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Advocates offer heartfelt care

BY SUSAN KIM | HOMESTEAD, FL | October 18, 2000

South Florida's farmworkers have two advocates who have walked in their shoes.

Gloria Hernandez represents The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc. Her friend Susan Reyna is founder of Women United in Justice, Education, and Reform, Inc. Both serve on the Migrant Services Council. More important, both vividly remember what it's like to pick in the fields for pennies.

"I picked potatoes in Alabama for 7 cents a bucket, then picked red tomatoes in Indiana and Ohio for 13 cents a bucket," said Hernandez. She also spent time learning how to repair computers through the federal Job Corps program, where she earned her General Equivalency Diploma (GED), and also did some teaching in Mexico.

The first year she came to Florida, a cold snap destroyed many crops. She started volunteering because people needed help. Then she started to earn recognition as a community organizer. She eventually worked her way through Miami Dade Community College, holding jobs with the United Way and the Red Cross.

Reyna is a third generation migrant worker. "When I was 19, I had two children and no education -- but I knew how to type and that got me my first job off the farm."

She worked her way through a network of community outreach programs, and founded Women United in 1994. The nonprofit offers community education, including parenting programs and couples counseling. "We get involved in anything that happens in this community. I know my people. I know how they're going to respond. Things stop working when you lose sight of the people you're serving. I just love what I do. I came from that household that I'm trying to help. I know what it's like to just be a survivor. To me, children are the future, and I don't just mean that as a clichÈ."

Reyna and Hernandez both said that it's hard for average Americans to understand or sympathize with the life of a migrant farmworker. "I would never have believed they sold people like slaves but they did," said Hernandez. "I remember trying to lie to an employer about my previous experience picking tomatoes. He looked at my hands and he could tell I didn't know how to pick tomatoes. That's how you can tell who's a migrant farmworker. You just look at their hands."

Reyna added that, more than anything, farmworkers need somebody to reach out in a way they can understand. "Sometimes it's as simple as offering somebody love. Take the children, for example. I know about brain development. I've gone back to school and gotten all my degrees. But what I always come back to is that this really about love. It's about breaking barriers. A person can still be taught the values of life, whether she's a farm worker, or an executive."

Offering love and breaking barriers can be challenging when a population is transient. Hernandez and Reyna are always working with new people. Hernandez has weekly meetings just to introduce that week's incoming workers to the services of the Farmworkers Association.

Reyna said that farmworkers have become even more transient than they used to be. "Because of our immigration laws we have a larger problem than we used to with illegal immigration," she said. "People move around more because they don't want to be discovered."

"We didn't have as much of a problem with that when I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I -- we were born here."

When farmworkers migrate as groups from small Mexican villages, or from communities in Nicaragua, Reyna sometimes invites someone from their home community to train her staff in how to relate to the newcomers. "I've seen two groups of people come from villages in Mexico that didn't speak the same dialect -- they couldn't understand each other even though they were from the same country. We had to be trained in how to understand them."

When Hurricane Andrew struck, Reyna said that the tent community they created had all the elements of a town. "We had a shoe store and a barber shop -- all set up in tents."

Reyna said she sometimes fields frustrated questions from outsiders. "Sometimes people ask me 'do they know they'll come here and work in the fields, and be exploited, and live in encampments where there's barbed wire?'

"I tell them that they come here because they know there's work. They come here because it's that or die in their home villages, whether in Mexico, Nicaragua, or wherever. And so they come here."

Hernandez said that farmworkers often pay an employer a large sum to bring them across the border, then pledge their employment as well. "One family paid an employer $15,000 -- plus pledged a lifetime of field work -- to help them cross the border.

"Another crew leader once came to me, agonizing because he was in love with the daughter of his employer and who knows what would happen if the employer found out?

"I had one man ask me: 'Should I kill my employer? Should I kill myself?'

"I told him 'no, no.' When I get asked questions like that, I go home and I pray: 'God, did you send me that man? What do you want me to do?' "

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