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Picture The People Nancy Buirski Shares The Plight Of The Migrant Worker Family Through Photos In Her Book ‘Earth Angles’

The title of the book ‘Earth Angels’ was incorrect in the headline and a photo caption.

While we have one of the cheapest and most abundant food supplies in the world, our bounty comes in large part from the efforts of the poorest of people.

Seasonal farm laborers scrape by on wages at half the poverty level. They live in cramped, makeshift housing as they pick their way through rural way stations in California, Minnesota and our own Columbia Basin. Their disease rates have barely improved over the last two generations. They die young.

They are trapped by a tradition launched a century ago with the labor of Chinese farm workers, then displaced Oakies and poor blacks and more recently, Mexicans.

Caught in this cycle are the families of Nancy Buirski’s four-year photographic study of migrant children in America, “Earth Angels” (Pomegranate Artbooks, $24.95).

A New York Times photo editor, Buirski followed families throughout the country, including Central Washington, where nearly half the field crops are picked by migratory labor. In the process, she captured a troubling range of ironies, not the least of which is how some of the hardest working people can live so poorly.

“You’ve got a system of agricultural labor whereby people’s families are intact, they are working 10 or 12 hours a day, they are not on welfare, and they are earning probably the lowest average income of any laborer in the United States - an average of $6,000 a year,” Buirski said recently from Seattle, where she was speaking to a conference of the Children’s Defense Fund. “…I think the irony is really important. These people are living in poverty because they work.”

Buirski, who puts her age in the 40s, is the daughter of a New Rochelle, N.Y., toilet paper manufacturer and interior designer.

But she doesn’t dismiss the setting of her own childhood as the middle-class oasis of those other New Rochellians, Rob and Laura Petrie of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The community had an ethnic and religious mix, Buirski said, and her family impressed upon her a certain consciousness “that it was important to care about people unlike myself.”

This grew through volunteer work at a local hospital, then later as a photo editor in the “concerned photographers” ethos of the Magnum photo agency.

Drawn to children at risk after seeing the youthful market guides of Morocco, she decided to seek them out in her own back yard. Her first encounter was with the Zavala family of Plainview, Texas. They told her of their dreams, their disappointments and the hopes and fears they had for their children.

“I began to realize that the children working in the fields was a necessity for them, an economic necessity, and it was part of their migrant lifestyle,” she said.

Migrating herself through the Texas panhandle, upstate New York, California, Florida and Washington fields outside Pasco, Sunnyside and Eltopia, she saw the paradox of children tempered and aged before their time.

“Everything is at risk in this lifestyle for them: their educations, their health, they have terrible living conditions, obviously they’re living in poverty,” Buirski said. “They are exposed to toxic pesticides and chemicals. They have an enormous number of accidents and an enormous number of deaths from working in the fields. And yet they develop a tremendous amount of self-esteem by working with the family and being such an important part of that family venture.”

In her book, she reveals the migrant world from the inside out, which is how one would expect a child to see it.

There’s the world of work: stooping down monotonous rows of cucumbers in the early morning haze, laboring fully clothed in the treeless 100-degree heat of the Texas panhandle, rising at 4:30 a.m. to repeat a cyclical grind.

“We plant the cabbage, then clean the cucumber, clean the cabbage, then pick the cukes,” says Israel Gonzales in upstate New York. “Then we start the apples.”

It is a weary life of cramped quarters, drawn, stoic faces and bitter moments. We see Rachel Gonzales, 15, pausing in a field to eat a cucumber sprayed with pesticide the day before. In Corning, Calif., a family of three kids - 6 months to 6 years - sleeps in an olive field.

But even more central than the world of work and movement is the family unit - bolstered by Mexican tradition, reinforced by the need to work for the good of the whole, isolated by the constant movement from the periphery of one farm community to another. This is where one finds the book’s moments of relief. Here’s Lidia Gonzales preparing tortillas for the next day’s work. There’s Kristy and Susy Zavala, ages 9 and 12, playing in a cinder-block labor camp with one of the few toys brought 800 miles from home.

The photos ring true for Norma Martinez, a Washington State University senior from Warden who started hoeing beets at the age of 11. Studying the photos at the request of a reporter, Martinez saw familiar images in workers in a field while it was being sprayed, in the labor camp bungalows with bare, dirty walls, in 5- and 6-year-olds out in the fields with their parents.

“She just got everything,” said Martinez.

Journalistically, Buirski was walking on hallowed ground. It was broken at the turn of the century by photographer Lewis Hine’s look at children in industry. Migrant workers have since been covered by the likes of Dorothea Lange, James Agee, John Steinbeck, Edward R. Murrow and Robert Coles.

Buirski pays homage to many of them through quotes in the book, like this from James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” - “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life.”

By shooting in color, Buirski broke from the gritty tradition of black and white, bringing the subject up to date.

“The book is an effort to show not only what is the same over many, many years,” she said, “but also some small changes.”

Such changes were apparent in Washington state, she said. Here she found Spanish-speaking church services in Sunnyside, children in the Mabton Head Start program and migrant students attending special night classes in Pasco.

“I find these kids real heroes,” she said. “They know that the only way they’re going to get out of the migrant lifestyle is if they get their education. And they work very hard to keep up their education. Sometimes they’re two or three years behind in their reading skills but they work very hard to keep up.”

Yet Buirski worries some migrant programs will suffer by federal cutbacks.

Meanwhile, changes like child labor law enforcement or health care will come only with citizenship and the vote. Moreover, she said, a better wage can only come when Americans are willing to pay more - however little that might be - for a head of lettuce or a bunch of grapes.