Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Immokalee, Florida sits 80 miles southeast of Ft. Myers. Appearing out of morning mist within the lush palm, pine, cypress and orange tree groves that stand sentry as a gateway to the Everglades, the small agricultural outpost is "My Home," the Seminole word hanging as ironically in the air and as divorced from reality as the the nylon banners hanging from street corners on its modest Main St. with silkscreened images of a cornucopia overflowing with fruit. For the last week, between serving soup as a volunteer at the Guadalupe Center kitchen where Chiapanecos, Oaxaqueños and Guatemaltecos who can't find work in the fields come for lunch and a visit to the hyperreality of Disneyworld, I find myself in the middle of a post-industrial, slave-wage, stoop labor central, harvesting tomatoes alongside said undocumented migrant workers who speak Zapotec, Tzotzil and Quiche just as readily as they do Spanish. For fifty cents a bucket, I toil in a quivering exhaustion, my neck and shoulders beet red from the ravages of an unforgiving tropical sun. It is the first year in eight that I have not been in Los Angeles for the annual Ollin San Patricio show. Appropriately, the Rodarte twins, Scott and Randy, were actually gigging outside of LA this year and my so sojourn to the lands where the harvest of shame is far from over did not actually overlap the traditional Pogues cover tribute.
Imagine being on the Dana Point bluffs on the Pacific coast midway between San Diego and Los Angeles for the NALIP conference with independent Latino filmmakers and emerging industry players--among them Frida Torresblanco and Carlos Cuarón, two darlings of the recent renaissance in Mexican cinema--for two days of surfside schmooze and Mariott Hotel shenanigans then flipping the script 180 degrees for a rude awakening on the other side of the continental U.S. among the most humble and hardest working people on the planet, gente who work 12 hour days in an effort to earn 50 cents for every 20 pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest by hand. To call it a study in contrasts would be overstating the obvious, but here it becomes necessary to underscore how shallow and meaningless all the movie business and creative pretension seem alongside the sweat and pesticide-stained efforts of so many who toil under brutal and savage anonymity so that we can glibly and innocently consume our salads, sandwiches and pasta sauce. The next time some anti-immigrant, zenophobic rube tells me that Mexicans are breaking the law and should be deported, he'll be lucky if I don't slug him. I know. I did it. I picked 50 buckets and earned a measley $22 for an interminable day in the mud and steam of ripe tomato decay, picking green tomatoes in exchange for plastic coin-sized, wafer-thin chips, each the equivalent of two quarters. Those who rail against immigration only blame and persecute those least likely to defend themselves. They would wither and die in the shoes of the fieldworkers who pick the crops we see so many days later in the grocery store. Take your Whopper. I won't go near one. Go try to pick tomatoes in Immokalee for a day, then talk to me about how "illegal aliens" are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. I dare you. Grow some courage, please. Earn your right to talk about who this country belongs to and then tell me I'm unpatriotic. You took the land by force and now you're afraid that the brown-skinned natives from southern climes will inherit the soil you so easily claim as your own. Five hundred years does not an owner make. The earth will belong, as even your biblical references proclaim, once again to the meek. Those quiet, long-suffering Indians you hound and defile with your illiterate and uneducated invective, your hate and fear, are the only ones left with the strength and perseverance to harvest your meals at pennies per pound... And lastly, let me ask you to please support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their efforts to end exploitation in the Florida fields by signing the petition to end sweat shops and slavery and by avoiding Burger King, which refuses still to pay an extra penny per pound.