Young and Hungry

Gourmet Examines the Slave Labor That Brings Us Winter Tomatoes

Barry Estabrook's piece in the March issue of Gourmet has been making the rounds among foodies, and for good reason. It hits most of us where we live. It looks at the illegal immigrants who are turned into defacto slaves so we can enjoy our mealy winter tomatoes at a cost that's convenient to our pocketbooks.

Here's the meat of the story:

Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

The beige stucco house at 209 South Seventh Street is remarkable only because it is in better repair than most Immokalee dwellings. For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave at that address. At first, the deal must have seemed reasonable. Lucas, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family’s home on South Seventh Street and extend credit to cover the periods when there were no tomatoes to pick.

Lucas’s “room” turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

The story reminds me of Eric Schlosser's investigative piece on illegal strawberry pickers in California, which Schlosser included in his terrific book, Reefer Madness. Both stories focus on systems designed to exploit illegal laborers, which allow growers to keep their prices low, just the way we all like them. We not only want our fruits and vegetables out of season. We want them cheap.

It's only fitting that people are throwing around the word "slavery" in regards to the tomato harvesters in Florida. Like with the old African slave trade, all of us are complicit in this system that exploits laborers.

Remember what Denzel Washington's character, a black Union soldier, says to his white commanding officer in Glory?

"Yeah, it stinks bad. And we all covered up in it. Ain't nobody clean."

Image by Flickr user visualdensity

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