In November 2005 while doing fieldwork in Immokalee I came across a Haitian community. It was in the wake of hurricane Wilma and Immokalee’s streets were littered with uprooted trees, branches, garbage, rooftops and material remnants of human existence.
When I arrived at the Relief Center where I was to interview a couple of social scientists about the human cost of the hurricane, I found a long line of black parishioners forming a queue all the way to the parking lot and out of the center grounds.
“What’s this line for?” I asked the last woman in the line. She was ashy black with yellow eyes like she had never left her mother continent.
“For free stuff,” she said.
“What’s free?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and inverted her mouth stretching its corners as far low as she could.
“How would I know? Go find out yourself!”
I walked a few feet towards the door and stopped again to ask another woman what the line was for.
“Free stuff,” she said. This time, I pressed with a more specific question.
“Food?” I asked.
“Don’t know yet,” she said before she switched back to Creole and resumed her chitchat with the women around her.
A few minutes later when the door opened, I waved at Sister Mary. She waved back and let me in.
“What’s going on?”
“Haiti. That’s what’s going on.” It’d been just a couple of months since last time I sat with her, but she looked older. Like the hurricanes had crossed paths right on her white face. Sister Mary had been a relentless advocate for the rights of immigrant farm workers in South Florida and had spent the last twenty years, since she left her motherland Belgium, feeding, clothing and counseling Central American and Caribbean migrants.
“I already made peace with God and, I’m sure, He’s forgiven me,” she said as she looked at the women queuing outside in the sun. “Look at them. Did you see any Mexican?” Before I replied she said, “No, no Mexicans. Do you know why?” I said no.
“Because they’re working out in the fields. For god’s sake. Working.”
Before the hurricane season hit, homeland security pickup trucks could be seen everywhere in South Florida. Sometimes they raided the fields and packaging warehouses looking for undocumented laborers, but other than forcing them to run, scatter and hide like scared animals, “la migra” didn’t do much. The white and green trucks were the government loud speakers. They were there to remind farmers and workers that immigration laws were about to get tougher and undocumented workers would be deported on the spot. At least that was the message heard across the groves. And that same message forced thousands of fieldworkers into a Diaspora of sorts towards post-Katrina New Orleans where anyone willing to work was hired, no questions asked.
Strawberry -planting crews disappeared; orange groves were severely short-handed, tomato-field laborers overworked. This forced migration of workers left South Florida farmers scrambling for manual labor. And now hurricane Wilma had exacerbated the need for able bodies. Two days after hurricane Wilma, the Mexicans who had braved the winds in their dilapidated trailers and waited out the storm, returned to work.
“You saw them this morning, right?” Sister Mary asked as she fanned her rosy face with a fax that has just come in from FEMA. “These Mexicans are out there, stooped over, some of them with their babies on their backs. Did you see that?” I nodded. “And don’t you think it’s odd that now with this huge demand for manual labor, we have Mexicans working and Haitians begging? I mean, doesn’t that tell you something?”
We were standing by the window, looking out on the line of women through the shutters. The Center had been distributing food, toiletries, clothes, diapers, baby formula, toys, etc. The storage room was bursting with donations. The only way to stop people from begging was to stop giving them free stuff. And to stop the arrival of donations, was to the Center, the equivalent of asking people to stop caring.
“I love them, Haitians. I do just because they are God’s children,” Sister Mary said, loudly enough for the rest of the staff to listen. They stopped momentarily and paid attention. “But God knows, I don’t like them.” People nodded in agreement and I heard, “me neither,” from a desk and “nor me,” from another.
“Show her the men,” the pastor/social worker/counselor/fund raiser whispered as he moved bags of groceries from one room to another. Sister Mary took me to the back of the office and opened a door to the Center backyard. There, under the trees, sprawled on straw mats, lay the Haitian men, waiting for the BBQ the Center was about to cook.
“See what generosity does?” The pastor shouted from across the office. “You don’t see parasites in Haiti. There? If you don’t work, you die. But here? Look at them. A thing of beauty!”
As I got in my car, I noticed a Haitian woman sitting on the curb with her baby. She had just collected a couple of plastic bags with donations and a 24-can box of baby formula, which must have seemed a redundancy to her as she tossed over her shoulder half of the cans. She noticed me, and as she disposed the last of the of the baby formula, she said, “la même merde”, the same shit.