Farmworker rights are human rights

by

A landfill, a wastewater treatment facility and a medical waste incinerator.

These were the sites surrounding the dead-end residential street our 15-passenger van drove down during the aptly-named “Toxic Tour” of South Apopka. Two children paused their basketball game, and a playground sat empty beside a thin wall of shrubbery standing between us and the incinerator facility. 

The placement of these facilities in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood was one of the many glaring examples of environmental racism that activists Jeannie Economos from the Florida Farmworkers Association and Linda Lee, a former Lake Apopka farmworker, pointed out over the course of the tour.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Apopka during a Volunteer UCF Alternative Break Program (ABP) trip that was organized by Alicia Perez, a UCF student and ABP coordinator. Back in November, our paths crossed when we attended a program about the lives and ongoing struggles of former Lake Apopka farmworkers.

Perez, 19, was a migrant farmworker for much of her childhood. She said she planned the weekend to bring awareness to the ongoing fight for farmworker justice and the plethora of issues those communities face including labor exploitation and environmental racism.

And it was during this weekend that my peers and I went from discussing issues as abstractions to engaging with the community and seeing the oppression firsthand. 

There were seven UCF attendees in total; we entered as strangers and left bonded by this impactful experience. I believe I speak for all of us when I express my sincerest gratitude to Alicia, the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) and the people of Apopka who taught us, shared their experiences and welcomed us into their community.

“We used to own our slaves, now we rent them.”

Those were the words Economos, an activist who worked for FWAF upwards of 20 years, quoted from a farm owner whose statement appeared in the 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.”

Almost 60 years later, the sentiment still stands.

For decades, Lake Apopka was home to 20,000 acres of farms producing cabbage, squash, corn and everything in between. Those farms were bought out 22 years ago in the wake of the lake restoration project, an undertaking deemed necessary after years of pesticide and fertilizer use destroyed the environment. To this day, the mostly black former farmworkers still are living with the compounding effects of health problems caused by exposure to chemicals, poverty from economic exploitation in the form of low or even stolen wages and environmental racism, among other issues. 

Although the demographics of the community have changed over time, the conditions intended to keep people down remain the same. A predominantly Latinx population works the foliage farms, greenhouses and plant nurseries that gave Apopka its moniker of the “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.”

Potted plants at the nursery where our group volunteered and spoke with farmwokers. Photo by Valerie Starks.

I met people old enough to be my parents and grandparents working in the nurseries from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Poinsettia season just wrapped up, and the folks we met were raising the potted plants commonly found at Lowe’s and Home Depot. 

Prior to the trip, I hadn’t considered how agriculture extends beyond the food industry. 

We learned about big agriculture and how it reflects the fundamental problems with capitalism. As Economos said, “The same consciousness or mentality that allows us to abuse animals is the same consciousness that allows us to exploit people.”

This is why our society is one in which there are people trafficked under the guise of being able to enjoy a significantly better life, people exposed to toxins known to cause physical and mental damage, people paid pennies in an industry that serves as the bedrock of society and people whose stories are intentionally excluded from the annals of history.

“If you hold it in, it hurts you. If you let it out, you’re free.”

Is what Linda Lee told our group as she and Economos explained why they keep fighting unfair and unethical farmworker treatment. 

My peers and I were challenged to absorb and process information involving the intersecting forces of systemic erasure, classism, poverty, racism, xenophobia and gentrification. But we also got a chance to watch as ordinary people worked to reclaim the narrative and create a more equitable and equal society.

The Campesinos’ Garden in Apopka. Photo by Valerie Starks.

Agroecology, a direct response to corporate agricultural practices that center profits over people, is part of that reclamation. This approach to agriculture centers on environmentalism and food sovereignty, which is a person’s control over their own food system.

In Apopka, the Billie Dean Community Garden and Campesinos’ Garden — both of which grow pesticide-free plants and produce — are examples of agroecological principles at work.

Grassroots organizing that centers on the need of the community is also why Apopka has community health clinics, a credit union and other businesses and organizations catering to low-income — and sometimes undocumented — people.

And it is why our group was able to participate in a beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade with homemade floats, candy and people lining the streets.

There’s a lot of work to be done in Apopka, as in any community, and it can be overwhelming to process. But in the words of Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”