Blog: Citrus Workers

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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.

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April 25, 2012

IHRC Student Directs Documentary on Citrus Workers

Posted by Cara Solomon

A screenshot from a documentary shows orange trees with a ladder going up to the top. The sun glares behind the ladder and one can make out the outline of a person.

In the beginning, Lauren Estévez ’13, stuck to her list. There were ten questions on it—everything she knew she needed to know about the lives of citrus workers in Florida.

But there was more. And she often got it just as silence was settling in: the person in front of the camera would start talking again, offering up stories and information Estévez’s questions never reached.

“You find that really interesting stuff happens at the end—after you’ve asked the last question, and there’s a pause,” said Estévez, a first-time filmmaker and member of the International Human Rights Clinic. “It’s important as an interviewer to sit back a little and listen.”

Last fall, the Harvard Law Documentary Studio offered Estévez and four other students the training, funding and equipment they needed to make a short documentary film. It was a challenge, fitting filmmaking into law school. But after months of research, shooting, and editing, Estévez’s 12-minute film about the lives of citrus workers in Florida screened this month at the Harvard Film Archive, part of the Studio’s first annual DOC Festival.

The films at the festival explored a range of social justice issues, from transgender asylum seekers to cultural perceptions of breast feeding. Together they represent the first crop of documentaries produced by the Studio, a student organization that started last spring to support films on social and policy topics.

When Estévez started research for the film in October, her goal was to tackle two issues—immigration and fair food. She found an advocacy group, the Farmworker Association of Florida, that had close ties to citrus workers; negotiated conditions for filming, including non-disclosure of names; and during January term, went down to her home state of Florida to shoot.

The crew followed workers through their days: boarding a hushed bus before dawn, working from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., then boarding the bus back home.

“It was like I had stumbled into a different world,” Estévez said.

With striking cinematography by Desta Tedros ’13, and Nina Vizcarrondo, Harvard College ‘08, Naranjeros shows the grueling work that goes into picking citrus. In other agricultural sectors, a premium is placed on careful picking, so as not to bruise the fruit; in citrus, it’s all about bulk, which means it’s all about speed. Workers are paid by the pound.

For each bin they fill with 1,000 pounds of fruit, the citrus workers earn $9.50 cents. Some workers can fill six bins a day. Others can fill only four.

“You go to bed exhausted, you wake up exhausted,” says one man in the film. “You have to start slow in the morning because your bones hurt.”

Because most of the workers are either undocumented, or working on H-2A visas, they were reluctant to complain about wages, let alone protest. The threat of deportation loomed too large. And that’s when Estévez shifted her focus for the film, away from fair food and toward immigration reform.

Without it, she said, it was hard to see how things might improve.

One citrus worker who agreed to talk by phone the other day said he was glad to share his story with the students from Harvard. He believed they had seen things, and learned things, that would help them in their careers as lawyers.

“I think one thing they learned is: don’t let go of all of the opportunities they have,” he said.

Continue Reading…

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