—it was me, my mom, and my two older sisters and brother. I don’t remember anything about Los Angeles, but I want to visit.

When we first got to Pink Hill we lived right across the street from the school, but my brother and sisters would still be late. I would be like, “Wake up! Wake up!”—just jumping on the couch. I wasn’t even a kindergartner then. Then I started school, and my mom would walk me over. My mom had to go to work, so we’d have to get ready ourselves.

Back then, all the kids slept together in one room. It was the four of us. We’d just cuddle up together and go to sleep. We were living in a trailer with a kitchen, a very small living room, and two bedrooms. We still live there—our house is homey.

My mom would wake us up at five thirty in the morning and before she left she’d make sure we all had a shower and that our clothes were prepared and our shoes were tied. And she would always do little hairdos on us girls.

That was when she worked in pig farms. She told us why she had to stop working there. A pig was giving birth so she needed gloves, but her employers didn’t provide them. She said, “No, I can’t do this,” and they pretty much fired her. That’s when she started working in tobacco.

I THOUGHT IT WAS GONNA BE EASY-PEASY

My older brother, Henry, was the first to go into the tobacco fields. He was eleven when he went with my mom. He has pale skin, and when he got home that day he was bright red! It took maybe two days for him to get over that because he was so badly sunburned. He didn’t go back to the fields after that.

Growing up, we would see our mom go to work in the tobacco fields and get home really tired. And she still had a lot of work to do around the house. When I was about ten, me and my two older sisters agreed to go talk to her, to tell her we had decided to work in the fields. At first she said, “No, you are so not working.” We were like, “You know what, we’re gonna go to work. We’re gonna help you out.” She said we were too young. But later she let us go to work in the summers, because she couldn’t take care of us all and pay the bills.

In the United States, children as young as twelve are permitted to work on large, commercial farms and children of any age can work on small-scale farms.

I was twelve when I began working in tobacco. My sister Kimberly was thirteen or fourteen. My oldest sister, Yesenia, was fifteen. We wanted to be independent and to help Mom out. By that time she had another two kids with her boyfriend—my three-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister. My mom said that she’d rather work three jobs than see her kids working out in the fields. She told us that we broke her heart when we decided to work. We didn’t exactly understand what she meant, but we understand now.

That first experience in the fields—oof! I didn’t wake up that first day. My mom had to wake me up. It was five in the morning. I would guess that it was July. She said, “You only have twenty minutes to get ready.” It was dark that first morning, but not a bad dark. I didn’t see stars, but I could see the first little ray of sunlight.

I put on a t-shirt and shorts, ’cause it was gonna be hot. My mom said, “Go back into your room.” She told me to put on some long sleeves, a sweatshirt, pants, and old shoes. “Clothes that you don’t care about,” she said. When I asked why, she said, “You’ll see.”

So my sisters and I climbed into the car and my mom drove. We were driving what we always called our little gray car. I don’t know exactly what model it is because I suck at describing cars. I was sitting in the back seat. Driving to the field I was thinking, It’s gonna be really good to be outside. Like I said, I really like nature. I was thinking, The sun’s gonna be hitting me; it’s gonna be nice just to be around plants and walking. I had always looked at tobacco plants and thought they were pretty. I was thinking, I’m gonna see that my mom was worrying over nothing. I thought it was gonna be easy-peasy.

We drove to a designated spot that my mom knew and stopped to wait for other people driving to the fields. A group of a few cars drove by and honked their horns, and we rushed to catch up to them in our car. My mom explained that if we couldn’t catch up to them, we’d have to go to another contractor and try to find work.

To ensure a steady workforce, many farmers pay a fee to labor contractors, who are responsible for recruiting and supervising crews of seasonal farmworkers. As a result, many farmworkers have little idea who owns the fields they are harvesting.

After a while, I noticed that the ride starts to get really, really bumpy. The roads that lead to tobacco fields weren’t paved. They’re dirt roads with huge holes, and I was being thrown around, and I’m like, What the heck? And then as we get out, I’m thinking, Oh my God, the clothes I’m wearing look ridiculous. I don’t even want to get out. Me and my sisters were laughing about it. And we got out and saw dozens of people wearing most of the same things we were. Then we saw the field, just rows and rows of tobacco. And I thought, We’re not gonna get out of here. They’re gonna keep us here forever.

My mom went and talked to the contractor. There were seven or eight other people in our crew. They were all Hispanic. I’ve always only seen Mexicans and African Americans in the fields. I was probably the youngest, though there were at least two or three other young people I recognized from my school.

When “suckering,” tobacco harvesters often use their hands to remove the small shoots.

If you tell the contractor you have work experience, they don’t really care what your age is. They showed us how to sucker. Suckers are these little lime-green tobacco shoots growing in between the leaves. They’re curvy, fuzzy, and pointy at the very beginning of the stem. They’re like another branch growing, and you have to tear them off with your hands and nails. But they’re hard to tear off. And they can look just like a leaf. It’s really hard to distinguish sometimes.

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I was this short little girl. The tobacco plants were bigger than me; they were huge and would loom over you like crazy. The leaves spread out so far that you have to squeeze your way through the rows. And the suckers aren’t just on the top—they’re also at the very bottom of the plants. You have to go around the whole tobacco plant. How are you supposed to do that, especially when you’re little?

We started at six a.m. In ten minutes I was drenched from head to toe in dew. I thought I was going fast, but I got left behind at least twice. Yesenia helped me and then my mom came over and helped me. The contractor said, “She needs to speed up.” I was running—struggling with having to be the best, although I knew I never was, like at school and stuff. So I felt really bad when I heard the contractor say that.

Within two to three hours I was feeling nauseous. But I thought it was just me—that I hadn’t drunk any water. It was too far back to go and get water, and I thought, They’re probably gonna yell at me if I go. I was this really shy girl: I didn’t want to get in trouble and get fired the first day.

Then I got really sluggish. I was thinking: Okay, I need to sit down. But I couldn’t sit down, because everybody’s gonna move up ahead and I’m gonna get fired, I’m gonna get everybody fired. So I kept going.

I was seeing little circles. I had to take a rest. But I saw the contractor walking by. When I got up and pretended I was working, I felt like I was going to faint. The sky started to get blurry and my head literally turned sideways. It’s really hard to explain: it’s like when you’re trying to focus on something and just can’t. My mom came over to me and said, “Sit down—I’m gonna get you some water.” She went and got me some water and ice; I got back to work. I still felt sluggish, and I remember that within two hours my mom actually had to sit me down again and tell me to take a break.

Workers absorb nicotine from tobacco plants through their skin, and one in four every harvesting season suffers from acute nicotine poisoning, also known as green tobacco sickness. The symptoms of GTS can include dizziness, vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain, and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate. Researchers at Wake Forest University have found that, by the end of the season, “nonsmoking workers had nicotine levels equivalent to regular smokers.”

Kimberly was working fast. She was taking the pace that my mom was. At maybe two or three in the afternoon, I could hear somebody vomiting really loudly—it sounded like she was throwing up her lungs. I couldn’t see over the tobacco plants. I was like, What the heck? It was Kimberly. Then she stopped and we thought she was okay. We told her to sit down, take a break, go sit in the car. But she wanted to go on, even though she kept throwing up at the same time. It was because of the nicotine. The leaves would get sticky with nicotine when they were wet. Also, I think the plants had been sprayed with pesticides, like maybe a couple hours before, or the day before. You could really smell it.

At around six or seven that night they said we could go home. We were like, “Okay, yeah!” But then I thought, Oh God, we have to walk all through the field just to get to the car. It was muddy, and our mom told us to kick our shoes before we got in. But I couldn’t do it. I was too tired. I just got in the seat and by the time we got home I was asleep. There were four of us that needed to take showers. I said, “You all just go ahead.” I sat on the steps and fell asleep.

That night when I was asleep, I had strange dreams. It wasn’t like I was having nightmares—it was like I was still working in tobacco. I could see myself, my hands cutting suckers, rows of tobacco. It’s so dizzying, it’ll literally wake you up out of nowhere. It was really hard to sleep afterwards. This happens if you work in tobacco. I couldn’t go to sleep till three thirty in the morning. I think it has to do with the stuff that was on the leaves, the nicotine and pesticides. Eventually you just get used to it.

MY MOM TENDS TO EVERYBODY

When me and my sisters got that first paycheck, we were like, “We’re gonna give it to our mom.” She said, “No. Keep it for yourself. Buy whatever you need.”

My mom tends to everybody. With me, I don’t really like to go shopping, to buy clothes or whatever. So I followed her around whenever she went shopping. I’d look at her and if she really looked at something, like she wanted to buy it, I’d buy it for her. Like stuff for the bathroom—curtains for the tub and a hairbrush. I would stay behind and grab it and put it under the cart and pay for it myself. She was happy!

One time for Mother’s Day I got her a red basket with a white bear holding a red rose, with a bag of red candies. She still has it—she loved that one. She hasn’t opened it. She hung it on the wall and made sure it was very noticeable.

It was really hard for her. By the time I was twelve and started working she had six kids and she was trying to raise them all. She’d come home red from the fields and take a shower and start cooking. Then she would say, “Neftali, my feet hurt so bad. Can you please rub them for a moment so I can fall asleep?” She had issues falling asleep.

There were moments where we didn’t have money, but the thing is my mom always made sure we had everything we needed. Not stuff that we wanted—wants were never really allowed. You could always think about them but never actually get them.

OUT OF NOWHERE, I'D START SINGING

By now I’ve worked five summers in tobacco. We’re usually paid in cash. We’re paid the minimum wage, $7.25 or $8.00 an hour, whatever it is at the time, but it should be more.

Every year it gets hotter. It’ll get to one hundred degrees, but what people don’t know is that if you’re working in a field of tobacco, the leaves reflect the sun, so it’s ten to fifteen degrees hotter in the fields. Unless there are trees at the very end of the field, the only shade you get is if you sit under the tobacco leaves. But there’s hardly ever a moment that you can actually take a rest, because the minute you finish a row you have to go to another row.

What I’ve noticed is that for contractors it’s all about the money. You have to work as fast as possible. When she was younger, my sister Yesenia was working and all of a sudden she got really cool. She thought she was okay. But she was experiencing heat stress, where her body suddenly starts to heat up a lot inside, even if it felt to her like she was cold. It was actually a very dangerous thing.

North Carolina farmworkers suffer the highest rate of heat-related fatalities in the nation.

No one ever addressed any of this stuff. They didn’t hand out any instructions about heat stress or nicotine poisoning. No safety lessons. We didn’t always have helpful equipment like gloves or anything—we just had to make do. I remember one time I worked without gloves because my sister had our only pair. When I got done my whole arm was pure black—it was covered with tar from the plants. I went home and tried to wash it but it didn’t work.

I’ve seen pesticides being sprayed maybe two fields over, and I’ve seen pesticides being sprayed in front of our house, over cotton fields. When that happened I told everybody, “Don’t go outside. Make sure nothing’s outside that you gotta bring inside later.”

A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine of 287 farmworkers—the majority of whom worked in tobacco—from forty-four different farmworker camps in eleven eastern North Carolina counties found that the workers were exposed to a large number of pesticides, and exposed to the same pesticides multiple times.

Every day me and my sisters try to make a happy moment, even if we’re feeling really down. So I’ll cut off a really big sucker when I’m working in the field and toss it at Kimberly. I’ll be like, “Oh no, it was Yesenia!” Or there were days when everything was really quiet, so I’d find the weirdest, most obnoxious song and out of nowhere just start singing it. And I know that my sisters know practically every song, so they would join in and the other workers would be like, “Oh my God.” They’d just start laughing.

We never find out about the cigarette companies we’re working for. You try to talk to the contractor and he just says, “Get to work.” This year we actually saw a farmer—the guy who actually owns the farm. He came up and he talked to my mom and then he talked to me, just to greet us. Afterwards, the contractor said we’re not supposed to talk to the farmers.

I EXPECT TO SEE YOUNG PEOPLE

I expect to see young people in the fields nowadays. I saw eight- and nine-year-olds working in sweet potatoes. They were getting paid 40 cents a bucket. They had to dig around and pick the sweet potatoes up, clean ’em and put ’em in the bucket. They carried the bucket until it was full, then somebody else would carry it and throw it in the truck. That was in Greenville, South Carolina. We don’t really see sweet potatoes in Pink Hill.

My friends, right after school they go to work, and they’ll be talking about how they feel bad the next morning. It’s actually very common for people working in tobacco to feel sick and dizzy. It wasn’t just that first day—I always got sick. One time I got sick for two days. I felt bad throughout the day in the fields. The next morning I had a huge headache and I felt like I wanted to vomit. I don’t know exactly what’s being sprayed, or if it was just the nicotine. It absorbs into your skin—it’s just awful, the way you feel. Last year a friend of mine got green tobacco sickness. He was fourteen or fifteen. His family took him to the hospital and he was there for six days, maybe.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I was having a bunch of problems. Teenager problems. I was really antisocial, like this emo chick. I liked to walk around outside at one o’clock in the morning, like I wasn’t scared of anything, like I was practically already on my own. If somebody tried to be nice to me I would flip out. I’m telling you, I had issues. I don’t exactly know what I was so angry about. I guess it was because I wasn’t letting my emotions out.

In the ninth grade I had surgery on my tonsils and they gave me painkillers. Me being all depressed, I started taking a lot of them. I was gonna take a bunch at once—seven pills—and I looked at them and said, “Nope,” and I closed the bottle and walked away from it.

Afterwards I started talking to my Spanish teacher. I met her in tenth grade. She’s kind of like how a therapist is—you know, they don’t tell anybody your secrets. I’d go see her every other day. And if I could sneak out of the cafeteria during lunch, I’d visit her in her class. They don’t let us, but she always told me, “Definitely come over for lunch.” I would tell her some of the stuff that was going on with me, and then I wouldn’t feel like doing any of the bad stuff, like cutting classes.

SOME CHANGES ARE BEING MADE

“Miss Melissa” is Melissa Bailey, a farmworker advocate in North Carolina. In 2010 she formed NC FIELD (North Carolina Focus on Increasing Leadership Education and Dignity), which provides leadership training to young farmworkers like Neftali.

One day when I was fourteen, my sister Yesenia told me she was having a meeting with Miss Melissa, a woman who worked as an activist for farmworkers, and asked if I wanted to go. I said sure, if it’ll get me out of the house! That’s how I got involved in Rural Youth Power. It’s a group of young people. We talk about working in the fields, the education we’ve received, or haven’t received, and the difficulties of moving around. We’ve stayed in Pink Hill the whole time because my mom put her mind to it: when she wants to stay somewhere, she stays somewhere. But a lot of families never settle down because they keep moving to find work. One kid, Eddie, I think he’s thirteen or fourteen, he had to move six different times. And we have so many at-risk kids. Two farmworker friends who went to school with us died last year in a shooting. They weren’t in a gang but they hung around with people who were. They were supposed to graduate with us.

We don’t have a lot of opportunities where we’re living. I want my family to be able to start off again. Hopefully I can do something to help my mom. I don’t want her to have to keep focusing on the rent and everything by herself. My hope is to get into a college this year and get started working on my major. I definitely want to work in agriculture, keep advocating. Farmworkers need better wages. We asked to take the kids out of the fields, but it’s kinda hard because sometimes it’s the kids who are working to help the family. And we want to reduce the spraying of pesticides.

Some changes are being made. Last year we held an event called YouthSpeak in Kinston, North Carolina. I was a panelist and I did a spoken word; everybody liked it. You get to express yourself and how you feel. You don’t have to rhyme, but I like rhyming all the time. We talked about how we wanted to see a change in the minimum wage and how we wanted to give out materials and equipment to the people working in the fields. Educate them so they know the rules—that we’re supposed to get a break, for example, and that we should have better bathrooms, with soap, so we can actually clean our hands. One of the people at the YouthSpeak event was from the North Carolina Department of Labor, and he said, “All the stuff you asked for is pretty easy. I think we can actually change it. I think that’s really possible.” When the Department of Labor guy was speaking, we were all really hopeful. It seemed like all these little things that could make our work bearable were possible. Then a little later at the meeting, Miss Melissa gets a call, and somebody’s telling her that a farmworker was behind a truck in the sweet potatoes that day and it went over him. He just got crushed and died. We got really quiet and gave a moment to him.

THEY CAN'T GET ME TO STOP TALKING

Right now school is going really well. This year I think I have all As. And I won an award—the national art and essay contest. I had always been hearing about the contest, and one day I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

The topic of the essay was “The Rhythm of the Harvest.” I got two pages done, but it wasn’t a lot. On the last day I started working on it at eleven and it was due at twelve o’clock at night. I was like, Just think about how it is. Out of nowhere I finished it and turned it in one minute before it was due.

I wrote first about how at nighttime you hear the slithers of a snake, the flaps of a bat, and in the morning you hear the frogs croaking, the crickets chirping. When you get into the fields you hear the screech of a truck stopping and, as you’re working, the noise from pulling your boots out of mud. Just the different sounds that go on while you’re in the field. So I turned in the essay on time and I got first place for fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds. I got to go to Boston for the award ceremony.

I like to dye my hair different colors: I’ve dyed it purple and two or three shades of blue. When I won the award my hair was red. One lady who was on the award staff, Norma Flores, was like, “You have to dye your hair black for the trip.” I said, “Okay, I’ll dye it black, but when I get back I’m dyeing it blond and pink.”

Microphone photo by Alexis Fam
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There were at least two hundred people at the ceremony in Boston, and I was just freaking out. I’m supposed to go up there and I’m supposed to read my essay. I have stage fright—I’ve always had it. And I felt really awkward. I was thinking, Something’s gonna happen, I’m gonna embarrass myself. But I got up there and I started reading. I was very awkward at first but then I just thought, You know what, it’s all good. I’m calm, I’m good. I read it and at the end I got this whole standing ovation. People came up to me saying they were in tears from my story.

At Rural Youth Power, we’re planning on showing kids how to speak up, to not be afraid, to speak for your rights—’cause you do have them. One of my friends was gonna get paid $6.25 an hour to work in tobacco. I was like, “Boy, you do not even need to go there.” You should be getting paid the minimum wage at least. That is a right, right there. They can’t just fire you.

I’m one of those people to step in. I’ve become less scared since I got involved. Now I can actually have a phone conversation. Before I was practically antisocial. And then I started talking, but I couldn’t get serious. But now Miss Melissa says I’ve changed. Before it was like, “Speak up, Neftali.” Now it’s like they can’t get me to stop talking.

This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Click here to access free Voice of Witness educational curricula on this story.


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