Emily Cohen Ibanez on FRUITS OF LABOR and Agricultural Child Labor (SXSW21) – Sarah Knight Adamson Interviews

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The insightful film Fruits of Labor focuses on California Central Coast’s rich soil, the beautiful nature of the area, and the laborers that work the fields. Ashley, an energetic, vibrant teen, works in those fields to help provide for the family. Filmmaker Emily Cohen Ibanez met her when she was 15 years old—two years later, she filmed her senior year of High School, documenting her struggles of balancing school and her farm work. The film premiered at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival. I spoke with director Emily Cohen Ibanez shortly after the festival.

Sarah Knight Adamson: Can you please talk about the agriculture industry in which children as young as 12 are allowed to labor with virtually limited restrictions on the number of hours they work outside of the school day in the USA? And do you think that this is a problem?

Emily Cohen Ibanez: Yes, I do find it’s a real problem. It’s a vestige of slavery in this country. We had this amazing legislature with FDR, with the new deal that garnered a lot of protections for workers in this country. It was extremely important and had major impacts in protecting workers, limiting work hours, different kinds of protections. One area that got carved out was agricultural fieldwork and domestic work. That has to do with our racialized history, the way we racialize certain forms of work in this country.

Farm labor was seen as a denigrated form of work since that was formerly a part of slavery. Slaves initially did that work. And then it became associated with black and brown people, and they didn’t get the same kinds of protection.

And now we have this opportunity today with a newfound attention towards essential workers. We’re living through a terrible pandemic, and we realized, I think, as a larger society, “Oh my God, how are we going to get our food?”

And so, I think there’s a new focus, and hopefully, we can take this opportunity to re-examine the ways that we treat agricultural workers, for example, in this country as well as domestic laborers.

SKA: Can you tell me when you met Ashley and her family?

ECI: I met Ashley when she was 15. I was doing arts development work, creating a video collective in her town with communities from farm working families and college students. And Ashley just really stood out. She’s a sensitive young woman, she’s engaged, she’s an advocate for her community. She also had a wonderful eye and was teaching the young people camera, and she just had an enormous amount of curiosity. I was really drawn to her and wanting to continue her development as a young person and then got to know her family. Two years after meeting her and her family, I asked her if I could film her in her last year of high school.

SKA: During your research, what do you believe is the percentage of farm labor compared to male and female? I’m wondering, is it mostly one or the other, or is it about even?

ECI: You know that’s a really good question, and I need to look up those stats. I don’t know those offhand, but that’s a great question.

SKA: I was also wondering, do the majority of the children work?

ECI: Yes, I think it can be up to 400,000 children in the United States working in agricultural fields. I can recheck that for you. It’s a very high number of children doing farm labor. And a lot of times they are working alongside their parents and often they’re not. I noticed a marked increase in the town where Ashley’s from; there was a major labor gap after Trump was elected and an increase in ICE raids. So, the adults were turning fearful to work in the farms and in the factories because those were workplaces vulnerable to ICE raids. Many kids who are born in the USA were replacing the adults.

SKA: What effect do you think working as a child at a younger age has on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing?

ECI: I think a lot of young people have jobs like babysitting or working at the local ice cream shop. I don’t think that’s necessarily negative for a young person’s development if they’re working limited hours. But when you are put in a position in the United States where people are just caught in the cycle of poverty because work is not paid adequately or valued adequately. Young people then have the pressures of becoming the breadwinners for their families, that’s a different kind of pressure that doesn’t allow young people, for example, to focus on education.

That’s one of the ways that in this country that you can progress or at least provide yourself opportunities. I think that farm labor is actually incredible. It requires skill, and I actually have a lot of respect for it. I think it just needs to be treated in a more dignified fashion. It’s not a negative form of work, and it’s inherently necessary, it’s the conditions in which we do it in this country. People should be able to have options, pursue higher education if they want, pursue their dreams, create a meaningful life and one that they can sustain themselves economically and spiritually.

SKA: You’ve created so much empathy for Ashley, especially in the scene when the girls’ were buying prom dresses. I began to tear up.

ECI: Well, thank you so much. My job is to follow the moments that are most meaningful to Ashley and really to capture her perspective and her world. I wanted to really focus on those kinds of coming of age moments.

SKA: What do you hope people take away from your film?

ECI: I hope that people allow themselves to enjoy the lyricism, identify with Ashley, have a cinematic experience. I hope that they take away, rethinking the way that people come to understand work and labor in this country. And potentially have a re-imagining, allow for re-imagining and a valuing of the nature of a young person’s perspective of coming of age. Just the work itself of people that are providing food on our table—identifying and valuing young brown working woman as someone who is central and part of the American experience. I didn’t want to make the film where oftentimes Latinos are marginalized in this country, because it couldn’t be less of the truth. Really Latinos have historically and currently provide the backbone of our economies of labor and contribute culturally. I want there to be a dignified picture that people feel the love of the family and their strategies of survival and really enjoy Ashley’s perspective of the world, and to think differently about food labor and work in this country.

SKA: I think you have accomplished that. That’s a wonderful answer. Thank you.

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Sarah Knight Adamson

Chicago-based Sarah Knight Adamson is the film critic for the Internationally syndicated radio show Hollywood 360, broadcast on over 90 stations. She has served on film panels for the Chicago Public Library, been a juror at film festivals, and writes about film for Naperville Magazine. She is founder and publisher of Sarah’s Backstage Pass website, where her written work appears.