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A New Film Documents the Immigrant Farmworker Journey

It seemed like a dream. The sisters grew up hearing about a village high up in the mountains, where their parents had once lived without running water or cell phones—a place where their grandmother made delicious food and grandfather eked out a living planting corn, where everyone spoke Triqui, an Indigenous language hardly heard in the United States.

Esmirna Librado and Noemi Librado-Sánchez, and their cousins Heriberto and Esmeralda Ventura were all born in the U.S. to farmworker parents. They only ever had seen relatives from their family’s village in Mexico in faded photographs. The children grew up together in overcrowded apartments, wondering if and how the American dream might apply to them.

In 2016, the four cousins, who were by then teenagers, decided it was time to meet the grandparents and see their parents’ ancestral village for the first time. In December of that year, a month before Donald Trump’s inauguration, they travelled together by truck from California to San Martín Itunyoso, Oaxaca, a distance of more than 2,000 miles. Seth Holmes, an anthropology professor and family friend, accompanied the youth.

They recorded their journey to the village and their two weeks in Oaxaca on video. Back in the U.S., they decided the footage was worth sharing with a wider audience. Six years after the epic journey, the cousins co-directed and released a 30-minute film called First Time Home. Unscripted and raw, it offers a rare, authentic glimpse into what life is like for farmworker families and the reasons why immigrants choose to sacrifice their lives in Mexico to pursue better opportunities up North. Earlier this year, the film won the award for Best Youth Film at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

Civil Eats recently spoke with First Time Home’s co-directors Esmirna Librado, 22, and Noemi Librado-Sánchez, 18, about growing up with farmworker parents, how the trip to their ancestral village changed them, and their plans for the future.

First Time Home’s co-directors: From left, Esmeralda Ventura, Noemi Librado-Sánchez, Esmirna Librado, and Heriberto Ventura.

What was it like growing up in a farmworker family in the U.S.?

Esmirna Librado: Our parents were both very young when they got here, around 15-16 years old. They came because there were not enough well-paying jobs [in Mexico]. A year after they came, I was born, and they decided to stay so I could have a better future. But growing up was hard for me. Our parents picked strawberries and blueberries in Washington State and peaches and grapes in California. When my dad would go to work, we would be asleep, and when he came back, we’d be asleep. That’s how it was most of the time. We barely got to see him or my mom because they had to work in the fields to keep their kids fed, pay rent, and stuff like that.

Noemi Librado-Sánchez: My uncle—our dad’s brother—he’s the one who helped raise us. He took care of us whenever our parents were working really late. My uncle would do my hair or take me to church with him. He was my father figure growing up.

One thing that really struck me in the film was how incredibly overcrowded the living conditions were for your families. Multiple families lived in one small apartment.

NLS: Yes, it was quite a few people. Rents are really high and farmworker wages are low. Plus, undocumented people get paid less than regular Americans. Luckily, things have changed for us in recent years, but our families lived like that for a really long time. Living together was a way to make things work.

EL: It was the only way we could help each other out. When our parents went to work, the older kids would take care of the younger ones. That was a way for our parents to save up money. It was hard. When we got older, my dad decided that it was time to stay put and have a steady place. So, we stayed in Washington State, and that’s where I started school.

But we continued migrating back and forth between Washington and California during the picking season. [When we went to California,] it was hard to find a place to live right away so there were times when we would even stay in cars—we would be homeless for a week or so. But if we knew a family that had a house, we would go and rent with them. We eventually stopped migrating, but my uncles continued to go back and forth. Until last year, they were still doing that.

Working in the fields isn’t an easy job, but our parents have done it for years. And they had no other choice. . . . Farm work was the only way they can make money. They have to work outside in extreme heat and during wildfires to bring food to the table for their families.

NLS: Moving back and forth means having to change schools multiple times, and it can really mess up your education. Many children of farmworkers have this experience. My dad didn’t want us to go through that. That’s a major reason why our parents chose to stay in one place.

If you could tell Americans one thing about farmworkers’ lives, what would it be?

EL: Working in the fields isn’t an easy job, but our parents have done it for years. And they had no other choice. They have no education; most of our relatives didn’t even get to finish middle school in Mexico. They came here for better opportunities, but farm work was the only way they can make money. For many of them, documentation is an issue. They can’t go and get a more comfortable job indoors. They have to work outside in extreme heat and during wildfires to bring food to the table for their families.

When you made the journey to your family’s village, Noemi was just 12 years old and Esmirna was 16. What was the experience like? How did the trip impact you? 

NLS: The trip felt like stepping into a story that you’ve been told multiple times. You could finally picture it all. When I was a child, my dad would tell us about walking through the dirt, the field of corn just beyond their doorstep, and the lack of running water. He would describe our grandma’s good food. And when we got there, everything was just like [he’d described]. For a moment, it felt surreal. Like, “Wow, I’m actually here. These are actually my grandparents.” Before I went to Mexico, I felt like the United States was the only place for me. Now, I feel like I have two places to call home.

The trip also taught me to think more about my decisions and to focus on how I want to live my life. When I think about what I’m going to do next and who I really want to be, I remember my time in San Martín Itunyoso. I realized that I want to do something to help people, whether it’s through writing a book, making a video, or some other way.

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