Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, our town was on the fringe of the open farmland of Suffolk County, known for its potatoes. In high school, I have a memory of a couple of Spanish-speaking teenagers, who would show up during the harvest time in the fall, sit in on some classes at our high school, and then disappear. While living in New Hampshire, decades later, we were aware it was apple harvest time when we would see small groups of Jamaican men in the supermarket filling their grocery carts with staples for the week. These two widely spaced experiences were my only personal observation of the life of a migrant farm worker, until we arrived here in Lee County Florida.
One of the first things we did upon arriving here was to sign up to volunteer to deliver food to the migrant farm workers’ camp located along Old Highway 41 over the county line in Collier County. The outreach is organized by a local group called Harvest Time Ministries, which is partnering with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (the church we are attending) and Jesus La Roca. We have now been three times and each has been both very different and profound.
Our assignment varies depending on the number of other volunteers who show up and what larger items need to be transported in our truck. The first visit we transported the tables (needed to distribute the food) and bags of disposable diapers, in five sizes, for the families who would need them. It was my job to distribute the diapers. Peter distributed food bags.
Our visit is carefully choreographed. When we arrive, Carlos, the pastor from Jesus La Roca, does an opening prayer and then there are Scripture readings and some hymns, all in Spanish, for the residents. I am not sure how the handful of Haitian men navigate the prayer service but they knew that the reading and singing served as the clarion call to all the residents that the Harvest Time people have arrived.
After the music and singing, the residents lined up, gave their names to the Harvest Time coordinator and then indicated what they need – food, diapers, peanut butter (a separate food line), bread, and/or house wares. They were then directed to the table/line to pick up what they needed. The women who came in my diaper line were intense and quiet and there was very little eye contact with them. In my non-existent Spanish, I would sometimes say “buenas dias, senora” if it felt right. I noticed how necessary it was to make myself small and still as they queued up, indicating with their fingers (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) the size of the diapers they needed.
The second visit to the village Peter did men’s clothing and I did house wares and Christmas decorations (for the season). Peter’s story is illuminating because he was warned that the minute he put out the men’s clothing, there would be a “rugby scrum” of activity over the items. It was completely accurate. Men (clearly in the minority on Saturdays since most of them are out in the fields) appeared out of nowhere, grabbing the clothing and running shoes, trying them on for size and pushing and shoving as they made their selections.
The most interesting observation Peter made is that the one pair of running shoes left on the table were the white “old man” shoes that looked just like the pair he had in the back of the truck. None of the men wanted them, revealing the deeply held cultural reality that white running shoes are simply not coveted by any man over 30!
In house wares, the top items were Christmas decorations and artificial garlands. The hardest item to move? The artificial Christmas tree that was over seven feet tall. Towels and bath rugs were hugely popular items. The children scrambled over each other for the stuffed animals and then immediately jumped into pantomime and theater over their selections. Universal.
Visit number three was Christmas gift delivery week. As we drove in to park our truck, I spotted the seven-foot artificial tree outside one of the residences. Some doorways displayed the garlands and ornaments from the previous visit. Children were everywhere. Two of our volunteers dressed up in Mr. and Mrs. Claus in red velvet costumes. It was a festive time.
In our truck, we carried bags and bags of individually wrapped age-appropriate new presents, labeled with the name of a child living in the village. This remarkable act of generosity was coordinated by volunteers from St. Mary’s who wrapped the presents (which had been donated by parishioners) and then labeled each with the name of a child in the village. The Claus couple was going to distribute the gifts when the food distribution was completed.
At the appropriate time, I watched as Carlos called out each child’s name and with either great bravado or great temerity, each child came up, received the hand-wrapped gift from Mrs. Claus, posed for a picture on Santa’s lap, and scampered off. Out of the approximately 50 or 60 gifts, Santa personally delivered all but 4 or 5. Our coordinator later told us that this was the most successful gift delivery in years. We don’t know where the missing children were, or why they weren’t present, but the life of a migrant farm family is precarious, even at Christmas.
As Carlos explained when I asked, the labor contractor who owns the camp hires these residents. People come and go for many reasons – illnesses, troublemaking in the camp, or more. As long as there are cucumbers and jalapeno peppers and tomatoes to harvest (the season usually lasts until March) there is work and a paycheck for the men (mostly) who do the harvesting. The rate is minimum wage and from their weekly gross pay, the labor contractor deducts a fixed amount per family member per week to cover the cost of the housing. There is no safety net here. No harvest means no work and no paycheck. That’s why the Harvest Time deliveries become so important. The food and the diapers and the house wares and this time, the Christmas presents, are the only cushions in a life led from day to day, in complete present time.
Carlos added that from this harvest in Collier County, some of the workers and their families will travel north to Georgia for the peach harvest and then to North Carolina for more tomato harvesting. The children attend school as long as they can wherever they are, and then they move on to the next place. And this continues as long as there are fields to harvest.
This volunteer work continues to be a very powerful and life-changing experience for us. Not a meal passes now in our little house without an expression of gratitude for the people who work in the fields to make it possible for us to delight in the bounty of this earth. We invite you to join in with your own expressions of gratitude this holiday season for their labor and felix Navidad.
Peter and Liz are preparing for their second Christmas on the road as their pilgrimage to here finds them (and T2) in Estero, Florida where they are resident volunteers at Koreshan State Historic Park.