Beyond the Fields: Farm Workers Excel Academically Through Cesar Chavez Program - NBC Bay Area
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Beyond the Fields: Farm Workers Excel Academically Through Cesar Chavez Program

The Farmworker Institute for Education & Leadership Development, better known as F.I.E.L.D., was founded in 1978 by labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez to provide training and education to people in underserved rural communities.

Beyond the Fields: Farm Workers Excel Academically Through Cesar Chavez Program

Before the break of dawn in a small agricultural town in Monterey County, 21-year-old Florencia prepares for another long day out in the broccoli fields. Her day starts at 4 a.m. so she can get her young daughters over to a babysitter before heading to work. For many in the town of Greenfield, it's a day spent packing broccoli, sometimes for as many as 12 hours, out in the Central California sun. But it doesn’t end there. (Published Friday, Aug. 3, 2018)

Before the break of dawn in a small agricultural town in Monterey County, 21-year-old Florencia prepares for another long day out in the broccoli fields. Her day starts at 4 a.m. so she can get her young daughters over to a babysitter before heading to work. For many in the town of Greenfield, it's a day spent packing broccoli, sometimes for as many as 12 hours, out in the hot Central California sun. 

But it doesn’t end there. 

Field workers pick and pack broccoli in a small agricultural town in Monterey County.
Photo credit: Jennifer Gonzalez / NBC Bay Area

Each day, usually around 5 p.m., Florencia and a few of her fellow field workers still have work to do – but this time it’s in the classroom. They are students enrolled in a program designed to provide training and education to people in underserved rural communities. 

The Farmworker Institute for Education & Leadership Development, better known as F.I.E.L.D., was founded in 1978 by labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, an icon in the farm working community. Initially, Chavez started the program in hopes of helping people learn the necessary skills to find work beyond the fields, but his death in 1993 put many things at a halt. 

It wasn’t until 2000 that new leadership at the United Farm Workers made the decision to start F.I.E.L.D. again with David Villarino-Gonzalez, Chavez’s son-in-law, as the head of the program to provide free GED completion and English language courses to the local communities. 

“We started our first training education with 40 people and now we’re doing seven to eight thousand [students] a year,” Villarino-Gonzalez said. 

Most students who join F.I.E.L.D. take about four years to graduate and the program has an 80 percent success rate. For many field workers, this program is not only providing them with a chance to pursue careers outside of agriculture, it’s giving their kids a better opportunity. 

Florencia continues her long day at a local F.I.E.L.D. campus by the broccoli field she works at.
Photo credit: Jennifer Gonzalez / NBC Bay Area

“You learn a lot and it’s good that a program like this exists to help you complete your education,” Florencia said. “I don’t really know [what I want to do] but I want a good job because I really like to work.” 

Florencia has been working in the fields since she was 17; before she packed broccoli, she harvested lettuce. It wasn’t until recently that she realized not finishing high school was a mistake -- not just for herself, but for her daughters as well. 

"I know how exhausting it is to work out in the fields," said Alice Rodriguez, a teacher and supervisor at F.I.E.L.D. "Many of them want their children to do better, they don't want their children working in the fields. So they come to class and they do their best to learn as much as they can." 

In January, Florencia signed up for a GED completion course at F.I.E.LD. with hopes it will help her go to a local college like Hartnell to pursue a career. 

But F.I.E.L.D. does more than provide education to underserved rural communities, it gives undocumented field workers hope that they’ll be accepted into American society. 

“They want to be citizens, let’s be clear,” Villarino-Gonzalez said. “They want to participate, they want to help in the economy of our country, our future and they’re willing to sacrifice to get it done.” 

When F.I.E.L.D. first relaunched, they only had about $60,000 in their budget for the year, but as they’ve grown their free educational program to over 26 campuses across the Golden State - with hopes of establishing more - it’s requiring more resources. 

According to data provided by F.I.E.L.D., it takes about $350,000 a year to fund one location with classroom essentials, teachers, etc. 

While they have grown exponentially in California over the past 18 years, F.I.E.L.D. plans to extend its reach beyond the Golden State and even make its way east to help other field workers across the country. 

“[A program like this] is important because most rural communities are forgotten,” Villarino-Gonzalez said. “Most of the resources go to the big cities and yet these are the areas that really contribute to the economy in the long run.”

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