Consuelo Arellano, 42, works at a fern farm in Pierson, Fla., about one hour 45 minutes from Gainesville. She collects different types of fern that are used as decoration, primarily for flower arrangements.
Now that St. Valentine’s Day is coming, demand is high. But supply isn’t. With the below-freezing temperatures Florida has endured this winter, fern grew only to about half their usual size. Buyers won’t take Consuelo’s fern because they are too small.
Her husband Guillermo now works tending horses. But for 26 years they had been working together picking various fruits, vegetables and plants in Florida. Together they came to the United States 27 years ago. They had tried to cross the border by foot when Consuelo was pregnant with their first child. But her six-month-old belly made it impossible to climb barbed-wire fences, so they decided to pay $800 to a “coyote,” a person who smuggles immigrants from Mexico to the United States. They were able to cross illegally in a train from Tijuana to California. Later, in the amnesty of 1987 they got their residencies, and later their citizenships.
Guillermo and Consuelo have eight children together, ranging from 26 to 7 years old. Some are now studying pharmacy or working with air conditioning equipment. The couple bought 11 acres of trifle, a type of fern, two years ago. Up to 13 people help her out during the busy seasons. Her children help out all the time too.
She sells each bushel at 25 cents. It takes her about one minute to collect one bushel. Her back aches; she’s bent over most of the time.
She has to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, high rubber boots, gloves and a cap because of the pesticides. People get hives, blisters, sometimes bleeding pustules. They get sick, or even throw-up. Babies are born with deformities or mental retardation. She knows a couple of women that this happened to.
“It’s normal,” Consuelo says, “people already know it’s because of the pesticides, so they don’t get scared.”
When this happens their boss gives them some creams, she says, or a voucher to go to the doctor, sometimes.
What about the other times?
“Then we have to go to the pharmacy and pay it ourselves,” Consuelo says, “or wait until it goes away.”
She keeps picking fern while she tells me this. We grow quiet. The distance between us widens, as she keeps picking and wanders a little, and I just stand in my place. Why is she there holding a bouquet of poisoned fern and I am here holding my camera? I feel guilty for making her think about the sea of poison she is wading through, a sea of nature artificial and toxic that has been her subsistence for 26 years.
“I do sometimes get scared,” she says, almost under her breath, so that what she’s fearing doesn’t become true.