Farm workers prepare for hurricane threat


PIERSON, Fla. — Wednesday, November 23, 2011 — When the Atlantic hurricane season ends on Nov. 30, the farm workers of Pierson, Fla., will have more than one reason to celebrate.

Not only did the hurricanes stay away this year. Last month, farm workers opened a Community Disaster Center in Pierson to prepare for the next devastating storm, whenever it comes.

The center provides roughly 350 square feet of space to store emergency supplies such as food and medicine in a local office of the Florida Farm Workers Association. Church World Service funded the project after a series of devastating storms in 2004 and 2005.

Organizers of the project say that their biggest challenge was overcoming local opposition. Pierson is in a rural area that primarily grows ornamental ferns, and while the fern cutters are predominantly Hispanic, most of their employers and local government officials are not.

In 2004, Hurricane Frances revealed the tensions between these communities. The storm caused widespread damage to homes and power lines, and many farm workers relied on hot meals from relief agencies in the weeks that followed.

However, the town of Pierson ordered relief agencies to leave ahead of schedule to encourage fern cutters to return to work, according to newspaper accounts. This convinced the farm workers that they needed to be better prepared for disasters, according to Roberta Perry, a state organizer for the National Farm Worker Ministry.

“It was just sort of a community discussion — if we could take care of ourselves it would be better,” Perry recalls.

Perry helped the farm workers apply for funds to build the Community Disaster Center, and CWS provided them with $31,000 in 2007.

But more difficulties lay ahead. For several years, the Florida Farm Workers Association was unable to obtain a building permit from the Pierson Town Council. Although Pierson has fewer than 3,000 people, the council raised concerns that the building would create excessive traffic and demand for parking.

The council was often unable to vote on the issue because not enough members showed up for a meeting, Perry recalls. Church groups and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union began attending council meetings to support the building permit application.

Marcos Crisanto, a local coordinator for the Florida Farm Workers Association, says he found the town’s reluctance to issue a permit perplexing.

“It could be because of discrimination, it could be because of racism, I don’t know,” he said.

In 2010, the association finally obtained a permit to build the disaster center as an addition to their existing office, instead of as a separate building. It was a partial victory — but a victory nonetheless.

On Oct. 23, 2011, the association celebrated the completion of the Community Disaster Center with food, children’s dances and a blessing of dedication.

Joann Hale, a CWS Emergency Response Specialist, attended the event. She says that the project is a great example of how CWS helps communities prepare for emergencies.

“We give our money to communities so they can empower themselves and stand on their own two feet and take care of themselves after a disaster,” Hale says.


Jan Dragin,

Ekobios: A Salsa Orchestra in Gainesville

This 11-piece salsa band was composed mostly by students from diverse backgrounds who came together in the unique environment that is Gainesville, Fla.

Conga player Johnny Frías was born in the U.S., but his parents are from Cuba. He was an ethnomusicology graduate student at the University of Florida, where he led an Afro-Cuban ensemble, Fundamento RumberoFundamento played several times at the University Auditorium, at the Bo Diddley plaza, and for other events.

The ensemble played rumba, a type of music with influences from African music and drumming. Frías sings and plays the congas, the bongos, and basically any type of percussion instrument.

Here is one of the Ekobios’s performances at The Atlantic. This particular song, Cuánto Daría, is a mix of salsa and Middle Eastern melodies, composed by Sebastián López.

One of the singers, Ana Haydée Linares, and two of the percussionists, Ernesto Alonso and Roberto Glaser, also come from Cuba.

Linares graduated in May with a visual art studies major and art history minor. At 21, she speaks English, Spanish, some Italian and Portuguese. She was born and raised in Miami, and later on she studied in Florence, Italy, and worked in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Her family’s history involves a “strong and brave ancestor … who smuggled weapons underneath her hoopskirt during the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain,” the story of Rita Vargas, her great-great grandmother who was an indigenous Cuban indian from the Siboney tribe, and the story of her grandfather, “who was arrested on the day [her] mother was born. She spent the first three years of her life not knowing who her father was because he was incarcerated for taking part in anti-communist riots in Cuba.”

Here is a link to her collages, which feature very interesting work exploring her family’s past and her own heritage. A series of these collages was published in The Anole, UF‘s only multilingual magazine, which I co-edited.

Ernesto Alonso is pursuing an architecture masters at UF. He moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 13 years old, and he still has strong memories of having to sing by heart Communist hymns at school praising the Revolution.

The bass player, Sebastián de la Calle, comes from Argentina, and the lead singer, Sebastián López, comes from Colombia. This video explains more about his Colombian background and his experience with music, singing and playing in another very successful Gainesville band, Umoja Orchestra.

The other members, Evan Hagerty in the piano, Ekendra Das in the drums, David Goffredo in the saxophone, Zach Tetrault in the trumpet and Micah Shalom in the trumpet and trombone, are American.

Sadly, this very talented group disbanded after many graduated and left Gainesville. While their new CD comes out, you can still catch some of their videos on YouTube. I will be uploading some new ones soon as well.

The Fern Fields

I visited a fern farm where migrant farm workers, mostly from Mexico, come to pick ferns that will serve as decoration for flower arrangements.

The atmosphere is calm and it’s a beautiful landscape. These farms usually are very damp and wet. The people picking ferns or other plants get their clothes soaked for most of the day.

During winter and spring it can be freezing, especially because these plants must grow under deep shadow, either wise they get burnt by the sun.

In the summer, the humidity can make it very difficult to breathe.

The dampness can produce skin infections and fungus on people’s feet, which itch a lot and can lead to infections.

One of the workers there, who wished to keep his identity anonymous, said that it didn’t matter if he put plastic bags underneath or on top of his clothes — he would always end up soaking wet. This depends on the type of fern they are picking, since some fern need more water than others.

Consuelo’s Home Away from Home

Consuelo, a migrant farm worker from Guerrero, Mexico, lives in a small house in Pierson, Fla., with her husband and some of her eight children. They all come together for dinner along with the grandkids. Preparations for dinner lasted since 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

We had tortillas, barbecued steak and chicken, red and black beans, spicy chilly and avocados. A lot of the ingredients were planted in their backyard, like the chiles.

They also plant pumpkin and get their eggs from a chicken coup one of Consuelo’s sons-in-law built. I helped out making tortillas and washing dishes.

The children ate in small tables they set up in the living room while they watched cartoons. They got very rambunctious. After several threats, the TV had to be to turned off.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers at the Civic Media Center

Oscar Otzoy talked at the Civic Media Center on Monday about working conditions in Florida’s fields and about how the Coalition of Immokalee Workers started as an organization.

You can listen to his talk along with translation.