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Slavery in Tomato Farms: A Day in Immokalee
Crystal Brunton is a volunteer for IJM and helps lead the advocacy efforts in her home state of Florida. This past summer, Crystal drove 170 miles down to Immokalee, Fla. where she documented her first-hand experience meeting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and tomato pickers in the area.
I, like so many others, absolutely love volunteering and financially contributing to the work that International Justice Mission is doing around the world. My heart races when I get the news that a young girl has been freed from a filthy brothel in India. It changes my dayall of a sudden I am the victor, good has conquered evil and the world feels right, even if only for a moment. It's amazing how such joy can overtake us, even when we are worlds away from the action.
Yet, when I found out that IJM was considering featuring migrant tomato pickers from farms in Florida for their upcoming Recipe For Change campaign, I was less than enthusiastic. I live in Florida; it is a fairly happy place. People WANT to be here, and those who don't can easily leave. This is definitely not the dark, impoverished and sordid underworld that is the backdrop to so many horrific injustices around the world.
I don't want to get involved with this farm worker thing! I'm slightly ashamed to even admit that the thought crossed my mind with such force and conviction. But looking back, I now know that I needed that thought.
That thought changed everything, because it led to my next thought, Why am I so against this? Why do I feel this way? I don't even know any migrant farm workers, yet in my mind a series of adjectives attach themselves to the term migrant farm worker: undocumented, freeloading, sneaky, non tax-paying, unknown. Since I have never had any personal experiences with migrant farm workers, where have I compiled this negative list of feelings from? My parents never said these things to me, and this is not a subject that my friends and I talk about. A movie, perhaps, or the media? These last two options frightened me, but the horror gave birth to an idea: what if I were to go to Immokalee and see for myself what was going on in the tomato fields? I could interview the farm workers and ask the questions that have been on my mind. So in that moment I made up my mind: I had to go to Immokalee.
Two weeks later, through the help of IJM, I had been given permission to meet and interview several of the Immokalee farm workers. I decided to make the 170-mile journey south with a small crew to help me document the trip. The office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers isn't difficult to find. It is a bright, sienna-colored building located at 110 South 2nd Street. It looks like a ray of sunshine shining on a grey, dusty street. Inside, there is a co-op food pantry to the right and a sitting room with comfortable chairs and couches on the left. A toddler had succumbed to one of the couches and was taking his afternoon nap. Desks lined the back wall and Coalition workers were quietly tapping away on their computers. This was a pleasant place to be. As we made our introductions, I began to learn more about the farm workers who worked there.
Silvia Perez, a female farm worker who works at the Coalition spoke to me about her dream of seeing her two children succeed in life. She is willing to work hard so that her children do not have to suffer the abuses that so many others have. Intrigued, I asked if I could speak with her son, Elias. Several minutes later, in walks a bright-eyed, happy 7-year-old boy. He was absolutely adorable. He talked to me about his favorite superheroes (The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, just in case you were wondering) and about how he liked living in Immokalee.
I was so inspired by this young boy. He didn't have to worry about being abused on the job, or wonder how his family would scrape by or where he would be living next month. He is just a 7-year-old who loves superheroes. Elias embodies the amazing story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: they love to work hard; they take pride in providing for their families; and they fight injustice so that their children are safe.
A few of workers then took me to see their portable U-Haul Museum which travels around America. Inside I found photographs, testimonies and articles documenting the shameful treatment of workers in the tomato fields of Florida. They have been beaten, held against their will, threatened with violence and forced to work off erroneous debts. Amazingly, with only one exception, every slavery case that is featured in the museum involves documented workerspeople who are in the country legally....including American citizens. Farm bosses and employers have been exploiting the poor. Poverty was the common denominator in all of these cases. People are being used and exploited because they are desperate for work in order to provide for their families.
I have been so wrong about these migrant farm workers; they are heroes. That day in Immokalee changed me. Today, when I think of a migrant farm worker, a new series of words fill my mind: Brave, Hardworking, Gentle, Loving, Friend.
Watch Crystals 18-minute documentary below.
Tell Ahold, Kroger and Publix that you want them to buy tomatoes that are guaranteed slave-free. (https://secure3.convio.net/ijm/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=151)