April 26, 2012
The World of a Florida Citrus Worker
Posted by Cara Solomon
Yesterday we ran a feature about a clinical student, Lauren Estévez, JD ’13, who directed a documentary about citrus workers in Florida.
Today, a profile of one of the workers featured in her film.
The worst days are clear, hot and windless. The sun beats the body on a day like that. So before the picking begins, C tries to have a good talk with his partners, the men and women who work in the groves.
He’ll ask where they grew up; what they like about this country versus that; get them remembering their favorite childhood memories. Anything positive to start off the day.
“Don’t worry,” he sometimes tells them, when he sees a hard day ahead. “We’re going to get done with this day, and we’re going to get on to the next day.”
After 10 years of picking citrus, C knows how to work the heat. He has learned the best way to position his ladder to save five minutes from the picking of a tree. He knows not to go for weight, even if weight gets you higher wages; better to stick with a half-full picking bag than to risk the force of it making you fall and lose more time and money.
It’s all about technique.
“We’ve been learning from people who have been doing this before we started,” says C. “We pass the word—one generation to another generation.”
The work is hard, and the young ladies from Harvard saw that. They were there for days, filming C and his partners as they carried 90 pound sacks of oranges on their backs. They saw how busy hands can get in the branches. They heard about aches that go deep into bone.
C was glad they came. It’s always nice to meet young people who are getting an education; it’s what he wants most for his own children. And he could tell the students were learning.
“Everything they saw here, it touched their feelings,” says C, one of several workers the students interviewed for their documentary. “And whenever they become lawyers, I know they’re going to have in mind all the things they saw.”
Maybe somebody powerful will watch the students’ film and say: Let’s do something about the wages for the undocumented workers. When C first started picking, more than a decade ago, he made $100 a day. Now he makes about $60 for 10 hours of work.
It’s hard for C to blame anything other than the recession. He knows some people living off food stamps now, in one of the richest countries in the world.
“They got to be focused on the main thing, which is the economy for the country,” he says. “After that, they can take care of us.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, C still has dreams of farming. He grew up on a ranch in Mexico. The soil is rich where he lived. But without the rain to feed it, the soil might as well have been poor. Until his four children are raised, he won’t even consider going back.
Here, they’ve got stability. They’ve got good schools. This country expects children to get educated, from kindergarten all the way to high school. C wants to see how far they can go.
“I hope they can go as high as they can as students, to be anything they want—doctors, teachers, lawyers, anything,” he says.
His oldest daughter is testing those limits now. She has the acceptance letters to go to college. But she is missing a social security number.
“She’s been losing a lot of scholarship opportunities,” C says.
C tries to stay focused on his goals: to be a good father, a good neighbor, a good partner in the groves. His daughter calls his work the worst thing she’s ever seen. To C, it’s just a living.
He sees new people in the groves all the time now. Maybe they picked another kind of fruit, and slow and steady is how they went, trying to protect the skin. Citrus is all about speed. Work all day, and you might get $37- or you might get $76. Depends on how many thousands of pounds you can pick.
Sometimes the new workers will fumble on their ladders, trying to move too fast. That’s when C will climb down his own ladder and walk over with words of advice. Sometimes they like it. Sometimes they don’t. But this is the way it works, C thinks: pickers as partners, for as long as they have to stay.