MAXWELL:  Farm workers endure a grim existence

3/4/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Scrawny chickens, their feathers soaking up a morning drizzle, pecked and scratched in the soft black muck between two rows of migrant farm workers’ shacks. When one unearthed a few kernels of rice, others converged, a tangle of feathers flying.

The real irony is that, four blocks from city hall, such shacks exist and that chickens forage and run free. A block away, four half-starved dogs fought over discarded foil containing sparerib bones.

These conditions result from benign neglect, permitted because they are in the neighborhood designated for black farm laborers _ Haitians, Jamaicans, other West Indians and African-Americans. Migrants of Hispanic origin live elsewhere.

I am here conducting research into the plight of Florida’s farm workers, and I must say that conditions in this sugar-rich town on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee are the worst I have seen in the state thus far.

Although I grew up as a migrant worker and picked in some of these very fields, I am still amazed that these people who harvest our produce, cane workers and fruit and vegetable pickers, hold on to their sanity and perform the mundane functions of daily living.

The emotional and psychological injuries to these people are palpable. I am particularly impressed with the women, most having lost their physical beauty, who toil in the fields all day and yet feed their children and get them off to school each morning.

And then there are the men. In general, many of the single males with no family commitments barely survive. The most desperate and the weakest die young, some violently. Others waste away from alcohol- and drug-related ailments and diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

I spent Saturday night with Spencer Neale, a fruit picker I have known for more than 30 years. I often visit him when I come to Belle Glade. The dark, narrow hallway leading to his apartment reeked of urine, booze, tobacco smoke and the competing aromas of fried meats and boiled greens. The walls trembled from music blasting from cheap cassette players and radios.

Spence, much thinner than I remembered, greeted me with a firm handshake and a cold Miller. We ate grits and bream, which he had caught and fried. When I asked about his health, he changed the subject: Work in the groves is spotty; too much rain; he is constantly broke, even though he goes along each time the bus leaves the loading ground.

His girlfriend walked out two weeks ago. “She ain’t got time for no “muck nigger’ like me,” he said. “She got one of them Miami drug brothers. I don’t want nothin’ to do with no drugs. They say he whup her butt all the time.”

That night, we went to a migrant tavern. Three fights broke out, but no one was hurt seriously. The thick cigarette smoke, the dank atmosphere of the place and the smell of unwashed, sweaty flesh nearly made me throw up. Because the music was so loud, people shouted to be heard. My head ached. My eyes burned.

On the way back to Spence’s apartment, we chanced into a crime scene. Two police cruisers blocked the intersection, and a man, bleeding from the forehead, lay on the sidewalk in front of the open door of a tavern. He was moving and trying to speak. Spence knew him: an old Haitian whose younger woman had left him for an American crew chief. A light rain was falling, and I did not want to hang around.

I slept on an old couch that smelled of only God knows what. An insect bit me on the back and thigh, and I did not go back to sleep. At 5 a.m., I went with Spence to the loading ground, and the crew chief let me take the hour-long bus ride to the grove with the 40 other men, most of them West Indian.

The pickers had been in the grove for about 30 minutes when lightning flashed, thunder rumbled and the first rains came. Within 15 minutes, we were in a monsoon and ran back to the bus, where we sat for nearly an hour. After the rain showed no signs of letting up, the crew chief called it a day.

No one earned more than $6. I went with Spence back to his apartment. He drank his last beer and cursed the “damn weather.” A knock came at the door. He let in two young girls dressed for church. “These my two girls,” he said. “They live with they mama.” Each wanted 50 cents for the collection plate. Spence did not have a penny. I gave each girl $5, said goodbye and got in my car.

Pools of dirty water stood everywhere. I wondered if the weather would let Belle Glade’s fruit pickers work the next day.