|The barracks where Randy Carter and classmates lived in 1965.|
Enter then-Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, who wanted to prove farmers wrong. He announced on Cinco de Mayo of 1965 that he wanted to recruit 20,000 high-school athletes to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmworkers. He called the project A-TEAM: Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower.
After weeks of heavy nationwide advertising with slogans like "Farm Work Builds Men!" about 18,100 teens signed up, though only about 3,300 of them ever actually picked crops. One was Randy Carter, now a member of the Directors Guild of America. He and 25 classmates at his San Diego high school joined up and were assigned to pick cantaloupes near Blythe, Calif., Arellano reports.
It was brutal work, Carter told Arellano: The students worked six days a week and weren't allowed to go home during their stint. They were paid minimum wage, then $1.40 an hour, and began work before dawn to minimize working in the blistering heat of daytime in the irrigated desert. They were housed in dilapidated barracks that regularly reached nighttime temperatures in the 90s.
Though some teens stuck it out all summer as a point of pride, the program fizzled quickly. "In California's Salinas Valley, 200 teenagers from New Mexico, Kansas and Wyoming quit after just two weeks on the job," Arellano reports. "Students elsewhere staged strikes. At the end, the A-TEAM was considered a giant failure and was never tried again."
Stony Brook University history professor Lori Flores, who researched the program for a book, said it demonstrates a valuable perspective on the reality of farm work: "These [high school students] had the words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply didn't have the power or space for the American public to listen to them," she told Arellano. "The students dropped out because the conditions were so atrocious, and the growers weren't able to mask that up."