Video: America Now: Children of the Harvest

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Dennis Murphy Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2010 3:04:25 PM ET 2010-07-19T19:04:25
TRANSCRIPT

A summer road trip through America—not a vacation, but a hard journey to America's farms.

Tonight we go on the road with families picking food for America's tables, go into fields with little children learning a tough lesson...

OMAR: Now we have 69 pounds of blueberries.

...Children with big dreams...

Unidentified Girl: I might be a veterinarian or a singer.

...Their childhood stolen.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: We don't let parents take kids to factories. We don't let parents take kids in the mines.

So why do we allow parents to take kids to work in the fields?

CARL FILLICHIO: That's clearly laws being broken.

What happens to children whose classroom is the field?

TERRI SEIHOUSZEN: I very much hope he graduates from high school.

Struggle, but sometimes success…

ANNA VILLANUEVA: I'm the first in the family to go to college and get a degree.

America Now: Children of the Harvest.

Part 1:

ANN CURRY: Good evening and welcome to Dateline. I'm Ann Curry. When most children in America think of summer, they think of swimming, playing and going to camp. But for some children, hundreds of thousands of them, summer means hard labor in the hot sun. They're migrant workers, some as young as five or six years old, working alongside their struggling parents on America's farms. Over the course of the past year, our cameras have documented a story of hardship, perseverance and love, and sometimes a triumph over adversity. Here's Dennis Murphy.

Driving through farm country, you see them at a distance in the summer haze, small figures in the field picking – the migrants. A dozen years ago, we wondered what kind of lives they led. Eventually, we were introduced to the Flores family of South Texas. Pablo Flores agreed to take us along with his seven kids, U.S. citizens all, on their journey to work in the fields.

They piled high into their creaky van and pointed it north toward Ohio. As we got to know Pablo, we realized that he saw a purity to his work, where we'd seen just back-breaking stoop labor.

PABLO FLORES: [through translator] I think the migrant worker is the happiest man in the world.

But what an ordeal the migrant trail turned out to be, a test for even Pablo's sunny disposition: Breakdowns, on-the-fly road repairs, even his van catching fire. Back then, we watched the kids down uncooked hot dogs as they drove to the next fields for picking. Our American harvest, a bounty put on our tables over the years by little guys like James Flores, 11 years old and already a seasoned farmhand.

JAMES FLORES: This bone hurts a lot.

DENNIS MURPHY: The spine bone hurts?

JAMES FLORES: Yeah.

But back in 1998, James worked through his aching back, picking cucumbers, bent over in a field when he should have been in summer school – all so his family would have extra hands to fill the farmers' buckets. We wondered then if the eye-blink of childhood was being taken away from him and other children of the harvest.

How about this six-year-old? And a two-year-old beginning her apprenticeship? Even more than ten years ago, we were surprised to capture these images of child labor in America. It was like old black and white news documentaries coming to life, and it was hardly a shameful practice legislated out of existence. Kids seemed to be everywhere in the fields.

And here's the thing about kids working on farms: If they're at least 12 years old, they're perfectly legal. Agriculture has always been an exception to the rule when it comes to minimum age in the workplace. So how's this for irony? At age 12, a child can pick blueberries all day long in the hot sun, but, at age 12, he's too young to get a job stocking those berries in an air-conditioned supermarket. And if a kid is in the fields and under age 12 — and we found lots of them – then you've wandered into another world of don't ask, don't tell.

Pablo, the father of our South Texas family, knew the law about 12-year-olds. But it didn't keep him from taking 11-year-old James out to the fields to work right by his side.

PABLO FLORES: [through translator] I understand it's the law, but the law can't do anything against a person's will.

What we found in the fields was a head-on between a father's rules and farmers who only wanted their crops picked without becoming cops themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Despite what maybe dad wants, it's—I'll have to put a stop to it.

That summer of 1998, we also met the Villanuevas from Texas. They were picking blueberries in Michigan. Eleven-year-old Yvette was a veteran by then. Like her older sister Ana, she started working the fields when she was just eight years old.

YVETTE VILLANUEVA: I feel, like, proud of myself because I'm helping my parents and everything.

DENNIS MURPHY: If we could have a genie come out of a bottle, right, and give you a wish... what would you ask the genie to give you?

YVETTE VILLANUEVA: I would tell him to let me rest for a while.

We kept in touch with the Villanueva kids over the years, and every summer they drove north to help their parents make ends meet. But would years of picking add up to any kind of future for the children? We showed our pictures to the then U.S. assistant secretary of labor, Susan King.

SUSAN KING: What really gets you is—when you see that, is that in this day and age, at the end of this century, we're still seeing pictures that we would have expected to see at the beginning of this century.

Remember, at the time, "this day and age" was 1998. So, last summer, we went back out to the fields to see if anything had changed at the start of the 21st century. Were kids still doing back-breaking illegal work?

Look for yourself: At a blueberry harvest in Michigan, peanut-sized children lug their quota. This boy counting his pay is 11.

OMAR: I just went to leave four buckets. So now we have 69 pounds of blueberries.

So come on along as we follow another migrant family's odyssey and catch up with some of those children from years ago, now young adults. What we find out about their journey through life just may surprise you. While some things change, and technology is having a profound change on the migrant families, the more the trials of the road stay the same. Coming up...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How old are you?

ULYSSES CRUZ: Ten.

Meet Ulysses, a fourth grader taken out of school to join his migrant family's odyssey, a journey that's long and dangerous, when “America Now: Children of the Harvest” continues...

Part 2:

Summer in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, is a brute – time to leave, make some money. It was here that we met the Villanueva family 12 years ago as they headed north for a season of picking. When we returned to the valley in the spring of 2009, we saw again that the winding down of the school year spells the beginning of another back-breaking summer of work for a great many children.

Like this fourth grader we met at a local school…

WOMAN: And what's your name?

ULYSSES CRUZ: Ulysses Cruz.

WOMAN: And how old are you?

ULYSSES CRUZ: Ten.

Ulysses Cruz's young life has been dictated by the cycle of the crops. Like many migrant kids here, he's pulled out of school early to travel north with his family. When he gets back in the fall, his classmates have had at least a good month's head start on him.

ULYSSES CRUZ: Here are the sheep. Sometimes we let them out for they can go eat alfalfa.

Like his namesake of the Greek odyssey, this Ulysses is a well-traveled road warrior. And now he's off again, taken out of school early in May to help pack. Ulysses, "Uly" as they call him, is Maria and Ricardo Cruz's youngest of four. His 18-year-old brother Junior and 16-year-old sister Denise will be heading north with him for the harvest.

DENNIS MURPHY: People watching may not understand why you go as a family.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] Well, if we go together with one or two extra hands, we make a little more. We can save some money.

Ricardo, the father, is an up-by-the-bootstraps guy. He started off selling mangoes at a flea market, and now has his own five-acre ranch in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. He and his wife are legal residents, their children all US citizens.

He raises livestock, and Junior is going to college, so he's a little better off than some of the migrant families we met years ago. But making a living off the ranch is still just a dream. Working the sugar beet fields up north has paid his bills for more than 20 years. This summer, fingers crossed, they're hoping to bring back as much as $35,000, and they need it to make ends meet. So, as they've done every spring for two decades, this American family from Texas sets off to Danube, Minnesota. They've been going there for so many summers and found such steady work that they bought a little house there 15 years ago. It cost them only $9,000 back then. But just getting the family up to Minnesota will take a big bite out of Ricardo's budget.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] We need a minimum of three to four thousand dollars for gas to get there for the time we are in working and to buy some food.

To pay for the gas, Ricardo auctions off one of his cows. He gets $950, less than he'd hoped. It's time to close up the ranch property and get going. The 10-year-old pickup with camper top is jam-packed with clothes, fruits, vegetables, even a cooler full of frozen meat from livestock they've raised themselves. It's 4:30 AM on June 9th.

ULYSSES CRUZ: I'm getting ready to leave right now.

The pick-up is cramped.

ULYSSES CRUZ: My sister's here, my mom over here, and my brother and my dad over here.

The fields where they're heading are 1500 miles away. Ricardo's strategy is to make a big push. We've given Denise a video cam to record the journey when she's in the mood.

DENISE CRUZ: We're here in Kansas and afraid that that big cloud full of water might catch us. I hope not.

With a storm nipping at their heels, Ricardo decides to get off the road. He's been driving for 20 hours straight. They splurge on a motel room – 75 bucks he didn't plan on spending. But the family needs the bed rest.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] Finally we rest. We're only about six hours away.

Come the morning, they're only about 300 miles shy of their destination. So far the truck's been steady. Ricardo gives it a quick inspection.

And then it happens: As they approach the bridge at the Iowa state border, disaster. Sparks fly. A wheel has come sailing off on its way to Iowa, all by itself. Now the question isn't when will they get to Minnesota, it's will they get there in one piece. Coming up, terror on the road.

RICARDO CRUZ: You can lose your life and your family in a minute.

Back-breaking labor on the farm….

ULYSSES CRUZ: Sometimes they will be heavy... and your back gets tired.

When Dateline continues...

Part 3:

Everything was going smoothly for the Cruz family's 1500-mile trip north until the Nebraska—Iowa border. Suddenly lug nuts tear loose, and the right rear wheel flies off their pickup just as they cross the Mormon Trail Bridge 60 feet above the Missouri River.

RICARDO CRUZ: [Spanish spoken – subtitles] Imagine if I was driving 70 miles per hour—she would have gone out of control.

No surprise, this family isn't a member of AAA, so roadside assistance is a family affair.

RICARDO CRUZ: [Spanish spoken – subtitles] Look for Dennison and find out how far it is.

Ricardo's first call is to a nephew who happens to live just an hour away, on the other side of the bridge in Iowa. A small blessing anyway, this nephew is in the auto parts business.

But Maria is worried: This is a setback they didn't need. A police car pulls up half an hour after the mishap. The officers call for a tow. The tow truck driver deposits the broken truck and family back on the Nebraska side of the bridge. The fee? A $125 for the five-mile tow. Two more hours pass before Ricardo's nephew from Iowa shows up with parts and a mechanic friend to lend a hand. The truck is patched up on site. And even though Ricardo only pays the friends and family rate, the accident, repairs and all, costs him about $600, more than his week's pay working in the sugar beet fields.

The day is a loss. They decide to spend the night at the nephew's family in Iowa. Uly promptly plants himself in front of Guitar Hero with his cousins, and Ricardo reflects on the what-ifs of their near tragedy.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] We were lucky. Had we not stopped to sleep last night, who knows what may have happened.

Now Ricardo is seriously worried about the unexpected money out the window. The picking fields are still hundreds of miles away. He's wondering if it's all worth it, this migrant family life.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] It's dangerous to travel all this way. You can lose your life and your family in a minute.

The next morning they head out, hoping to make the final 300 miles to Minnesota in one push. After an exhausting three days on the road, the Cruz family finally arrives in Danube, Minnesota. They pull into their little house in the heartland, their home away from home for more than 15 years. They unpack and settle into familiar rooms. There's one important thing to do before another season begins, and that's to find out where the work is. Junior, with a better command of English, will make the calls.

JUNIOR: Come on, now. Don't talk with the farmers.

The farmers of these sugar beet fields belong to a cooperative factory that processes the beets into the final product, granular sugar itself. Harvesting has been done by machine for years. Migrants like the Cruz family do the chores the machinery can't, pulling weeds and clearing rocks. On this day, they found work removing stones and debris from the farmer's field that have been churned up by the big harvesters. Remember, Ulysses is only 10, two years under the legal work age. Uly follows his father's tracks in the field and collects rocks in a manner unfamiliar to most kids in America.

DENNIS MURPHY: Pulling rocks out sounds like really hard work.

ULYSSES CRUZ: Yeah, sometimes they're real heavy...and your back gets tired.

DENNIS MURPHY: The farmer has a small flatbed vehicle called a Kubota. They pile the rocks into it.

ULYSSES CRUZ: Hold on.

Ulysses says he learned to drive it when he was six.

ULYSSES CRUZ: Woo-woo!

That's not all he drives.

ULYSSES CRUZ: My dad taught me to drive a tractor when I was small, for I could help him to do stuff.

The monotony out here is as bad as the sweat labor. Uly gives himself a break from picking up stones. And what does a 10-year-old do out in the fields? Why, roll down a hill, only this hill is a giant mound of chicken manure.

RICARDO CRUZ: [Spanish spoken – subtitles] Uly, stop it right now!

Ricardo, though, has a bigger concern than his son's boredom. Technology has arrived in the farmer's field, and it's taking work away from him. A new genetically modified sugar beet has been planted. Paired with an herbicide called Roundup, it doesn't require weeding. Good for the farmers, bad for the field hands like the Cruz family.

RICARDO CRUZ: [Spanish sung  – subtitles] There are no more weeds / No more weeds. 'El Roundup' has come to finish us off / all the weeds and this old cowboy.

Already other migrant families are giving up and heading their vans back to Texas, the season a bust for them before it even began.

RICARDO CRUZ: [Spanish spoken – subtitles] It's a sad situation. We are one of two or three families working right now.

It looks as though Ricardo can scrounge up work for no more than a few weeks. He would not echo our patriarch of a dozen years ago, that the migrant is the happiest man in the world.

And what about the migrants' children? The ABCs of picking of berries, the arithmetic of the fields.

OMAR: I just went to leave four buckets, so now we have 69 pounds of blueberries.

When Children of the Harvest continues...

Part 4:

RICARDO CRUZ: You see that little one there?

ULYSSES CRUZ: No. Eh.

RICARDO CRUZ: Right there.

It's the height of summer. Countless kids are playing in backyards across America, but work clearing weeds is at the top of Uly's to-do list. By federal law, Uly is too young to work, too young to do the labor you're watching.

ULYSSES CRUZ: It's not so hard. It's easy to do, but right now I'm, like, tired.

But Uly and his family will get plenty of rest this summer thanks to a new sugar beet that has been genetically modified. When you treat it with an herbicide, most of the weeds stop growing. No weeds, no work. And the stuff is killing more than just the weeds; it's also withering Ricardo's dream of a prosperous summer.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] The work here is over. We'll look tomorrow morning to see what we can find.

Uly and his family have a choice: Throw in the towel and go home, or move on down the road and hope something will turn up in other fields with other crops.

While the Cruz family made its decision, Dateline dropped in on other states to see what was going on there. We quickly learned that Ulysses was hardly alone last summer as a child working illegally. Again, a farmhand kid isn't legal until he or she reaches 12. They weren't that old in these blueberry fields in South Jersey, or in North Carolina; nor in southwest Michigan, where we first took our cameras 12 years ago. It looked like a time warp. At Brookside Farms, we saw kids lugging buckets of blueberries in groves that make Michigan the biggest blueberry producer in the country. And tucked away behind the high blueberry bushes are camps where the migrants live. That's where we met Elena and her children, Omar and Ursilia. They share this two-room cabin provided by the farmer.

URSILIA: We are going to the bus stop.

Ursilia is eight years old, and she does go to a migrant summer school where migrant kids should be in the summertime, learning, playing... even getting medical checkups. But for her older brother Omar, 11, it's another story. He heads out in a van with the rest of an extended family on its way to the fields. A 10-year-old cousin joins them, a rookie.

OMAR: I've picked for two years, and, for him, it's his first year picking blueberries.

Omar and his mom make 44 cents a pound. That's about $2.50 for a bucket of blueberries. But as far as the farmer is concerned, there are no kids here. The only ones authorized to work are the adults, who carry this required computerized ID. But there are rules and reality. When a family gets paid by the pound or by piece rate, more hands mean more blueberries picked, more money at the end of the day. So routinely, whatever berries the kids have picked are mingled and tallied electronically under the grownups' names. Not money laundering – berry laundering. A crew leader spotted us and demanded that we not take pictures of Omar. But Omar had his own small camera we'd given him, and this is part of his video diary.

OMAR: I just went to leave four buckets, so now we have 69 pounds of blueberries.

Payment by the pound may be a primary reason why parents bring children to work. The use of those tiny hands is a big help, according to people who keep an eye on child labor.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: That makes it look like the parents are making a better wage than they are.

Zama Coursen-Neff wrote a report about child labor in American farms for the nongovernmental advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: Most of the kids I talked to who were working in the fields were making far less than minimum wage. Those conditions are exploitative.

And you see it again and again. At Adkin Blue Ribbon Farms in Michigan, we saw dozens of underage children working alongside their parents. When these pictures were taken last year, Adkin was supplying berries to the big stores Walmart, Kroger and Meijer. Consumers would never know that the berries on their morning cereal were picked by five- and six-year-olds reciting their ABCs.

This migrant father knows it's wrong that his children work so hard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: [through translator] We hope that, in the future, our kids won't have to work here like us. There are other opportunities in this country.

Down the road in Decatur, Michigan, the cucumbers are coming in, future pickles from Faulkner Farms. The farmhands and the underage children working alongside their brothers and sisters will be paid 3 cents a pound, oversized work for undersized bodies. Each bucket can weigh up to 25 pounds, and it's enough to overwhelm this eight-year-old, Javier.

JAVIER: I was working right now, but I got tired.

We met Javier's family later at the shared two-bedroom trailer provided by Faulkner Farms. You'd think that these kids might be already broken, resigned to a life of drudgery that started way too young. But not so.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: I might be a veterinarian, a doctor or a singer.

Despite the big dreams, the oldest, Eduardo, speaks as though reality already has him by the toe.

EDUARDO: In case we don't go to school, we have something we're good at already. We already good at picking cucumbers.

Meanwhile, back up in Minnesota, Ricardo Cruz was striking out. That weed killer chemical called Roundup had rendered the toil of his leathered hands unnecessary. The chemical worked.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] Look at that machine spraying that chemical on our weeds. Now we have nothing to do there.

He drives around from farm to farm, burning more gas, not getting paid. And it's always the same story: No weeders needed.

RICARDO CRUZ: Everything is Roundup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yes, it is. Yep.

RICARDO CRUZ: Yeah. You don't got nothing this year, right?

MAN #3: Not yet, nope.

Their summer may be over, but there's one last thing to try.

RICARDO CRUZ: No—not—no working, no trabajo.

Coming up, a new job for the Cruz parents. And back in school, Ulysses tries to catch up...

TERRI SEIHOUSZEN: He is behind in his reading and writing about three years.

...And makes a wish when he turns 11.

CRUZ FAMILY: [singing] Happy birthday to you!

When Dateline continues...

Part 5:

While our Dateline cameras looked around farmers' fields to the south and the east, the Cruz family decided to stay in Minnesota despite a punishing lack of work weeding. The older boy, Junior, goes back to Texas early because college is starting and he's needed on the farm to look after the livestock. After weeks of waiting and their savings dwindling, the Cruz parents have found work at the stockpile yards, where tons of sugar beets are stacked before they head for the processing plant. The good news for Ulysses is he's not allowed to work around the machinery. He is officially just a kid again. In September, he and his sister enroll at the same Minnesota school where they've always begun the school year.

TERRI SEIHOUSZEN: Please bring your notes on subject and predicate...

English teacher Terri Seihouszen has taught all of the Cruz children for two months in the fall. She needs to assess Uly's strengths and weaknesses.

TERRI SEIHOUSZEN: He is behind in his reading and writing about three years. I very much hope he graduates from high school, but a large population of migrants do not.

She's right. Migrant children drop out of high school at a rate four times higher than the national average.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: They're trading away, often, their education and their long-term health for an immediate financial need.

Advocates for children are quick to point out that merely being in the fields exposes children to harmful pesticides, and that farm work is just flat-out dangerous.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: Children die at more than four times the rate of children working in any other industry. We know that hundreds of thousands of children are working in the United States in agriculture.

DENNIS MURPHY: Numbers… how many do you think, below age 12, that are off the grid working illegally?

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: I don't know because the government isn't even counting them. We want to see better enforcement from the Department of Labor.

CARL FILLICHIO: We are a vigilant watchdog and a vigilant cop on the beat on this.

Carl Fillichio is the senior adviser to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who has declared eliminating child labor her administration's top priority.

DENNIS MURPHY: In calendar year '09 there were only 36 citations for violations.

CARL FILLICHIO: Well, there were...

DENNIS MURPHY: You could have done that in three counties.

CARL FILLICHIO: There were 1,400 investigations with fines over $4 million in child labor.

DENNIS MURPHY: But of those $4 million in fines, only about $60,000 worth was levied because of child labor violations in agriculture as opposed to other industries. We showed the federal labor adviser some of our most recent footage, just as we had to his former boss more than a dozen years ago.

CARL FILLICHIO: That's clearly laws being broken.

DENNIS MURPHY: We just do show and tell. Someone else does the laws.

CARL FILLICHIO: And we are leveraging everything we've got to make sure this doesn't happen.

The Department of Labor has hired 215 more investigators and asserts it will be out in full force in the fields this summer, ready to slap down stiffer fines. One of the farms hit with a $5,500 fine in 2009 was Adkin Blue Ribbon Farms, where these pictures were taken last summer. Adkin declined our request for an on-camera interview, but has said publicly it has taken major action to correct child labor issues.

We showed Brooskide Farms owner Bill Fritz this footage, and he said, based on what he saw, it doesn't prove that children under 12 were working in his fields. He also said that it's against the farm's policy and practice to hire children. Down the road, the cucumber grower John Faulkner also declined our request for an on-camera interview, but he did tell us over the phone that he treats his workers like family, and some of those farmhands agree. They told us Faulkner was a good employer, even though the ones officially on the books get paid only 3 cents per pound for cukes.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: The adults themselves are often not even paid minimum wage.

The average farm worker family makes less than $18,000 a year.

DENNIS MURPHY: What do you—what do you tell dad when he says, ‘My little guy wants to help. We're all here as a family?’

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: We don't let parents take kids to help them in the mines. We shouldn't be letting parents take kids to help them in the fields. But the fact is US law has said that's OK.

And that may change. There's a perennial idea of getting stricter about kids in the field, one again knocking around Congress to raise the minimum legal age from 12 to 14. Under the current law, when Ulysses turns 12, he can work in the fields legally. The Cruz family's only sugar beet employer for the summer, farmer Roger Heller, says he's well aware of the law as it applies to children working on a commercial farm like his. He says he told Ricardo, a harvest employee of many seasons, that no child under 14 would be allowed to work in his fields. That's two years older than federal law prescribes.

ROGER HELLER: The employer tries to watch it, and that's all you can do.

DENNIS MURPHY: But if you'd gone out, you would've seen Ulysses, at some point, clearing the rocks. He calls it work, and it looks like work.

ROGER HELLER: To be work under the context that I know it, there'd have to be an employer-employee relationship. And he was not an employee, and I was not his employer.

Roger the farmer says the Cruzes were paid by the hour, and Uly was never on the payroll. When he did visit his fields, the farmer says Uly was always in the family truck.

DENNIS MURPHY: Ricardo, Ulysses was 10 years old last summer. That's too young to work by law.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] I accept that it's illegal for a minor to work. But he wants to do something. He doesn't want to just sit on the couch.

Uly is a self-aware young guy, and he knows that farm work has taken a toll on both his education and his childhood.

ULYSSES CRUZ: A normal life would be not working the fields. I don't know what's a normal life. Maybe spend time with family.

But with the harvest in full swing, there is very little family time these days while Mom and Dad are making up for lost wages by working long shifts at the stockpile yards: 12-hour days, six days a week.

ULYSSES CRUZ: They are working all the time when it's my birthday…I'm used to it all the time.

Uly turns 11 without his parents.

CRUZ FAMILY: [singing in unison] Happy birthday to you!

ULYSSES CRUZ: Yeah, Uly's club!

DENISE CRUZ: Make a wish.

DENNIS MURPHY: What'd you wish for on your birthday?

ULYSSES CRUZ: My dad would stop working and he could have vacation.

DENNIS MURPHY: Your dad wouldn't have to work so hard.

ULYSSES CRUZ: Yeah. He would get paid a little more better.

The leaves have turned. The crop is in for another year. The family's going to head home the next day. But where will Uly end up further down the road? It may just work out for him, if what happened to some of the other children of the harvest we met a dozen years ago is any sign.

And it turns out Uly has a special connection to one of them, someone to keep him lined up on the road to a real future.

Coming up, the future begins with the journey's end. For one family, a homecoming. For a second, a reunion and celebration.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: I'm the first in the family to go to college and get a degree.

When Children of the Harvest continues.

Part 6:

After five months in Minnesota, the Cruz family heads back to Texas. Ricardo tows a used trailer he's picked up for his little ranch. The season has been a disaster. After expenses, Ricardo and his family are bringing home just $10,000, only a third of what they'd made the summer before. This may be their last season as migrants. At least the 36-hour drive home is blessedly free of incidents. They pull into the ranch a week before Thanksgiving.

Junior's there to give them a warm welcome… They check on the animals, finally get to put their feet up. Later, Ricardo gives us a tour of his spread.

DENNIS MURPHY: When you come into your property, you see the sign out front, huh? Rancho—what  is it?

RICARDO CRUZ: Rancho Seme Hiso.

DENNIS MURPHY: Rancho Seme Hiso. And what does that mean?

RICARDO CRUZ: This is the place I make.

And the ranch, from here on out, might be the place they'll call home all year round, that bit of acreage paid for in large part by those long days in the sugar beet fields of Minnesota, money made before the invention of the weed killer Roundup, back before the family's close call on the bridge.

RICARDO CRUZ: We got almost killed this year when I go back.

DENNIS MURPHY: So you think maybe you're not going to go back?

RICARDO CRUZ: Yeah. Because, for leave, maybe right here I make it.

Maria Cruz isn't sentimental about all the hard work up north, but she does look fondly on all those months they spent together as a close family, shoulder to shoulder in the fields, tired and happy at night in their bungalow. But a painful memory remains, that decision they made to bring Junior into the fields when he was just a boy.

MARIA CRUZ: [through translator] It makes me really sad. In the beginning, you suffer. It breaks a mother's heart for her children. But I think Junior has a bright future. He's in college, and after all he's suffered, he's on the right

track.

And on the right path, just as some tenacious children of the fields have followed before him. One-time field hands like this one, Yvette Villanueva—we'd met her years ago with her sister—defied the migrant odds and graduated from high school.

Then on to college, an accomplishment that made her family enormously proud.

Sister Anna did the same, going from a summer of picking Michigan's blueberries directly into Michigan State University. She graduated.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: I'm the first in family to go to college and get a degree… I guess I broke the vicious cycle that was in my family, being from a migrant family, because people don't really expect it from you.

Anna reflects that those long days in the fields taught her to respect books and knowledge.

After Michigan State, she'd come home to Texas to teach in a public school.

DENNIS MURPHY: So, Anna, there you were, a college graduate, and yet you decided to come back to the Rio Grande Valley.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: That's correct.

DENNIS MURPHY: Why'd you do that?

ANNA VILLANUEVA: I kind of wanted to give back to the students here in the district, and I actually came back to the district that I graduated from.

DENNIS MURPHY: This is where you were a kid their size, right? This is your old school district.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: That's right. That's right.

It also happens to be the same school district where Uly has finally enrolled in class a week before Thanksgiving. He gets the jitters. And who does his science teacher turn out to be? Someone who knows all too well the hard work in the fields and the jitters that accompany migrant children in school… It's Anna Villanueva.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: He's a little bit shy, you know, at first, but he's an excellent student.

DENNIS MURPHY: So how's school going for you, Uly?

ULYSSES CRUZ: Good. But sometimes it's hard for me because...sometimes I'm behind of schedule.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: And we're also going to fill in Ulysses because he wasn't here for yesterday's lesson as well.

DENNIS MURPHY: And when you see somebody like young Uly...he's still got to get through high school...

ANNA VILLANUEVA: That's correct.

DENNIS MURPHY: What is it going to take for him to get there?

ANNA VILLANUEVA: He's going to have to remember those times when he's working in the fields...and use that to push himself through school.

And Anna's there to help steer him in the right direction.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: He does need help in several areas, and that's where a lot of the resources that the district and the school provides for migrant students here comes in.

Resources – the special attention that helped Anna and her sister Yvette finish high school and college. But the success of the Villanueva family came with a price: Distance and separation. Yvette moved to Ohio for school and worked there with her brother Javier. On this day, they're all back in Texas for an unplanned reunion.

YVETTE VILLANUEVA: We are going to go surprise my parents that we are coming back to the Valley. We haven't seen them in a while.

It had been three years since the family was all together. We hadn't seen any of them in over a decade.

DENNIS MURPHY: You've all gotten bigger.

ANNA VILLANUEVA: Yes, we have.

DENNIS MURPHY: So what do you say when you take the snapshot to capture the happy moment? Not cheese, not when you've been migrant pickers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You want to say, ‘blueberries?’

VILLANUEVA FAMILY: [in unison] Blueberries!

Just around the corner in Mission, Texas, the Cruz family may be the next to opt out of the migrant life. As winter comes to the valley, Ricardo has all but abandoned the idea of taking the family back up north to work. But he knows there will be others.

RICARDO CRUZ: [through translator] They will always need the migrant to do the work.

Without question, during this harvest season, among the 2.5 million farm workers who work the fields, they will still be there. Small figures in the distance, they are the invisible hands in America's food chain: the families, the children, the migrants. But this mom and dad just may have succeeded in getting their children off the migrant trail. Harvest over.

ANN CURRY: And that's all for this edition of Dateline Sunday. We're back again tomorrow for Dateline Monday at 10/9 Central. I'm Ann Curry, and, for all of us here at NBC News, good night.

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Explainer: Photos from Dateline NBC's coverage

  • 2-year-old helps

    Rayner Ramirez

    Abigail Villanueva, 2, trying to help out her family in the blueberry fields near South Haven, MI.  1998.

  • Villanueva children

    Rayner Ramirez

    The Villanueva children picking blueberries near South Haven, MI 1998

  • 1998

    Victor Arango

    James Flores picking cucumbers in Ohio. 1998. 

  • Cucumber pickers

    Victor Arango

    James Flores (right) and brother pick cucumbers in Ohio.  1998.

  • Fixing cars

    Victor Arango

    Pablo Flores fixing their creaky van by the side of the road. 1998.

  • 2009

    Rayner Ramirez

    A five and six year old picking blueberries near South Haven, MI.  2009

  • Behind the scenes

    Rayner Ramirez

    Producer Nick Capote trying his hand at picking blueberries.

  • Michigan-based family

    Nick Capote

    A family of cucumber pickers poses in front of their trailer in Michigan. 

  • Eagle Pass, Texas

    Rayner Ramirez

    Workers stoop and use sharp knives to pick cabbage near Eagle Pass, TX.  2009

  • Eagle Pass, Texas

    Rayner Ramirez

    Dennis Murphy with Yvette and Javier Villanueva 12 years after our initial interview.  2010

Timeline: Archives: Previous documentaries

Since 1970, NBC News has had a tradition of telling the story of migrant farm workers.  NBC News’ White Paper: The Migrants aired on July 16, 1970 was a follow up to the seminal documentary “Harvest of Shame” reported by Edward R. Murrow in 1960.

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