Thursday, September 7, 2017

Civil Rights Activist Silvia Giagnoni and her book FIELDS OF RESISTANCE: THE STRUGGLE OF FLORIDA'S FARMWORKERS FOR JUSTICE "America's Tomato Picker"

Chris Rice Cooper

*The images in this specific piece are granted copyright privilege by:  Public Domain, CCSAL, GNU Free Documentation Licenses, Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law, or given copyright privilege by the copyright holder which is identified beneath the individual photo.

*Portions highlighted in this color are excerpts from Fields of Resistance The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers For Justice

Silvia Giagnoni’s Fields of Resistance
The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers For Justice.
“America’s Tomato Picker”

Los tomates de Immokalee nacieron verdes
Los hombres al piscar se ponen verdes
Y el comprador nunca pierde

Immokalee’s tomatoes were born green
The men at the time of picking turn green
But the buyer never loses anything

Silvia Giagnoni always remembers seeing a farmworker or migrant worker in her home country of Prato, Italy because it was part of her every day life.
In Italy today, people are from China, Eastern Europe and all over Africa come to look for work.  Most tomato pickers who harvest the fields of Southern Italy are African.  The living and working conditions of these migrants are not dissimilar to the ones of those who are held captive somewhere in the fields of Immokalee.

After she received her Master’s Degree in Mass Communi   
cations from La Sapienza University Rome, Italy she moved to Florida, the fourth state with the most immigrants (California has the most) in 2003.  She settled in Boca Raton, Florida where she attended Florida Atlantic University and received her Ph.D. in Comparative Studies.
While she worked as an adjunct instructor at Florida Atlantic University she wrote about the migrant farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida in the book Fields of Resistance The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers For Justice published by Haymarket Books
       Fields of Resistance:  The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers for Justice chronicles a seven-month period (between November 2007 to May 2008), the length of the harvest in this part of the country, during which I regularly visited Immokalee and which coincided with crucial moments of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Burger King Campaign.

        We’ve all been to Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, or even drank Coca Cola (owner of Minute Maid) and as a result we all somehow have benefited from paying poverty wages to farmworkers.  Giagnoni insists that it doesn’t matter the legal status of the farmworker; what matters is the American dream – getting a fair wage for his or her work.
Regardless of their status, whether they are American citizens or seasonal workers on H-2A visas or undocumented immigrants Florida farmworkers still earn sub-poverty wages and have no right to overtime compensation health insurance,
or paid vacation.    To begin with, they are asking for fairer wages.  In essence, they are asking the American people to consider who harvests the food that ends up on their tables.
Giagnoni reveals that as of 2011 farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida handpick 90% of the tomatoes consumed in the entire United States.  It is these Immokalee tomatoes that restaurants such as Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell prefer more than any other tomato.

These companies prefer to buy tomatoes grown in Florida, whose consistency makes them easier to slice and, therefore, perfectly for hamburgers.  Although both the United States and Canada import tomatoes from Mexico, where the harvest never stops during the year, those fruits are actually too juicy, and often are ruined by the time they reach their destination.

 Most of the farmworkers in Immokalee are undocumented workers, which makes them prime targets for exploitation by rich farmers and restaurant CEOs due to the fact that there is no federally funded legal services to protect these individuals.

It is these individuals that Giagnoni (far left) spent her time with; getting to know their families, their churches, their soup kitchens, their schools, and more importantly their fight for the farmworker to gain a fair and legal wage.

The narrative unfolds as I meet and interview farmworkers and their families, activists, religious people and social workers.  The book provides a personal account of these encounters, the “everyday life” moments I shared with the people of Immokalee, but also attempts to provide historical and social background to better situate the events.  

       The Immokalee’s Guadalupe Center is a saving presence in these farm workers’ lives.  It offers free clothing, free preschool, and is a free soup kitchen serving hot soup every day for lunch – the only hot meal most of these farm workers will consume in a 24-hour period.  The Guadalupe Center’s main mission is to free the farmworkers from poverty through education. 
Paco “Paquito” Gonzales is an example of this and now works at the Guadalupe Center.  He has been assigned to be Giagnoni’s guide and takes her to one of the rundown mobile homes most of the farmworkers inhabit. 

       Multiple trailers often share the same bathroom. The sewage system is inadequate and very old.  Paco pauses.  Up to fifteen people live in one trailer. They often sleep on the floor without even a mattress, “stuck next to each other like sardines,” as Paco puts it.  To have this space and live in these conditions, some workers pay as much as $300 per month.

       These farmworkers will get up as early as five in the morning to catch the bus to go to the many fields (sometimes three hours distance). 

       Once in the fields, the workers must wait for the dew to dry; picking when the plants are still wet would ruin the tomatoes.  The farmworkers are paid by piece rate and they need to be fast:  in order to earn $50 a day, they must pick four thousand pounds of tomatoes.

The average pay for a tomato picker in 2008 was $400 a week which is about a 14 hour work day – six days a week – which equals to about  $4.64 hour.   And these same migrant workers who earn $4.64 per hour are huge contributors to a global economy of thirteen billion dollars a year.  In 2008, when Giagnoni was in the process of researching this book, the Florida minimum wage was $6.79 an hour.

       Many of these farmworkers are working not only to feed themselves but to also send money back to their loved ones in their home country. Giagnoni met farmworker Jorge who has a wife and three children in Hidalgo, Mexico.  Jorge spends $12 for every five hundred dollars or $15 for every one hundred dollars he sends to his wife via Western Union
It’s a guarantee that the Western Union workers on the other end are getting paid at least minimum wage and are working in a safe and clean environment.  Just like the rich farm owners and rich CEOs of Goldman Sachs.

       After the liberalization of the North American market with NAFTA, U.S. growers have coped with rising operating costs (i.e., gas for transportation) and increased competition from Mexican farmers (by keeping workers’ wages low).  On the other hand, fast food chains’ demands for cheap tomatoes has put additional pressure on the growers.  Thus the idea of paying more for labor, even one cent more per pound, seems like blasphemy.  It’s “Un-American,” according to Reggie Brown (above), vice president of the FTGE.  The arrangement, however, would result in almost doubling the workers’ wages: from 45 to 77 cents per bucket of tomatoes.
“Why would (growers) allow anyone other than their own management to set wage rates?”  Brown added.  Perhaps because the bonuses of top executives of Goldman Sachs, the primary bank holding company subsidizing Burger King, exceeded $200 million in 2006. Twice as much as the amount ten thousand tomato pickers collectively earned in South Florida during the same year.
       The irony is that the famous one cent per pound is not even coming out of the farmers’ pocket; the world’s largest fast food restaurant company Yum! Brands – which controls Taco Bell and McDonalds are paying for the

       In May of 2008 Giagnoni details the victory of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers  Burger King agrees to give the farmworkers a 71% raise – from 45 cents to 77 cents per bucket of tomatoes.   They still do not get sick leave, vacation leave, or health insurance (even though they are exposed to harmful pesticides) but it is still a victory.

       In the epilogue Giagnoni gives the readers an update of all the people she had contact with and where they are now.  She also describes Immokalee as a place that gave her purpose and the needed drive to carry on. 

       Immokalee became the place where I would go to regenerate, where I returned to look for the core of things.  It was almost as if I were striving to recuperate a sense of authenticity that I felt missing in coastal Florida.

Giagnoni pleas for all American citizens to have the courage to make themselves no longer invisible – and to become visible on behalf of the migrant farmworker and for the sake of justice.

This remoteness, this invisibility, contributes to a generalized sense of disconnection (from the land and those who work it) that is also a form of alienation, and it ultimately hides the fundamental injustice on which Western societies like ours are based upon.  So when farmworkers stage protests in the streets, and the invisible becomes visible again:  choosing to not see then means to living in denial.  And it makes us all complicit, whether we like it or not.

*Silvia Giagnoni is now an American citizen and resides in Montgomery, Alabama where she is Associate Professor of Communications and Theater at Auburn University of Montgomery.  
She maintains a blog at http://anitalian
and can be contacted via Facebook at  https://

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