WHITE PIGEON, MICH. — In the spring she planted in the muck and then picked blueberries in the gathering sunshine and broiling heat and now she wanted a break, so she was detasseling corn.
But she knew it would only be a short break before she would be picking again. She also knew nothing would change. It hasn’t changed in 23 years since Florabeth de la Garza crossed the frontier from Mexico and took up her place in the migrant stream. The stream that travels from Florida to Michigan and on to Colorado and then back to Florida and wherever else there’s work in the fields.
She doesn’t have to rely on her memory to explain what these years have been like. She has her books, as she calls them, 27 editions so far. They are more like diaries with photographs included that tell the heartbreaking story of the life she has lived, a life not unlike that lived by many of the 1.8 million migrant workers in the United States.
Lives etched with moments like the entry from July 1, 2007. This one tells how the crew boss on a Michigan farm came to the cabins where the migrants were resting and told them to get out within an hour.
“What? Why?” she wrote. “The majority of us were Mexican immigrants or Guatemalans or from other countries and none of us had any means of transportation.”
Then they realized, she wrote, that the farmer didn’t have a license for the camp and that an inspector was on the grounds of the farm. So they fled, but not far. Some hid under the trees and some hid in the fields. Then the inspector left and they went back to filthy cabins without drinking water.
“Life continues,” she wrote. “Our hands pick the harvest and that’s the reason why we are here.”
It has been a life, she said late one simmering hot day after work here, where crew bosses prey on you if you are an immigrant without papers; where people live jammed together, a dozen and a half persons in the same trailer, and where poor families bring their children to the fields so they can earn as much possible.
Where unwitting immigrants are duped the minute they cross the U.S. border into working like hostages or slaves. She came across a group of men stuck in this dilemma recently. They had paid $500 to someone to transport them to Michigan farms. But the crooks take their wages weekly and threaten to harm their families in Mexico if they complain, she said.
It’s a life where people sometimes work 18 hours a day and do not even earn the minimum wage. Where sometimes there is no drinking water or bathrooms in the fields. Where some do not speak up because they are without papers and the crew bosses threaten to call immigration if they speak up.
“This work is very difficult,” she said. “But it is my life.”
She writes about all of this, she said, because this is her responsibility.
“I am someone who doesn’t accept injustice. I want people to know that immigrants are not criminals. They are hard-working people.”
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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.