Farmworker Fears: New obstacles face the people who work our crops

By PENNY FLETCHER

Farmworkers say many crops are blighted, and there are many laborers without work. Penny Fletcher photos.

Farmworkers say many crops are blighted, and there are many laborers without work. Penny Fletcher photos.

Orange groves are disappearing; trees neglected. Many ground crops look blighted.

I felt it was time to go out to Good Samaritan Mission in Balm and talk with a man who works with farmworkers every day: Bill Cruz, a therapist who took over the Mission in 2009 after his parents retired. Cruz changed the ministry from giving food and clothing, to teaching skills that would give people a better life. For example, the Mission offers classes about everything from domestic violence and fire safety to diet and nutrition, including the importance of proper diet to help avoid — and control — ailments from diabetes to cholesterol and cancer.

But when I got there, I found the farmworkers were more worried about other things than their health: lack of work and being killed.

Yes, I said being killed.

With all the talk in the news about deportation, I wanted to hear more, and several were forthcoming with their innermost fears, often translated by Cruz.

For the purpose of their safety, we’re just going to use their first names, although I have their surnames in my notes. (Since the Mission serves both South Hillsborough and North Manatee, there is no way to identify those who spoke for this story.)

Three brave farmworkers told stories about what had happened to them, their families, and people they knew in Mexico after they had been living or working in the United States.

Three brave farmworkers told stories about what had happened to them, their families, and people they knew in Mexico after they had been living or working in the United States.

Hortencia, who has been in farmwork for 20 years, said when she sent money back to her family in Mexico, her family was captured until she paid a ransom.

“I was lucky. They did not kill them once they got the money,” she said.

“Also, anyone who has been in America who goes back to Mexico — willingly or by deportation — can be killed because the economy is so bad there that they assume if you’ve lived in America, you have money,” she said, without the need for translation.

“It’s Mada,” said the only man in the room. “You know, Mafia.” This man was not a farmhand; he was there for a class.

Shocked, I asked more questions about Mada. As it turned out, he was talking about the drug cartels.

“People with businesses have to pay them to stay in business. Everyone pays one way or the other,” said Blandy, who has worked in farmwork for 16 years.

“They fear for their lives there,” Cruz said. He hears this all the time. Once they come here, they are afraid to go back. And those who are deported are often killed.

Aura, who sat holding her child, about 18 months old, has been in farmwork for only two months. Cruz had to translate for her.

She said she came with Blandy so that they could “split the work.”

I did not understand this. If we split the work in the job I do, it makes for faster turnover and more money for everybody.

Not so in farmwork.

There is so little work now that the farmworkers are often sent home — without pay, of course.

Orange groves that were recently lush and full, producing fruit sold locally and abroad, are now merely bare limbs and an occasional blighted orange. Farmworkers, and Mission workers who help them, say some of this has been caused by disease and some because landowners have sold their land to developers and no one tends the groves anymore.

Orange groves that were recently lush and full, producing fruit sold locally and abroad, are now merely bare limbs and an occasional blighted orange. Farmworkers, and Mission workers who help them, say some of this has been caused by disease and some because landowners have sold their land to developers and no one tends the groves anymore.

I asked why. This area used to be filled with lush crops: oranges, cabbages, peppers, squash, flora and so many other things. Yet, lately, I had noticed a difference. In fact, that was why I had gone to Good Samaritan in the first place.

“There is a blight on many ground crops,” Blandy said. “Cabbages especially.”

The orange groves are not tended because so many farmers have sold their land to developers. Developments are everywhere in South Hillsborough County, with few groves left. Many of the ones that are left have some sort of disease, said Cruz. “The work is just not there.”

So I asked the big question: With so little work, how do you feel about more people coming in? The big “deportation” question. Asked directly to Mexicans, many of whom are citizens, others with green cards — but they always fear they will be told to leave.

Yet they all said they feared for the lives of any who are sent back even though work is scarce for all of them.

“With so much construction, maybe they can learn to work in that,” said Hortencia. “They have many communities here now.”

Communities instead of crops. With the blight, we can all expect prices to go up.

But at least those of us who live here — and the farmworkers who are permitted stay here — do not have to fear being killed over a few dollars.

To find out more about the Good Samaritan Mission, or to donate, volunteer or receive services, visit www.gsmission.org, call 813-634-7136, or drop by the offices at 14920 Balm Wimauma Road, Wimauma, FL 33598, during business hours, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Comments