SACRAMENTO -- Electrical engineer and Arizona native Julia Pérez documented the plight of migrant children as young as 10 who are still toiling in the agricultural fields in her award-winning documentary-film 'The Harvest/La Cosecha.'
Former Kumbia Kings All Starz lead vocalist and music entertainer Irvin Salinas Mártinez -- better known as 'Pee Wee' -- spent three years on a campaign with McDonald's to encourage, motivate and inspire Latino high school students to stay in school, get an education, and, above all, follow their dreams.
Pérez and Pee Wee were among those honored by the state Latino Legislative Caucus on Monday at the 11th annual Latino Spirit Awards.
Pérez said her experiences as a child migrant farmworker helped her bring awareness to the fact that migrant children are still allowed to legally work in the fields at a very young age.
"I was 5 years old when I started working in the fields with my parents. We lived in 10 different states and I was the first in my family of ten brothers and sisters to get an education and to get out of the fields," said Pérez.
A few years ago, U. Roberto Romano, director of 'The Harvest' came up with the idea of interviewing and documenting farmworker families and their children from his own traveling experiences around the globe and noticing a trend in the labor force that was largely made up of children.
In the U.S., he wanted to shed light on the migrant children who work in the fields under terrible conditions. In the process, he faced many challenges and presented an opportunity to Pérez who took an immediate interest in the film.
"At first I was just helping the director in finding potential families to interview, so I drafted the questions we intended to ask the children and really did my research to find those special families. Before I knew it, I became the associate director of the film," said Pérez.
Her personal experiences helped start a dialogue with the farmworker children and their families.
"I was able to relate to these families on a very personal level. I was in their shoes so many years ago and yet, I find that nothing has changed. Young children are still working in the fields and getting exposed to dangerous pesticides which in the long term could have life-threatening consequences. Children simply should not be working in the fields at such a young age and that is the bottom line," said Pérez.
For ten days each month in the following three years, Pérez traveled throughout the United States interviewing migrant families and their children, asking them questions, capturing their hard work on camera and learning about their hopes for a better future.
"I had a child tell me once, 'I didn't know I was allowed to have dreams,'"said Pérez. "For a child to be making statements like this in the land of opportunity was astonishing to me. Our children should be getting an education, not uprooting every season from state to state to work under such brutal conditions," said Pérez.
Migrant labor is one of many reasons why Latinos are not faring well in education, she believes. High school drop out rates among Latinos continue to worsen and are at an all-time high while college admissions low, but in the migrant community, those numbers are worse.
"Sixty-five percent of migrant children drop out of high school compared to the average Latino student and that is a terrible thing for our community. We are losing future doctors, engineers and lawyers," said Pérez.
"I think there needs to be a fundamental change in agriculture. We have huge agriculture corporations like Cargill who have annual revenues in the billions and it's on the backs of many migrant children. There needs to be a federal change," said Pérez.
Pee Wee, 23, said the best thing to do with Latino students is to continue pushing them toward the path of education.
"This tour that I did was all about visiting different high schools across our country who have students scoring really low on their test scores and who are mostly at-risk. I spoke to the students, stressing the importance of finishing high school, going to college and getting a degree," said Pee Wee.
Although he never had the opportunity to go to college, Pee Wee believes his musical career could better benefit in the world of entertainment if he had a college degree.
"The Latino community is growing and our future will require a diploma and a solid education. Students need to make this path a priority. I hope I was able to make a difference in their life with my words," said Pee Wee.
At the conclusion of his tour, schools which increased their test scores, had a significant turn-around in drop out rates had the opportunity to enjoy a free concert by Pee Wee himself. The chance to reach out to Latino students was a unique opportunity, he said.
"The important thing that I told students is that nothing is impossible and to work hard and keep striving to be better," said Pee Wee.
When he is not motivating students, Pee Wee stays busy with his music career.
In August, he will launch an album that has yet to have a title and his first single, 'Lo Que Me Pasa Contigo,' will make its debut May 22 on i-Tunes. The Spanglish album will include dance/pop songs.
"It will be a fun, addicting and exciting album. Even if you don't know how to dance, the tracks in this album will make you dance," he said.