Asking farmworker women what health abuses, human rights violations, and other horrible atrocities have been committed against them is like asking a blind person to describe the color green: the color green exists, regardless of the interpretation of the blind person, just like human rights violation in farm work exist, regardless of the interpretation of farmworkers- and when asked to describe them- neither the blind person nor the farmworker might have the words to do so. Farmworkers’ lives are riddled with hardship- so much so that they lose their meaning as adversity. What to us is unimaginable hardship, to them is just another day. Violation, or unjust, or unfair, doesn’t even cross their mind: they work because thy have to, no matter the condition. Some employers are better than others. Some crew leaders kinder than the next. But their main purpose, always in the front of their mind, is to work as hard as possible, pick as fast as possible, pick as much as possible, to survive, to save, to try to make their children’s lives just a little bit more tolerable, a little bit better.
Immokalee, Florida is a destitute town. Mobile homes, small square houses, rundown shacks are boarded up and abandoned. Many farmworkers were too scared to come back to Florida after the summer: the scary reach of the ever stricter immigration laws in Alabama have not only put a toll on the immigration communities in Alabama, but on the whole east coast migrant stream that has brought migrant and seasonal farmworkers all the way from the tomato fields in Florida to finishing up the fall by picking cherries in Michigan for decades. Putting a stop to business as usual anywhere in the stream has proven to have consequences for farmworkers, growers, and entire state economies.
But we are not talking about the states here. We are talking about the women.
I often didn’t get the answers that I wanted when I asked farmworker women what health issues they face, during my interviews for AFOP’s annual publication The Fields. They dodged my questions, reassured me that they are hard workers who care for their families, that they worry about providing food for their children, that they thank god that they have never gotten so sick that they had to be taken to the hospital.
Yet it was the side conversations, the anecdotes that seemed apropos to what they thought I needed from them that were the most painful to hear: the woman who had to take her child to work every day because she had no one to take care of him (the child knew from a very young age to climb up into the tree and hide from the supervisor). The woman whose eye was red, swollen, and bloodshot because of the pesticides that are being sprayed in the field she worked at. The woman who, even though laws in Florida prohibit this, waited for three hours today without pay before she could officially clock in and begin to work. The woman who has never gone to the doctor. Ever. The woman whose child almost gotten bitten by a poisonous snake when she laid him on a blanket by her side as she was picking oranges. The woman who was harassed and tolerated sexual advances every day by her crew leader’s father- and could do nothing about it for fear of losing her job.
I thought I knew strong women. And I do. But nothing compared to these women. They are real fighters. They fight every day to work. And to work well. They might work 12 hours without a break at the packinghouse throughout the night and then get home in time to get their children ready for school. They try to get rides, and if they cant, they bike. Or they walk miles to get to work. They cook for their families, and clean. They painstakingly make tortillas with maseca for lunch. Their hands are dirty, and callused- yet one woman still had the remains of acrylic nails with french tips on her thumbs (“the rest fell of when I was picking oranges,” she told me). They worry about their children. Their husbands. Their neighbors and comadres. They worry about their parents in Mexico who they send money back to. They worry about their siblings. Least of all, they worry about themselves. In fact, nobody else worries about them either.