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Farming for Freedom

Unprotected by American employment laws, deprived of a voice in society, and prohibited from unionizing, migrant workers today in Florida face a dismal future no better than that of the “Oakies” who flocked to California during the Great Depression. Suffering ruthless beatings, horrendous living conditions, and substandard food they cannot afford on their $28 a day salary, these modern day laborers better fit the description of slaves rather than hired help.

In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family envisions California as a land of bounty and fulfillment. Largely migrating from Mexico and other Latin American countries, laborers today entertain the same ill-conceived illusions about Florida. Echoing the footsteps of an earlier generation of hopeful laborers, they risk their lives crossing the Mexican desert into what they falsely perceive will be a land of opportunity. Instead, capitalist-driven America rapidly forces them to assume an appallingly brutal existence as nomads subject to unimaginable prejudice and merciless exploitation.
This new age of mass consumption and the rise of the fast food restaurant have supersized the demand for laborers. Unlike Depression era workers, today’s migrant laborers’ most overwhelming hardship is not so much the acquisition of a job, but rather the grueling struggle to preserve their basic human rights. As Americans grow fat on Big Macs and value meals, large produce buyers grow fat on profit garnered by forcing fruit pickers to scrape by on infinitesimal wages. In some extreme cases, employers chain laborers into backbreaking piecework by burying them irredeemably in debt for basic necessities such as clean water and soap. The sickening fact of the matter is laborers in Florida today face the same losing battle between corporate America and the working destitute which laborers in California struggled against resiliently nearly seventy years ago.

While awareness of the misery of the migrant workers is slowly pushing onto the political agenda, their situation remains as wretched a stain on America’s reputation as did the condition of the migrants during the Great Depression. Lured by the gleaming mirage of opportunity and fueled by an unwavering resilience, today’s migrants fight a constant battle just to survive on a day to day basis. In the most twisted example of irony, we preach our principles of compassion and the preservation of civil liberties, even as we steal these basic rights from those we deem dirty, ragged, and uneducated. But if we accuse the migrants today of living like animals, it is only because we repeatedly herd them into such atrocious conditions. In our endless pursuit of profit, we steal virtues we honor from a driving force which in many ways acts as a cornerstone of our economy. As time passes, details change; we’ve replaced the term “Oakie” with odious terms such as “Beener”, and “Spic”. But although we’ve distorted the words, the hatred and distaste embedded within them remains a shameful and enduring blight upon the American consciousness.





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