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Farmworker families showed me hard-to-reach doesn’t mean unwilling to talk

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Farmworker families showed me hard-to-reach doesn’t mean unwilling to talk

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Luz Vazquez Hernandez, 18, pulls out the shirt she wore for roofing last summer.
Luz Vazquez Hernandez, 18, pulls out the shirt she wore for roofing last summer. She helped her family by working during the pandemic while also attending school.
(Andrea Melendez/USA TODAY Network Florida)

I’ve been reporting on vulnerable communities for nearly two decades, but I was new to building trust in a pandemic. 

A principal goal for my USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2020 Data Fellowship project was exploring the toll of the pandemic on the children of farmworkers. Florida counts about 36,000 farmworker family households. 

For several months, I pestered nonprofits that serve migrant families. 

Can you introduce me to a migrant parent and child? A family who would be OK with being identified and in photo and video? 

I knew I was asking a lot. Nonprofit organizations were understandably wary of exposing farmworkers and their children to the uncertainty of an unknown person, especially since I was asking for access to a population who had been among those hardest hit by COVID-19. 

My initial data reporting had found that Florida towns with large farmworker populations counted COVID-19 infection rates higher than the state average and up to three times more than nearby communities. Immokalee, a large agricultural hub, counted the highest number of cases in its county while representing just 7% of Collier County’s population.

Before my data analysis, news outlets had written about a surge in cases in rural Florida during the summer but had not explored to what extent farmworkers had been disproportionately impacted. I did not have a hard time finding farmworkers to reflect on the data. I approached and interviewed people outdoors at public COVID-19 testing events held on evenings and weekends in rural communities. Part of the reason farmworkers spoke to me, I believe, is because they were frustrated by the lack of a public health response that had left them without protective equipment, accessible testing, and vaccines.  

My reporting also revealed Florida’s absence of a plan to vaccinate farmworkers and detailed how the state left farmworkers out of its pandemic response, conclusions that came through extensive public records requests and interviews that included the state’s agriculture commissioner. A day after a story appeared, the state unexpectedly began hosting vaccination events targeted at farmworkers and distributed more than 3,000 vaccines in roughly a week.   

Finding migrant parents and children to interview proved to be much harder; schools prohibited visitors to campuses. The pandemic cancelled community events that attracted families and children. And while there are several Florida nonprofits that focus on farmworkers’ rights, far fewer focus specifically on their children. 

One large nonprofit serving migrant children did allow me to join virtual parent meetings, but parents were reluctant to share personal stories before a large group and it was hard to establish any kind of rapport in that setting. 

I needed input and direction from farmworker parents and their children to even know what the story was. There was a void of pediatric COVID-19 infection data at the ZIP code level that could show me if communities with large farmworker populations counted higher pediatric rates. I turned to school-level COVID-19 data. That, too, offered little clarity, as schools have a mix of non-migrant and migrant students. Pediatric mental health data was not collected in a way that could tell me if rural communities faced uneven impacts.   

I expanded my ask to migrant program supervisors in five school districts with the highest number of migrant students. I identified the districts through state education data. In the past, because of privacy restrictions, I’ve found school districts to be less responsive to journalist’s requests to connect with families. That was not the case with this story. 

Many migrant program officials had provided critical supports to migrant families during the pandemic and were well aware of the trials many families had experienced. 

“Thank you for the opportunity to provide the perspective of the migrant community,” one district official responded. 

Migrant program officials introduced me to students and parents. The initial interviews were restricted to off-campus or virtual meetings. If parents were comfortable with the idea, I would later meet them outside schools, their homes or inside once vaccines became widely available.   

I found that some of our newsroom practices erected similar technology and language barriers that migrant families had confronted with virtual schooling during the pandemic. For instance, we did not have a photo release in Spanish. The form was online only and in legalese rather than plain language. I translated the form and explained it. Parents wrote out the responses to the form, took photos of those responses and texted them to my cell phone. 

I connected with parents and students in the evenings or on the weekends, whenever was most convenient for them. In many cases, I shared questions in advance and in Spanish if they preferred. I wanted them to feel comfortable going in. In some cases, school district public affairs officials listened in, but they did not interfere with my ability to connect again with students and families once I explained my intentions.

Students and parents spoke to me at length. They spoke of loved ones they lost, husbands, mothers and children who got sick, the household rent that didn’t get paid when wages contracted, the trials of navigating virtual school without language or technology skills and the stress and uncertainty of migrating during a pandemic. 

One mother said after the interview, “I’ve never done this before. Thank you for the opportunity to express what we’ve experienced as a migrant family. As a community, many people don’t take us into account, thank you for doing so.” 

I realized I had conflated ideas about sourcing. A hard-to-reach source does not necessarily mean a source that is unwilling to talk. 

In a month, I had more interviews than I had originally aimed for and with enough reporting to create a multimedia storytelling package that included first-person narratives, which we published as a standalone element, independent of the experts and data.  

The interviews with migrant program officials, parents and students helped guide my reporting to other experts and education and housing data that revealed how the pandemic magnified inequities for the children of farmworkers. Though comprehensive data was not yet available, I found statewide and district-level migrant student enrollment data showing that Florida schools lost migrant students at a rate nearly five times higher than the non-migrant population, and attendance data that reflected adverse impacts for migrant students.  

After the project appeared, one migrant mother texted, “Thank you so much for everything. My home is always open for you and your team.” 

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