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Migrant field in southeast Michigan

It’s an odd experience to get a glimpse of the past while being incredibly aware of the present, as it was for me when I went with a group of other medical students, residents, and attendings to volunteer at the University of Michigan Migrant Farmworker Outreach Clinic.

My dad and his family worked as migrant farmworkers for 13 years, moving from my grandpa’s ranch in Mexico to the States to begin an annual chasing of the crop cycle. Every year for most of my dad’s childhood, they would travel across the country to find work picking, thinning, or weeding tomatoes, sugar beets, soy, or cherries, and doing whatever work needed to be done. They even came as far north as St. Johns, Michigan, the town that would eventually be my childhood home. Being one of the youngest in the family, my dad had the family support to be able to continue with formal schooling during these years. His parents and older siblings worked to support the family while he went to school, and he spent his summers and after-school hours working side-by-side with them. Through the influence of a couple of key teachers and mentors, when my dad was 19, he was able to starting attending a local community college, a break that largely enabled him to craft the life that my family now has.

My dad, age 7 or 8

While I didn’t spend my childhood working in the fields the way my dad did, the stories and struggles of the migrant farmworker community has been a constant influence throughout my upbringing. I went to my first migrant camp with my dad when I was three years old, and I remember being five or six and playing soccer with kids my age. As a kid, it was hard for me to understand why such a difference existed between my life and those of the friends I would make. It wasn’t until my college years that I really began to see how closely my dad’s story, and thus my story, were connected to those of my childhood playmates.

As I was driving to the migrant health clinic in southeast Michigan, now as a medical student volunteer, the stories of my dad, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were running through my head. Leaving the car, the first person I saw was a little boy, running around, playing. As we made our way to where the clinic was set up, a bunch of lawn tables organized outside, I saw the adults, mostly young men not much older than me, waiting to talk to us. I paused. In the kids playing, I saw my dad, playing with his younger sister and older brothers. In the young men, I saw my grandpa and uncles, exhausted after a long day of work, but still smiling and joking around with their friends. And then I saw me, a 23-year-old who just finished his first year of medical school, coming to help in my small way.

As I navigated the mix of chief complaints we saw, I once again was shocked by the disparity between my life and those around me. I was glad I was there to help, but also wished I could do so much more. As we got in the car to leave, I looked out the window, and once again saw the children playing, running around with smiles on their faces. I saw the kids, but envisioned my dad. My past and present collided.