Monday, February 11, 2013

Whose Pastures of Plenty?

Every year, thousands of people cross the border from Mexico into the United States to find work in fields that stretch from Maine to Michigan to California to Florida. Each individual's story is different, yet they all come with a dream of a better life. Unfortunately, many struggle while basic human rights are withheld.  The first tenet of food sovereignty is that food is a basic human right. "Food: A Basic Human Right. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity."

In 2011, I visited the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka. They run a center that offers health care, legal advice, trainings and advocacy to thousands of farmworkers. They warmly welcomed me and one of the organizers, Ana Luisa Trevino, gave me a tour of the area. We passed blueberry fields and cucumber farms. We saw farm workers picking vegetables by the side of the road, next to signs that read, “NO PHOTOGRPAHY ALLOWED.” I wondered, national security or human rights abuses?

At the Association, I was fortunate to speak with three different women, each with her own story. One of the women was my host, Ana.  Ana came to the United States in 1972 from Matamoros Tamaulipas, Mexico. She crossed the border to Brownsville, Texas and started working as a farmworker two years later. She was 13 years old. She explained why her mother decided to came to the United States. “We were very poor. The poorest of the poor in Mexico. Three of my brothers died because of little food, no medication.”

Maria Luz Santana had a similar story: “I am from a farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. I came here to follow the American dream.” In 1981 she arrived in California with her oldest son, while her younger children remained in Mexico.  They tied grape trellises in California, then picked oranges in Florida. Next were cucumbers in Michigan, then sweet potatoes in North Carolina before heading back to Florida.  Her son was killed on one of the plantation camps when he was 15 years old, but Maria does not know how. She was picking tobacco in North Carolina when it happened.

Ana tells me that one of the biggest differences now is that children do not work in the fields. “The laws are different. They protect children in many ways. If they see somebody not in school, the police are there, asking. Back in the days, it was okay. If you don’t want to or can’t, the school board gave you permission to work.”

The laws don’t necessarily protect the children in other ways. Since 9/11 families have been torn apart because of deportations. Ana explains, “Most of the children are getting lost in the system or are staying behind with families who don’t have extra money to support them. Back in the day, they did not deport a mother or a father. They let you stay with your children. Now, you are in a car with your children, and they don’t care. The children will be crying and they take both of them – both the mother and the father.”

Although school is mandatory, basic human rights are too often ignored and racial profiling is generally accepted. Ana continues, “I think everything is worse. Because of the deportation, families are taken advantage of. They are mistreated. They work overtime. People are afraid of talking. Even people who are legal citizens, legal permanent residence or in the process of getting legalized. They are afraid to report any wrong doing.”

Many farmworkers are abused physically and verbally. When Maria first moved to Florida, she lived in a boarding house and had no idea what her rights were. The rent for one room was $60 per week. They had to buy their own food, even if they only had pennies left after rent was paid. A crew leader named Pascual Martinez kept a tight grip on the farmworkers at the camp. He took them to the stores, the laundry mats and the fields. He also fed them lies about their rights.

Maria recalls, “We were not free to come and go. One time I went to the corner store to get a gallon of milk for the babies and he got upset and said, ‘it is the last time you come by yourself because immigration will come and round up everybody.’ There was verbal abuse and some physical. Always, they took advantage of the women. He [Pascual] had all the women clean his house. He never paid the women. Immigration was just a threat, it was not real.” Maria now knows her rights and lives independently.  Pasqual is still a crew leader.

Through Ana’s work at the Association, she talks with the women and hears their stories of abuse. Many trust her and tell her the whole story, but when it comes time to report to the Department of Labor, they claim that everything is fine, despite the fact than many are dehydrated, denied bathroom breaks and exposed to pesticides.

Yesica Romirez came to Apopka from Maravatio Michoacan, Mexico. It was 1996 and she was 15. She immediately started working on the farms and in the nurseries and was exposed to an unknown cocktail of pesticides.  She told me, “We have to make a chemical gel to apply to the plants. We don’t get any gloves or masks or anything. We inhale all the chemicals. We see the safety warnings that say we should wear gloves and masks. The boss doesn’t care.”

When I met Yesica she was not working because she had to take care of her nine month old baby. “She has a problem. She had brain surgery. She wears a helmet and has to go to the doctor every 15 days. She was pre-mature and her cranium did not fully develop. Some people have said that the pesticides may be why she has the problem, but I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know.”

Ana has seen this over and over, but there are no scientific studies. “Children are born with head problems, respiratory problems, asthma, rashes. There are so many chemicals and pesticides that you don’t know what they were exposed to. We have cases of women who have children born with no brain or birth defects or heart problems.”

Ana continues to work with farmworkers and fight for their rights. As I write this, I remember Ana’s final words and I hope you do too, “When you see a flower or a vegetable, remember a face. A child, a woman, a man worked hard to harvest that vegetable, that plant.”  

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