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'Helping My People': 17-Year-Old Farmworker Becomes A Labor Activist

Alicia Santos started picking strawberries when she was 7 years old. Her mother was working at Hayton Farms in Skagit County, so Alicia went along.

She stayed in the row for the whole day but didn't make much effort. "I feel like, why am I even picking? It's so hot!"

Now at age 17, Santos still works in the fields of Skagit County, along with just about everyone in her community. She's trying to help others like her by organizing for better working conditions.

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After her sophomore year of high school, Santos returned to the fields, this time picking strawberries for Sakuma Brothers Farms. She picked a lot faster than when she was young because now she wanted money for her family. To Alicia, family is very important.

"I was happy," she explained. "I actually received money. I was happy I was picking berries."

Alicia didn't go to school that year until mid-September, a few weeks after classes started, because she was putting work first. Even when she did go back to school, she didn't want to leave her job. So after going to class all week, she would pick blackberries every Saturday and Sunday. She worked in the fields until October.

It's not an easy life. When Santos comes home from work she feels pain in her back from bending over too much.

"In the morning it's harder to wake because you know you will have already worked all day morning through night [the day before]," she said. "Next thing you look, you're in the field again. So it just goes over and over again."

In 2013 Santos heard that some farmworkers were dissatisfied with their pay and had walked away from their jobs. She decided to join their organization, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia (FUJ) and quickly transformed into an organizer.FUJ is targeting Sakuma Brothers Farms, demanding a union contract and calling for a boycott. Santos has helped FUJ lead protest marches against the company and against Driscoll Berries, which sells berries harvested at Sakuma Brothers. Recently, Sakuma Brothers has made changes to the way workers are paid, and a spokesperson said the company's pay system "is one of the most progressive in the country and exceeds state and federal laws." But FUJ is not satisfied.Santos' responsibility in the organization is to share other farmworkers' stories. "I explain to them that I want to know their story, how they are being treated ... as a farmworker," she said. "They want their story to be heard."Santos presents these stories mostly at colleges and universities. Her goal is to inform students about farmworkers' needs. She has learned public speaking skills; before joining FUJ she was too shy to be in front of an audience.Santos is a student, a farmworker and an FUJ committee member. It's hard to do all of that at the same time but that doesn't stop her. Santos loves what she does because she is doing it for her family. Now, her family is bigger than ever before."I have to help my family, but on the side I have to help those farmworkers. To me, they are a family. I call them all family, and so it's a big responsibility. "All I have to say is I'm helping my people." Santos still works in the fields every summer. She's a senior at Sedro-Wooley High School this year. She's looking forward to graduating and going to college. She wants to study labor and learn more about unions.Like Alicia Santos, Rogelia Sanchez , 17, also works long hours in the fields of Skagit County. Sanchez reported this story for RadioActive Youth Media, KUOW's program for youth age 16-20ish. Listen to RadioActivestories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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