By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Rosa is crying.
She is wearing a stretchy, blue-striped T-top, a stretchy skirt with blue stripes colliding in clashing patterns, and a wide, stretchy red headband. The jumble of stripes and the headband looked jaunty on the pretty 19-year-old when she answered the door on a late January afternoon, but now that tears stain her honey-colored face, everything about her just seems sad. She is sitting on a lumpy, tan velour sofa in the living room of a sparsely furnished garage apartment on El Prado street in West Palm Beach. The couch has no back cushions and there are dark marks that look like motor oil on the tan carpet. A vase of plastic flowers with pink blossoms sits atop a television tuned to a Spanish soap opera.
In the past 15 minutes, Rosa's two-year-old son Eber has pedaled a bike through the room, teetered on the edge of a crying jag, climbed on the sofa behind his mom, nestled into its soft cushions, and fallen asleep. In one hand, he holds a baby bottle filled with water. In the other, he clutches the blue ribbon of a shiny silver Mylar balloon. Rosa wraps her arms around herself, leans forward, and casts her eyes down, trying to control the emotions welling up inside.
For the past six years, this shy, tiny slip of a girl with flashing black eyes and glossy black hair tumbling to her waist, who stands only four feet, eight inches tall, has lived and worked in several places in the United States. Rosa is not afraid of hard work. That is not the cause of her tears. She has pulled tobacco leaves in a packing house in Tennessee and plucked feathers off chickens in a processing plant in West Palm Beach. Most recently, she picked vegetables in the fields of Palm Beach County's 20,000-acre agricultural reserve off U.S. Highway 441, earning 40 cents a bucket for tomatoes and 25 cents a bucket for bell peppers.
But her home is Tacana, in the state of San Marcos, in the western highlands of Guatemala's Sierra Madre, in the shadow of the volcanoes Tacana and Tajamulco. Home is an adobe house that her family painted a vibrant, happy red. Home has a red and green front door. Home is where her mother Ursula, her older sister Matilde, and her younger brother Senaido are. Home is where Rosa longs to be.
"When everything is finished, I want to go home," she says. But it will probably be years before Rosa returns.
Rosa Gonzalez awoke before dawn this past April 25. Her grandmother's words tugged at her from the edge of a dream. "Don't cross the street," Felipa warned. "You won't go to work today." Rosa felt uneasy as she fixed sopa con pollo. The dream seemed some kind of omen. She wondered if her grandmother back in Tacana had taken ill. Rosa put the soup into a plastic container. Later, she decided, she would telephone a neighbor in Tacana to find out if abuela was OK. While it was still dark, Rosa walked out the door of her brother Dilmar's apartment and down the street to wait for the van that would take her to the fields.
April is the beginning of the tomato harvest, and the day promised to be bountiful. The pungent vines would be heavy with large green tomatoes. It would be easy to pick a lot. Already she could find work in the tomato harvest seven days a week. If she hustled, Rosa felt hopeful she might earn as much as $4000 during the season.
At about 6 a.m., a creaky 1978 Ford passenger van pulled up beside her. There were already at least 11 men in the back. The seats had been removed to maximize space. Because she was the only woman in the group, Rosa was offered the front passenger seat. As the driver wound through West Palm Beach, more workers climbed in. "He had to bring people to the job, so he was packing them in," Rosa says. At one point, she adds, the passengers complained there were too many people on board. But the driver told his cargo to make room for others until about 20 men were stuffed in the back. (Another Guatemalan farm worker named Rafael, who did not want his last name used in this article, confirms her story.)
Before heading to the fields, the driver stopped at a store to pick up some sodas for the crew. The riders grew anxious. Time is money when pay is by the bucket. They wanted to get to the fields, stake out a good spot, and be ready to pick when the dew dried and the order came to begin. "Don't worry," the driver told them, when he stepped back on board. "I will get you there."
What was there to do? Rafael sat on a box of two-liter sodas by the van's side door. Rosa opened her container and began to eat her soup as the van hurtled northward on I-95. At about 6:45 a.m., the van was traveling at 70 mph near the Northlake Boulevard exit, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. The driver swerved hard into the right lane to avoid rear-ending a truck, Rosa says. Instead, the van barreled into the tail of a 1986 Toyota traveling in the right lane at about 55 mph.