[fla-left] [labor] Former migrant worker now is organizer (fwd)

Michael Hoover hoov at SPAMfreenet.tlh.fl.us
Thu May 11 11:19:54 MDT 2000


forwarded by Michael Hoover

> Published Tuesday, May 9, 2000, in the Miami Herald
>
> Former migrant worker now is organizer
>
> Lucas Benitez worked the fields, is speaking out
>
> BY AMY DRISCOLL
> adriscoll at herald.com
>
> Lucas Benitez is a second-generation farmworker from Mexico with a junior
> high school education, a smattering of English and years of back-breaking
> experience in the fields of southwest Florida.
>
> Yet the migrant worker from Immokalee has met with a governor and a
> senator, received honors from
> Rolling Stone magazine and the Catholic Church, caught the attention of
> rock stars Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, and been quoted in
> newspapers from New York to Los Angeles.
>
> At 24, Benitez is emerging as a powerful new symbol for farmworkers across
> the nation. The serious
> young man with the black buzz cut, silver-tipped front teeth and unassuming
> air is giving voice to those who languish silently on one of society's
> lowest rungs -- itinerant workers hidden in rural trailer parks and paid 45
> cents per 32-pound bucket for picking America's fruits and vegetables.
>
> Benitez is co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grass-roots
> organization with a flair for creative protests that have attracted
> national attention.
>
> The group has organized work slow-downs and a hunger strike, protest
> marches and a petition drive.

> The petition, which called for improved relations between workers and
> growers, was presented in March to Gov. Jeb Bush. Other labor groups in
> South Florida -- including Unite for Dignity, a union that represents
> nursing home workers -- have joined the coalition's protests.
>
> But the biggest attention-getter for the group has been a $100,000 award
> that Benitez won last year from the youth leadership organization, Do
> Something. The New York-based organization honored him, in part, for
> helping expose two modern-day slavery rings that forced illegal immigrants
> to pick crops without pay.
>
> The award money, Benitez says, belongs to the coalition.
>
> ``My story cannot be separated from the story of the people,'' he says
> gravely in Spanish, uncomfortable in the spotlight. ``When it comes to the
> rights of the farmworker, we are all one.''
>
> On this evening, Benitez is hard at work on his self-chosen mission, this
> time at the center of the coalition meeting hall in Immokalee, a building
> adjacent to the parking lots where buses disgorge workers at dusk. Outside,
> the storefront is painted in distinctive murals vividly depicting the
> workers' struggle. Inside, the place is so packed that many workers sit on
> overturned buckets.
>
> Benitez sits at the center, his eyes dark with intensity as he tries to
> coax responses from a tired and reticent crowd.
>
> The faces are mostly young, male and Hispanic. They slump in T-shirts and
> jeans, and sometimes cowboy boots, tired lines etching their faces.
>
> ``This is a country of immigrants,'' Benitez tells the group firmly. ``We
> have rights in this country. Every worker has the right to respect and
> dignity from the ranchero.''
>
> Benitez holds up a slip of paper, one of the meeting notices he handed out
> earlier in the day on street corners and parking lots. The invitation has a
> drawing showing a worker being twisted, wrung dry like a towel, between a
> contratista, or crew leader, on one side and a patron, or grower, on the
> other.
>
> The grower is drawn fat and well-dressed and the crew leader also appears
> prosperous. The worker, though, is a pretzel in a baseball cap.
>
> ``Why are we like this picture?'' Benitez asks. They are silent, staring
> down at their slips of paper.
>
> He tries again. ``Can anybody think of a way we are like this, in the
> middle?''
>
> This time the responses trickle in. The low wages, one man says, then ducks
> his head, embarrassed when everyone looks his way. Too much work, adds
> another.
>
> A third man stands up, emboldened: ``When the crew leader runs out of
> water, he makes us drink water from the ditch!'' he says angrily.
>
> Though he no longer moves to follow the crops, Benitez occasionally picks
> local citrus and watermelon -- and he looks the part. Dressed in khaki-
> colored pants and shirt, with a goatee and
> low-key manner, he appears like everyone else in the hall.
>
> That, says coalition co-director Greg Asbed, is Benitez's appeal: ``They
> look at him and see themselves. And in that sense, he can speak to the
> workers like no one else.''
>
> A sign above the door of the cooperative declares how the workers feel they
> are treated by the growers: ``Yo no soy tractor,'' or, I am not a tractor.
>
> Ask members of the coalition why they joined, and some compelling reasons
> come tumbling out.
>
> Take, for example, the story of Francisco Martinez, 22, a Mexican vegetable
> picker. Before joining the coalition, he picked vegetables in a
> forced-labor camp run by Abel Cuello near Immokalee.
>
> After enduring harsh conditions for close to three months, Martinez ran
> away. He turned to the coalition, and Benitez, for help. Others followed.
> The coalition called in federal authorities.
>
> In April 1999, Cuello was arrested on federal charges of slavery conspiracy.
>
> ``After the slavery case, I felt like I have to fight for my rights,'' said
> Martinez.
>
> For Benitez, who began working in the fields at 16 to help support his
> family, the coalition represents
> a chance to break his own chains.
>
> ``Everyone deserves respect and dignity,'' he says. ``We are not machines.
> We are human beings.''





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