Extreme heat. Hurricanes. Unfair working conditions. Lupe Gonzalo describes how worker exploitation and the impacts of climate change are interconnected and how, to support Florida farmworkers, these issues need to be addressed simultaneously and led by those who are experiencing the greatest threats.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists. Read the Spanish version here.
From the earliest days when I set foot in the muddy fields of Florida, I have understood the risks that come with harvesting the nation’s food.
As farmworkers, you always have to rise before the sun, waking up while the sky is still black. But when the sun does find us in the fields, falling on the tomato plant leaves and onto our shoulders and backs, you feel a deep burning on your skin, especially when the humidity hangs heavy in the air. You can’t breathe, especially with the bandanas we use to cover our faces from the sun’s rays.
I remember one morning in particular, nearly 20 years ago. I was working as a tomato harvester for one of the largest growers in the United States.
I had recently arrived in Florida from Guatemala. There was one man, about my dad’s age, who was always laughing on the bus, making jokes. He got along with everyone. We called him “the Motorcito,” or little motor, because he would beat out even the younger men in harvesting buckets of tomatoes, in spite of his age and working so many years in the fields.
That morning while we worked, I heard Motorcito talking to the crew leader: “I feel really tired, I need to drink some water.” In those days, there was no potable water in the fields – every once and awhile the crew leader would bring some water jugs, but you just had to endure until he arrived.
Hours passed and, as we took our lunch break, we noticed the bus was quieter than usual. We asked about the man who was always laughing. He had passed out under the bus and neither shouting nor shaking him would wake him. We had to bring ice to revive him. A few days later, Motorcito came back to work and told us that the doctor had called what happened “insolation,” like the sun had passed into his body.
In the 20 years since Motorcito fainted because of the heat, the temperatures each year in Florida have only continued to rise. More and more, the hurricanes appear suddenly and strengthen in the sea before falling like a nightmare on our communities. The effects of climate change are not a possibility of the future, but rather a reality of the present day.
For years, those with greater economic and political power have taken on a great debt from Nature. The moment has arrived to pay the price, but the least powerful and poorest in society are those that are having to pay.
Today, I want to share the experience of climate change from the perspective of farmworkers in Florida, as a window into understanding the dangers that confront our vulnerable community. I also share the story of how the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, where I now work, fought to create the Fair Food Program, which offers health and safety protections and helps to fight the dangers and poverty that farmworkers face.
The Sun’s Rays Hit the Fields
I know that here in Florida, just like Guatemala, I’m not alone in confronting extreme heat. In the last 100 years, humanity in every corner of the world has experienced a hotter climate, and Florida is no different. Today, our state has 25 days each year that are called “dangerous heat,” when temperatures rise to more than 103°F. But in 30 years, in one more generation, it is projected that we will have 130 such days per year in Florida – that’s more than a third of the year and five times more days than this year.
The effect that extreme heat has in my community is severe. Our work is among the hardest and most dangerous labor in the country, regardless if you’re the age of Motorcito or if you’re a young person. During the 12 years that I spent as a farmworker, I filled 32 pound buckets of tomatoes, each time running upwards of 100 feet to empty the bucket. On a typical day, to just be able to make minimum wage, you had to fill between 100 and 150 buckets. If the harvest was good, and you pushed yourself, you could harvest more like 250 or even 300 buckets.
Back when there were no worker protections in the fields, crew leaders would send us into the rows right after they sprayed pesticides. When you pushed aside a plant to get the tomatoes out, the dust would fly into the air. Mixing with the humidity and your own sweat, it would stick to your skin. If I spent a day picking without something to cover my face, I would get nose bleeds. Other workers would vomit because of how strong the pesticides were. And the intense heat would only make our reactions worse. In the evenings, when I showered, black stuff would come out of my nose – a mix of dirt, chemicals and truck exhaust.
The difficulty of the work makes you feel like it takes years off your life. Maybe you started work at 20 years old, but after just a few years in, you feel like you’ve aged decades. The pesticides can linger in your blood, doing invisible damage for years to come.
When you’re a really fast harvester, you get called “matado,” literally translated to “killed” or “killer,” in the fields – a title taken with pride. But the truth is the name has a tragic side, because you do sometimes feel like you’re killing yourself in the fields. The bodies of farmworkers are not so different from the Earth, which has endured years of contamination. Now the inevitable symptoms of the damage are coming to light.
The Waves and Winds Knock on our Door
As climate change continues to transform our landscape, it’s not only the fields that are heating up. The temperatures of the ocean are also on the rise, and with that change, storms and hurricanes are gaining greater strength. For example, 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which devastated the island of Haiti, went from being a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in just a day and a half. And right here in Immokalee, just three years ago, we survived Hurricane Irma, the strongest storm to land in Florida since 2004, which caused the largest evacuation in the state’s history.
As farmworkers, the economic vulnerability as well as basic physical vulnerability of our homes leaves us at the mercy of these storms when they arrive.
In the trailer where I lived for years, the smell hit you immediately when you entered – like rotting wood, no matter how many times you cleaned. In the bathroom, black mold would appear, creeping up the walls. We weren’t allowed to have a window air conditioner, because the landlord didn’t want the bills to go up. So when it was hot, it was an oven inside, and when it was cold, it was a freezer. I lived there with my husband and my two-year-old son; in the next room, another couple lived with three kids; and in the living room, two more people had beds.
For that trailer, the rent was about $1,200 per month. When you only make between $250 and $300 per week, the only option left is to live with many people crammed in and, even with that, you still live paycheck to paycheck.
When Hurricane Irma arrived, some of us evacuated, and others stayed to help in the shelters. As always is the case with our community in Immokalee, we found hope in one another. One of my co-workers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers played his instruments in the shelter, singing to lighten the hearts of the people. It gave everyone a beautiful kind of hope, even as the rain and wind went on for hours, beating down on the town outside.
In the weeks that followed, we focused on helping our community recover. I will never forget going with a friend, Doña Sandra, to her fallen trailer. She cried for the loss of all of her and her children’s belongings. For so many years, she had risen early to work hard in the fields. In just a few moments, she lost everything.
From the roots of low wages and economic insecurity grows the bitter fruit of poverty, of meager options, of precarious homes. As the storms grow stronger every year, you are always left with the question: Will we survive the next one?
The Hope We Build for our Future
As I said at the outset, humanity has taken on a great debt from the natural world – decades of unsustainable exploitation – and the time to pay up has arrived.
For vulnerable communities like ours, we have to find solutions together to protect ourselves against the effects of climate change. Poverty and powerlessness have put us at risk for too many decades and, here in Immokalee, we are changing that story.
In 2011, I was working in the same fields where Motorcito had passed out from the heat so many years before. One morning, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers came to the fields to deliver an educational session about our rights under the Fair Food Program, a human rights program for farmworkers. They spoke of the right to have shade, to drink water, to work free of sexual harassment and assault, to have a voice in the workplace.
For me, hearing those words brought a new kind of hope. I would be able to report sexual harassment that for years had been happening at work, and we no longer had to silence ourselves and hide that pain in our hearts. What’s more, the Fair Food Program came with a bonus, something to improve our wages, paid by the large companies that buy tomatoes like McDonald’s and Walmart, who would only now buy from farms that ensured we were protected. With this, we were able to imagine a safer and more dignified world.
The moment I heard that message – the first time I heard that we were a priority, that we deserved basic protections as farmworkers – I decided to become involved with the Coalition. I joined other workers with the Coalition who had won the ability to bring these rights into the fields, and I went to marches and tours, raising consciousness with consumers so that we could all have fair food on our tables. Now, I am part of the education team with the Fair Food Program. I have returned to the same fields where I worked before, educating my fellow workers about their rights. I have seen true change in the supervisors who I used to see sexually harassing women or yelling at someone for stopping to drink water.
It’s seeing this respect and these health and safety protections in the fields that gives me hope for the future. And I trust it, because the program was created by and is driven by people just like me — the same workers who labored under the sun, harvesting food. I have also had the opportunity to travel to all of the corners of this country and welcomed to Immokalee workers from many countries and industries – dairy, construction, cleaning services, textile – who want to know more about how they can learn from farmworkers in Immokalee in implementing a program like ours in their own workplaces.
This is how we build a sustainable future. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder, seeking solutions that put the tools for protection and economic security into the hands of the most vulnerable communities – and we must start today.
Lupe Gonzalo worked harvesting U.S. produce for 12 years, and today is a senior staff member and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In addition to her work with the CIW’s Fair Food Program, Ms. Gonzalo has helped to train, mentor and educate workers from other regions and industries across the U.S. and the globe on the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model. She was featured in a series on slavery prevention by the CNN Freedom Project, was named a Community Trailblazer by the Equal Voice Magazine and was recently featured in the children’s book “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World.”
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing support to The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Credits: Photos and drawing courtesy of Coalition of Immokalee Workers and NOAA.