What’s your job title?
General coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
What does your organization do?
We work to empower communities of farmworkers and the rural poor, focusing on a wide range of issues, from workplace and community organizing to disaster preparedness and response, from vocational rehabilitation to immigrants’ rights advocacy for farmworkers and students.
The needs are great in farmworker communities. Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States, and farmworkers have the highest rate of chemical-related illnesses of any occupational group. Farmworkers do not enjoy all the same protections under OSHA laws as do most other workers in the U.S. In spite of improvements made in the past century for workers in this country, laborers in agriculture are still little better off than they were as depicted in Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame.
In years past, the majority of farmworkers were African-American — a holdout from the time of slavery. Today, the majority of the workforce in agriculture and horticulture is Latino, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, with an increasing number of Haitian immigrants. These workers come to the United States often at great risk to themselves and in the hopes of escaping deep poverty in their home countries. They are too often readily exploited because they do not know that they have certain rights in this country regardless of their immigration status. Language can be a barrier too, as is fear of job loss and/or deportation. Some are financially beholden to the “coyote” or recruiter who helped to smuggle them over here. These are modern-day cases of indentured servitude.
How does your work relate to the environment?
Why should environmentalists care about farmworkers? Well, do you eat? Do you buy plants from a nursery or flowers from a florist? Do you play golf? Or work in a finely landscaped office building? If you do any of these things, chances are that you have been exposed to pesticides. And, the people who made it possible for you to have that food, or those flowers, or who grew the sod on your golf course or the plants in your landscape, were more than likely low-wage farmworkers who, along with their families, were exposed to pesticides in the production processes. The extensive use of pesticides for agricultural production puts Florida farmworkers at high risk for pesticide exposure, acute poisoning, and associated adverse health effects.
Some environmentalists are more inclined to take the human element out of the picture. What’s left is a picture of pesticide-contaminated lands, lakes, streams, and aquifers; of toxic-waste dumps and Superfund sites; of bird deaths and reproductive problems in alligators and other wildlife; and, in the case of methyl bromide, of ozone depletion. Our organization is not an “environmental” organization in the traditional sense. However, our experience has taught us that you cannot work to address farmworker issues without addressing the issue of pesticides.
Agribusiness dominates the agricultural economy in the U.S., and pesticides are an integral part of its operations. Pesticides, however, are indiscriminate. They may kill insects and plant pathogens, but they also can have health impacts on the workers who are exposed to them. Thus, over the years, pesticide health and safety has become a major focus of our organization. We do not call ourselves an “environmental” organization, but we do work extensively on issues of environmental justice, and we have reached out to environmental organizations to begin to make the connections between farmworker issues and the environment. Ultimately, we are all on this planet together, and if we are going to save it so that our children can grow up with clean air, soil, and water, we have to work together.
What are you working on at the moment?
One of our most important projects right now is trainings that teach health professionals how to diagnose, treat, and report pesticide-related illnesses. After all these years of ever-increasing pesticide usage, most doctors still have no knowledge or training about signs, symptoms, and/or treatment of health problems from pesticide exposure. Concerned and trained health professionals could literally mean the difference between life and death for some farmworkers.
After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, my staff and I put a lot of time and energy into disaster response and relief for farmworker communities that were devastated by the storms and were refused emergency housing from FEMA. In fact, we are currently a partner in a lawsuit against FEMA for not providing emergency housing to farmworker families because they were undocumented. That is against the law.
Where were you born?
I was born in Mexico and came to the United States in 1971 with my family to do farmwork.
Where do you live now?
I live in Apopka, Fla., in the shadows of the world’s No. 1 tourist destination — the Mouse in Orlando.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
From 1971 until 1982, my family and I traveled from Florida to Michigan following the seasons, harvesting citrus in Florida and apples in Michigan. I saw the way the workers were treated and the way they lived in terrible conditions, while the growers were making money off of our labor. For five years, I was a member of the United Farmworkers Union and was elected by the workers to be a worker representative. In 1983, I became the lead organizer for the Farmworker Project of the Office for Farmworker Ministry. In 1986, we formed the Farmworker Association of Florida, and in the years since, we have grown into a statewide organization with five offices and farmworker members in 12 counties in the state. Even after all these years and all our hard work, conditions have improved very little for farmworkers. The power and influence of agribusiness is strong. We still have so much work to do.
Where do you think environmentalists and social-justice advocates can find common cause?
It is critical to our planet that we begin to work together, and I think farmworkers’ issues are a good place to start. Everybody’s gotta eat! We are all getting exposed to pesticides through our foods, and it might even be affecting our children. Environmental health might be a point where we can come together.
Do you see environmental ills disproportionately afflicting the communities where you live and work?
Absolutely! In Apopka, the “other side of the tracks” is largely low-income, minority people of color. Within a two-mile radius, there are two landfills, two sewage-treatment plants, a medical-waste incinerator, plastics manufacturers, and fiberglass manufacturers. There are two Superfund sites, and the state’s most polluted lake is found in close proximity to communities of color. In south Florida, there are farmworkers who live in trailers within 10 feet of tomato fields where methyl bromide is sprayed. Try to site some of these things in affluent white communities — there would be an uproar.
Who is your environmental hero?
How do you spend your free time?
What free time?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t know about me, but I have a stereotype of environmentalists as being rather affluent white people who go around with binoculars to watch birds and don’t see the connections between their lifestyles and the poverty in their communities.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would like to see much stiffer penalties and bigger fines for companies and individuals that cause environmental destruction that harms people’s health and, in some cases, even costs them their lives. Too often, polluters and multinational corporations just get what amounts to a slap on the wrist; the fines imposed don’t even begin to affect their “bottom line.” People are sick and dying while they make bigger profits. That is not right.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Spend one day working out in the fields picking oranges or tomatoes at piece rate and see how much money you make at the end of the day. That is, if you can make it until the end of the day.
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