Chasing Aztlán
A summer of food politics, social justice, and
Chicana epiphanies in Florida’s tomato belt.


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By Rose Espinola | I crouched on the hood of a coworker’s car, holding my cell phone up to the clear, star-filled sky. It was near midnight and we were on US 29 somewhere in the middle of the Florida Everglades. The car had run out of gas on the 100-mile trip back to Immokalee from Fort Lauderdale, where we had been circulating a petition urging the chain-restaurant Chipotle to work with tomato pickers to improve their pay and working conditions. The only place to pull over had been in a panther crossing. Traveling with me were two compañeras who work in the fields, and one of their infants. We’d been struck by the triple misfortune of a forgotten cell phone, a dead one, and a third that wasn’t getting any reception.

As members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), my companions were urging Chipotle to work directly with tomato pickers to pay them one penny more per pound, and to enforce a code of conduct in fields where abuses ranging from wage theft to slavery have led to four successful criminal prosecutions against involuntary servitude since 2000. McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, and others have already signed such agreements. Chipotle, whose slogan is “Food with Integrity,” claims it has improved worker pay, but has declined to sign a formal agreement that would give workers real contractual protection.

Outside it was sweaty and I was being pumped of blood by the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen. I waved the phone through the air. A signal finally came. Gas followed a couple of hours later.

There were a lot of things I learned this summer in the migrant town of Immokalee, as I interned with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a partner organization of the CIW. One was always to fill up the tank when you’re heading back to Immokalee from somewhere really far away. There are no gas stations as you traverse the Florida Everglades.

A month earlier I had driven the same westward route from Fort Lauderdale. A coworker and I had gone to a screening of Food, Inc. at a quaint little indie theater. The theater manager gave us five minutes before the film to stand before the audience and speak about the CIW and its Campaign for Fair Food. We decided to tell the audience that sustainability doesn’t just mean a tomato is organic and locally grown. It also means that it was picked for a fair wage, on a farm free of labor abuses.

Tomato pickers are not paid by the hour. They fill 32-pound buckets and carry them to a designated truck, where they receive a ticket worth 40 or 45 cents. A worker has to pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to make $50 in a day, but many days that is impossible due to weather or the amount of crop. This wage has been stagnant for 30 years. The average tomato picker receives no health benefits, sick days, overtime, or vacation. The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that the average farm worker earns between $10,000 and $12,499 per year, but that number is skewed upward by the inclusion of managers’ and supervisors’ wages. An extra penny per pound would nearly double their income, and farm workers would finally receive a living wage for their labor. I spent the summer campaigning in solidarity with them.

It was the Campaign for Fair Food that motivated me to go to Immokalee, but there was another reason I was excited to spend the summer there. As a second-generation Mexican-American who grew up in a comfortable Miami suburb, I had always yearned to experience life in a Chicano town. As a kid my only interactions with Mexican culture had come during visits to my father’s family in Mexico, and my Chicana learning came to me as music, art, and news through the Internet. At Penn, what binds my Chicano friends is a belief in fair jobs, fair food, and an education that values our history. In Immokalee I would be able to live in the kind of community that had inspired those ideals.

The reality turned out to be more complicated. Despite all I had read about socioeconomic stratification in Chicano communities, I was caught off-guard as I rode my bike through a neighborhood where many second-generation Mexican-Americans live and where I found summer housing. Red and blue school buses were parked in my neighbors’ driveways, the names of labor contractors neatly lettered on the front and back. For me those converted school buses were symbols of oppression that represented farm workers having no option but to crowd the bus-filled parking lot of the Fiesta 3 grocery market at 3am, and hope for a day of poorly paid labor, no matter how many unpaid hours of travel and waiting it would take to get it. No longer used to drive children to school, these buses were an ugly symbol that littered driveways throughout the heart of what should be Aztlán, the mythical heaven that exists in the souls and minds of all the Chicanos I’ve met in college. Working in solidarity with the movements that come out of towns like this, we organize to make our universities accountable for their decisions.

Here in Immokalee, though, Chicanos instead often work in compliance with the system. Working at the CIW Center, I assisted Coalition staff in getting workers money they were owed by the labor contractors who had hired them. A couple of times I dealt with young second-generation Mexican-Americans like myself. One played the fool and tried to weasel out of paying wages by claiming that the hundreds of dollars in question was payment for transportation from Immokalee to the fields of North Carolina.

Nevertheless, another seemed much more concerned with the condition of his workers. This had been his first contract to supply labor. Before that he too had been a worker and had experienced being cheated out of wages. He delivered a check for a former worker to the Coalition office. While his concern may have been feigned, it’s important to acknowledge that not all farm-labor contractors oppress their workers. Some contractors even play the Coalition’s community radio station “Radio Conciencia”—or “Consciousness Radio”—on their buses.

And the truth is that while labor contractors have the most direct contact with the workers that they hire, they are in fact near the bottom of the sourcing chain for tomatoes. Growers, who set wages and can create conditions full of potential for the abuse of farm workers by contractors, are rarely, if ever, held to account. Yet growers in turn feel squeezed by big purchasers of tomatoes like Kroger, Aramark, and Chipotle, who demand rock-bottom prices for tomatoes and are left with most of the profit.

I know that Immokalee is a mixed bag. There are good Chicanos here, though few are familiar with the movement, let alone promised to it like I am. As I rode my bike through my neighborhood, the labor contractors’ school buses were parked and turned off, but I could feel their headlights glaring at me threateningly. It occurred to me that if I had grown up in a Chicano community, I might never have embraced the Chicano Movement politics that impelled me to come here.

But Chicana epiphanies weren’t the only kind I had at the CIW Community Center. I’m biracial, and it showed in the office kitchen, where I found myself spending hours cooking latkes and fried matzoh for my compañeros. At Penn—the Jewish Mecca of secular American universities—I wear my black-and-red Chicano Student Movement sweatshirt, work with Latinos in North Philadelphia, and have but one or two Jewish friends. Although I’ve taken my non-Jewish friends to synagogue and have shared food with them during the holidays, my mother and her family insist that the more I gravitate towards the Chicano Movement, the less Jewish I will be. But in Immokalee, a town with few Jews, I found myself still describing Passover to my coworkers, and turning down pork. And there I was in the CIW kitchen, sharing fried matzoh with colleagues who would add Tapatia hot sauce to it.

My summer in Immokalee showed me that there are more dimensions to being Chicano than simply growing up in a Chicano community. While our movement is based upon the experiences of peoples in Chicano communities, the black-and-red identity politics of solidarity are more importantly fueled by the radical education that we participate in—discussions about things like neoliberalism and food sustainability that have more profoundly shaped my understanding of what solidarity is all about.

I have my own unique Chicana experiences that qualify my identity. In the meantime, I can still live and breathe the Movement, while eating fried matzoh. What matters is that Aztlán is on my mind and in my heart, and exploding from my fist raised high in the air.

Rose Espinola is a junior at the College and a Penn Civic Scholar from Pembroke Pines, Florida.

  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/28/09