MAXWELL:  Harsh memories of migrant work

12/10/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

As I watch migrant farm workers here battle tomato growers for higher wages, I recall 1954 and 1955, when my father and I picked in these same fields. We, too, struggled to buy food. We scrimped to keep gas in our 1944 Ford and send money back home to my mother and siblings.

My father and I lived with about 80 other pickers, all black, in a migrant camp about six miles south of town. Conditions in this camp, along with others we lived in from Belle Glade to Long Island, N.Y., were brutish and nasty. Disorder and apathy prevailed.

Our living quarters were a tin-roofed, wooden, windowless bull pen where 10 to 15 men and boys slept on pallets. Because our crew chief was a devout preacher, whose wife and girls accompanied him, married couples, families with children and single women slept in shacks across the compound from the men.

The females had three fly-infested, two-holed outhouses; the males, two one-holers. Mosquitoes attacked us inside these stinking buildings, which is why so many of us urinated and defecated elsewhere. Real toilet paper was coveted like gold. Most of us used newspaper that we softened by rubbing it between our hands. Sometimes we used Spanish moss.

The crew chief’s dwelling and those of the families had electricity and running water. The rest of us pumped water by hand from a well. Good hygiene was next to impossible. And a moment of individual privacy or romance was rare.

We males ate our meals, prepared by the crew leader’s wife, on makeshift tables. Families with children cooked their own meals. Single men paid $12.50 per week for lunch and dinner. A bottled soft drink or a jar of Kool-Aid was extra.

For many of us, especially males who were physically weak or who had hot tempers, life was violent and often short. Few men were shot back then. The knife was the weapon of choice. Our sense of manhood, even for young boys like me, framed our relationships. We cultivated it like the crops we planted, tended and harvested.

My saddest memories are of men who had been badly knifed in the stomach. I still see them: bent over, groaning, holding their intestines in their hands, blood streaming through their fingers. Most fights erupted during games of craps or cards. Cheating and bragging too much could get you killed.

Hard work _ stooping and sweating all day _ was at the center of our lives. We belonged to the crew chief and the grower. We rode from field to field on the bed of trucks and in old school buses that broke down more often than they operated properly.

My father and the other men who sent money back home complained about the low wages. But, for the men without women in their lives, money was used for bartering physical pleasure. They spent most of their time in the camp’s juke house looking for sex. Venereal disease was rampant.

Although a preacher, the crew chief recruited few souls among the pickers. Most of them wanted no part of God because the majority of their encounters affirmed God’s rejection of them. Rarely did I hear a prayer.

Life outside the camp was more demoralizing than life inside. We were despised by most local residents, white and black. “Colored Only” and “White Only” signs controlled our movement. Whites were openly contemptuous. And blacks, except for the dandies who preyed on our women, treated us worse than the whites. We despised the whites and resented the blacks.

The feeling of being the outsider weighed on all of us, especially the children. We did not fit in our schools: Our clothes were different, our food was “weird,” many of us did not read or speak well.

Our parents could not vote or belong to organizations. We were strangers.

Immokalee has not changed much since those days. Sure, American blacks have been replaced by Guatemalans, Haitians and Mexicans, but the conditions are much the same.

On Dec. 3, for example, more than 1,000 workers, roughly half of all Immokalee tomato pickers, refused to work in protest of low wages. They are asking growers to raise the piece rate from an average of 40 cents per bucket to 60 cents, which would be their first raise in 20 years.

Gargiulo Inc., Collier County’s largest grower, agreed to pay 45 cents now and 50 cents next November. The other growers have refused to budge. Meanwhile, the pickers are sliding deeper into poverty. For me, these are times of deja vu down on the farm.