Still a Harvest of Shame

updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

They bring food in abundance to an affluent country's tables but are not invited to the feast. This week, while Americans enjoy the yearly ritual of giving thanks, these "invisible people"—migrant farm workers, who are rarely even counted in the census—will be making do with leaner fare.

They number as many as 5 million nationally. Yet the desperate lives of the migrants were first brought to the attention of the American public just three decades ago. On the night after Thanksgiving 1960, Edward R. Murrow presented a CBS television documentary, Harvest of Shame, exposing the squalid housing, unfair wages and often pitiless working conditions of the nation's farm laborers. Today little has changed. The predominantly black and Hispanic men, women and children who sow and reap in our fields still find work only half the days of the year—work as hazardous as ever. Migrants have a disability rate five times that of workers in any other industry—pesticide exposure alone affects 300,000 a year. And most get no paid holidays, sick days, overtime, retirement or disability plans or medical coverage. When blight strikes or a freeze hits, the chance for a day's, week's or month's work turns to ice.

Many agricultural centers where migrants work "are like the Wild West, "says Gregory Schell, 37, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services. "Some employers withhold Social Security but then steal it. They're supposed to pay minimum wage, but some workers only make $5 or $6 a day. "In spite of it all, the migrants persevere. Says Schell: "I admire my clients so much. I think most of us would be on the verge of suicide if we had lives like theirs. But they somehow keep going. They have spirits that are indomitable."

The following portraits from Florida, where some 200,000 migrants are working, offer a glimpse into a community that endures in society's shadow, struggling on in search of the next harvest.

A Woman's Work

Mepricia Desir, a 39-year-old Haitian, yawns as she steps from the school bus full of farm workers. "This work makes you tired to death," she sighs. It is dusk, and since dawn Desir has been in the fields, hacking sugarcane stalks with a cane knife that has left gashes on her steel-toed boots. She walks two blocks to the small apartment that she shares with her son, Leonel, 7, and her cousin. Every morning until next spring, Desir will return to the "ramp," an unpaved square in downtown Belle Glade surrounded by slum housing, where the buses meet the workers. Edward R. Murrow called Belle Glade, the hub of Florida's sugarcane region, a "sweatshop of the soil."

Desir and her husband left behind seven children, now aged 10 to 22, when they came to the U.S. from their decaying hometown of Léogane in 1981. "We came for work," she explains. She and her husband joined the migrant stream that spends winters in Belle Glade and summers wending north through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland, working cane, oranges, corn, tomatoes and beans. Three years ago Desir became the sole provider for her children when her husband died mysteriously after a prolonged fever. "Sometimes I get paid and send it all to Haiti," she says. "Sometimes there are too many bills here."

In a good seven-day workweek, Desir can earn $200 planting cane; in a bad week the take is about $80. Summers, when traveling north, she must continue to pay rent on her Belle Glade apartment so she doesn't lose time looking when she returns. Making the money stretch is difficult, but the exhaustion is hardest. At home, Desir sprawls across a sofa. She closes her eyes and gnaws a blister on her palm. "I'll probably just wash and go to bed," she murmurs. "I slept past 4 this morning and didn't have time to make lunch, so I haven't eaten. Now I'm too exhausted to have a meal."

Insult to Injury

Frank Donegan clutches the waistband of his wrinkled khaki pants as he limps down a Belle Glade street. He boarded a labor recruiter's bus in Opalona, Miss., 27 years ago and headed for his first migrant job in California's lettuce fields. He was young and strong then. Now, at 50, he is permanently disabled. A bachelor, Donegan came to Belle Glade in 1965 to follow the East Coast crops. He was earning $12 to $30 a day picking cucumbers in Norway, S.C.—until Oct. 21, 1988. "That evening time," he says, "I got burnt."

His labor crew's camp there had no hot water. He boiled water to bathe, then bumped the hot plate in the crowded quarters, scalding his left ankle. Though he pleaded for medical attention, the camp supervisor ignored him. "I had to suffer through that night," Donegan recalls. In the morning a camp employee finally drove him to a hospital. Meanwhile his work crew moved on to the next picking site. With a bus ticket donated by a local social-services agency, he returned on crutches to his hometown, Tupelo, Miss., where a family doctor admitted him to the hospital for skin grafts.

Donegan returned to Belle Glade in February 1989, hoping to resume work. "I tried," he says, "but my leg gives out if I stand long." Broke, he took up residence in an abandoned bus, where workers from Florida Rural Legal Services found him. Thanks to a suit they filed against the farmer and the labor contractor Donegan was working for when he was burned, his medical bills have been paid. But he has long since spent the $5,000 he recovered.

Donegan now survives on $368 monthly Social Security disability payments. But he admits that he drinks too much, and last month the broker who cashed his check for him left town with the money. Donegan wonders how long he can pay the $200 rent on his one-room apartment. Not long ago he was intimidated by the sons of his former labor contractor, who approached him in a back alley and asked why he made trouble for their dad. "I don't need no problems," sobs Donegan, who has recently been treated for high blood pressure in a Belle Glade hospital. "I just got hurt. Bad luck, that's all," he says. "Now I want some good in the future for me."

Family Style

Three times Rosa Maria Ortiz has given birth just hours after working in the fields. She would clench her teeth against the labor pains and keep on picking. "The work gets you ready for the delivery," says the 29-year-old mother of four from Piedras Negras in northern Mexico. Two weeks after the birth of her third child, Ortiz headed back to the orchards with the infant in tow; she couldn't afford to pay someone to watch her.

Every July since 1978, Ortiz and her husband, Manuel, 33, have loaded their expanding brood, their dishes and clothing into their pickup truck and headed to Flat Rock, N.C., to pick apples, eggplant, beans, cucumbers and bell peppers. In early November they move south for the Florida citrus harvest. They stay in Apopka, where they rent an apartment they can afford—sometimes paying $300 a month for two rooms, where Hilda, 5, and Andrea, 4, share a bed, and Manuel Jr., 12, and Ismael, 11, might have to curl up on the floor.

"We are lucky," says Rosa. "We at least have a place to stay, and there is school for the children. They help us sometimes on weekends and know what it's like to work in the fields. They don't want to do that for a living." Most migrant youths don't make it to the ninth grade before joining the family work force. The Ortizes hope to see their children go to college.

Together the couple earns a meager $10,000 a year. "We work from sunrise to sunset six days a week," complains Manuel.

"And sometimes you hurt yourself," adds Rosa. "I still have splinters in my hands from picking oranges last winter."

Manuel shrugs and smiles. "But we'll probably be doing this our whole lives," he says. "What else are we going to do?"

From Kingston to Cane

Roy refuses to give his full name. The 44-year-old Jamaican sugarcane cutter is afraid. "You complain," he says, "they won't call you back."

"They" are the sugar growers. Since 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act has allowed growers to import labor ("guest workers") for jobs so perilous and poor paying that most Americans won't take them. Nearly 10,000 West Indian men are brought to the cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee each season from November through March. Housed in barracks, they work at least six days a week chopping a minimum of a ton of cane an hour and make from $3,000 to $4,000 for the five months.

Growers can pay Third World wages and simply expel any workers who don't do exactly as they are told. "U.S. sugar companies get a break with import quotas and then don't have to compete in the labor market," says Sister Ann Kendrick, who founded a migrant service organization in Apopka. "McDonald's can't bring in foreign burger flippers, but sugar companies can import labor. Is that fair?"

Roy sees no choice. For the past 13 years, he has returned to the U.S. under contract to a grower. "In Kingston it's hard to get work," he explains. He sleeps on a top bunk in a cinder-block barracks that houses 360 at an isolated sugar mill outside Belle Glade. The food, for which he is charged $45 a week, is "not too good. You just eat it to eat." The work "is rough, everything about it. It's dirty work. The muck gets under your fingernails and causes infection." Never seriously injured, Roy is among the fortunate cutters. Some lose limbs to the machetes. The company, Roy explains, gives you 12 days to recover from an injury, "Then it's back to work or you're sent home." There are no disability payments, but at least the growers pay return airfare to Jamaica for the maimed. Anyone discharged early in the season for not meeting production quotas must get back on his own.

Twice a season Roy talks on the pay phone outside camp to his wife and two young daughters in Jamaica. "It would be sweet" to live with them year-round, he says, "but this is what I have to do."

Getting Organized

Fernando Cuevas remembers once seeing his grandfather kicked by a crew leader. "I wanted to jump him," says Fernando, "but my grandma said, 'No, he's the boss.' I promised myself right then that to make sure my family was treated right, I would become a crew leader." (Crew leaders pull together a number of laborers, negotiate their wages with a grower and disburse the pay.) At 18, Cuevas kept that promise. He took his grandparents and parents as crew during their annual migration from their Brownsville, Tex., home, through Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio and Florida. Soon, Cuevas married and began having his own children; he enlisted them into the work force. "When the picking was good, we'd have them take turns taking the day off school," he admits.

"All my life I'd worked in the fields. I had a ninth-grade education, but I thought I knew everything," Cuevas recalls. At 36, his political education began when he joined a fledgling Ohio-based union of farm workers, "not because I cared about the union, but because members got discount gas."

Today, Cuevas, 48, is second in command of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which has won contracts with Campbell Soup Co., the H.J. Heinz Co. and Vlasic Foods, Inc. for 3,600 of its nearly 10,000 members. Cuevas, who settled in Winter Garden, Fla., says that when he joined FLOC he didn't know what a minimum wage or child-labor law was, nor what the word "pesticide" meant. That all changed when union leader Cesar Chavez gave him his first organizing training session.

Now Cuevas takes business management classes so he can better represent the workers in negotiations with employers. He travels between Florida and Ohio in a beat-up blue Dodge, visiting labor camps where he has been arrested for trespassing and has had his car windows shot out more times than he can remember. Cue-vas's union salary pays for his rent, utilities, groceries and something he'd never had before: medical insurance.

Cuevas hopes someday to see farm workers get "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work." Another goal is to make migrants aware of the dangers of pesticides. "Agribusiness leaders always tell me they have to use pesticides to help feed the world," he says. "I say, 'Tell the workers that. We'd probably be willing to sacrifice our lives to feed the world, but you're killing us without us knowing.' "

One of Cuevas's 10 children, Rita, now 12, was born with a dislocated hip, no right chest muscle and one side of her face paralyzed. Cuevas believes the culprit was a pesticide used in Florida's strawberry fields, where he and his wife worked early in that pregnancy. He has promised his daughter that he will soon find a way to pay for plastic surgery, and he tells the workers he's going to bring about change for them too. "We're already at the bottom of the barrel," he says. "We've got nowhere to go but up."

The End of the Road

Cora Mae Jones pushes a box of day-old bread and dented canned goods across the floor at Belle Glade's Haitian Catholic Center, preparing weekly food packs the center gives to the city's elderly. Her 59 years qualify Cora as a member of the group she serves.

Cora and her five siblings began working when "we were little bitty things" back in Fort Gaines, Ga., she recalls. She made it to the seventh grade before leaving school forever to work six-day weeks shaking pecans and picking cotton. "Picking that cotton," she says, "my back would hurt me all day long. Some days we'd only make $5."

In 1955, Cora and her husband moved to Belle Glade in hopes of earning better wages in celery. She became pregnant 15 times and gave birth to 10 children. The older ones had to leave school to help their parents pick; some still do farm work today. Another daughter died last year from AIDS contracted through IV drug use—Belle Glade has one of the highest rates of HIV-positive infections in the world. But Cora has hope for her young ones, who have stayed in school. "My baby boy," she boasts, "he's in high school. He wants to be a doctor."

Cora had to leave the fields after she underwent several hernia operations 17 years ago. But like most migrant workers, she had no pension or insurance, and her employers had pocketed the money they supposedly withheld for Social Security. Cora's husband, Johnny, who is also 59, earns about $7 an hour driving a tractor in the cane fields. The nuns from the Catholic Center offered Cora her $4-an-hour part-time job six years ago. The woman appreciates her good fortune. "Some people I make food packs for got no way to stay alive," she says with a sigh.

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