Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘You can’t take that from me’: A former North Carolina farmworker’s fight for protection

Yesenia Cuello, executive director of NC FIELD, interprets for Spanish-speaking farmworkers at a COVID-19 testing site in Nash County, North Carolina. Photo by Melissa Bailey Castillo.

Yesenia Cuello was raised a first-generation American near the tobacco field where she toiled as a kid. Now she’s leading a fight for the protections she needed.

This story is published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. Léalo en Español en Enlace Latino NC.

When Yesenia Cuello was 17, she took a photo. In it, small sullied hands lay stretched out over floppy, almost-fluorescent, dewy leaves. She’d captured the image of her two younger sisters when the siblings had joined their mother in the tobacco field right up the road from their mobile home in Pink Hill, North Carolina, in the southeastern part of the state. In the summers, the family harvested tobacco leaves on shifts up to 12 hours. 

Cuello wanted to document the black residue that comes off of the tobacco leaves, a harbinger to green tobacco sickness (GTS), an acute nicotine poisoning that causes days of nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Damp tobacco emits a dangerous amount of nicotine that can lead to fatal illness, affecting hundreds of workers each year. It’s a risk North Carolina farmworkers take every season when they hand pick the cash crop, as PPE often isn’t provided, Cuello said.

“We had only been in the field less than an hour when I took that photo,” said Cuello, who is now 29.” I wanted to highlight the tar that comes off of the tobacco leaves … and the small hands to show that child labor still exists. Unfortunately, the reality of things is that a child working in the field isn’t allotted the same protections as an underage child working at McDonalds, for example.”

The agriculture industry is riddled with exceptions to labor laws. Legally, children as young as 12 are allowed to work in the fields with parental permission. And although the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits anyone under 16 from working in conditions deemed hazardous, tobacco does not fall under that criteria. This creates an exploitative dynamic, especially in undocumented communities. For Cuello, that’s personal.

“So if I ever walked into a room — which has happened —  where people were saying, ‘You know, there aren’t children working in North Carolina’s fields.’ Well, we’re sitting right here,” Cuello explained.

Shortly after she took the photo of her sisters’ hands, Cuello got a summer job as the youngest researcher on a Wake Forest University team studying farmworker housing. She still went into the field, but this time to collect data on what she calls “ridiculous” substandard migrant farmworker housing. She recalls wondering how it was legal for the U.S. to bring immigrants to do farm labor and make them live in hazardous areas. It inspired her to speak up not only for her own family in North Carolina, but for the contract workers who come back and forth every year to work and suffer injustices.

Yesenia Cuello was 17 years old when she snapped this image of her younger sisters picking tobacco in North Carolina. Photo by Yesenia Cuello

In August 2019, Cuello became the executive director of NC FIELD (Focus on Increasing Education Leadership and Dignity), a small nonprofit based in Kinston, North Carolina, dedicated to supporting farmworkers in six eastern N.C. counties, including the one where Cuello and her family picked tobacco. Cuello has long been affiliated with the organization; a decade ago, she was helping to lead NC FIELD’s off-shoot youth group: Poder Juvenil Campesino (PJC), or Rural Youth Power. Through PJC, youth like Cuello entered the world of organizing for farmworkers through racial justice training and workshops, lobbying the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., and meeting personally with North Carolina politicians — as well as members of the N.C. Department of Labor — to advocate for immigration reform and fairer labor laws. 

Cuello didn’t set out to become an executive director of a nonprofit. She was gradually studying to become a nurse. Cuello sat on NC FIELD’s board when it began the search for a new executive director, and fellow board members encouraged her to fill the role herself. After much hesitation, she decided the job would be a way to continue working with the community she wanted to represent. Her role as director reflects a necessary change in the nonprofit sector. A 2017 report analyzing 315 nonprofit organizations and foundations in the U.S. found that 42% had women-identifying executive directors, yet 87% of all executive directors or presidents were white.

As a first-generation American raised in the rural South, Cuello is among a growing community of Latinx voices amplifying worker justice and advocating for the very protections Cuello needed as a child.

“I guess I was empowered to speak up and speak my truth and to highlight some of the things that I knew,” Cuello said. “How can you speak on behalf of my own reality, my own experiences? You can’t take that from me.”

As a small nonprofit struggling through competitive grant cycles, NC FIELD has hit bumps along the road. For a full year the organization didn’t have an executive director. It has always been a farmworker-led organization, with a board of mostly immigrant workers and PJC youth leading community organizing. But Cuello brings a marked shift, as past executive directors did not have the lived North Carolina experience and built-in network she brings to the role. (Yessy Bustos, a former executive director, grew up picking fruit in Texas.) 

Melissa Bailey Castillo, past executive director of NC FIELD and current consultant for the group, said that Cuello’s leadership throughout the pandemic led to a near half-million dollar increase in foundational support — from $50,000 to $500,000. 

“When she talks, she’s not talking about ‘them,’ she’s not talking about ‘that vulnerable population,’” Bailey Castillo said, “she’s talking about her mom, her brother, her cousins, her neighbors. She has a front row seat.”

“I can be talking to some agencies and I’ll be catching pure hell,” Bailey Castillo, who is white, continued. “But when Yesenia holds conversations, it means everything.”

Farmworkers became increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic, so Cuello got to work. She says it’s been important for workers “to be regarded as human.” 

Being well-connected in her own community of workers and immigrants, Cuello has helped pick up the pace in providing access to COVID tests and vaccinations across the six counties that NC FIELD serves. On any given weeknight, it’s easy to find Cuello running the scene with a walkie-talkie in hand, helping pack food boxes for residents and secure gas cards to get people to and from vaccination sites.

“What coronavirus did is elevate her voice,” Bailey Castillo said of Cuello. “When foundations looked around, when state agencies looked around, they realized they weren’t talking to the directly impacted.”

Cuello reiterates that the unprecedented moment created more awareness, but that the inequality is more deeply rooted.

“This community is being highlighted now, but it has continuously and historically been marginalized and underserved,” Cuello said.

Cuello’s family roots in labor and her own experience in the fields, where she took that photo of her sisters, have shaped her decade-plus of activism. Ultimately, she is looking out for her community, both the farmworkers that have come before her and those who continue to work in unjust conditions. 

As Cuello described her work last year, “In the absence of equality … the community seeks to protect its children, and the children seek to ensure their parents live long, productive lives.”

Victoria Bouloubasis reports for Southerly at the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina, in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.