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Migrant Justice

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.

Had there been seats in the van, the outcome might have been different. Had there been seatbelts. Had another woman been there that day, maybe Rosa wouldn't have been sitting in the front seat. Had she understood the meaning of Mama Felipa's words.

The force of the impact slammed Rosa into the windshield and dashboard. The men crammed behind her hurtled forward; hundreds of pounds of weight smashed into the back of her seat, ripping it from its moorings. She was crushed under the mass of men. "The people piled on top of her and she was on the bottom," Rafael remembers. While the others scrambled out of the van, Rosa remained inside, unable to move. "She was very wounded by the accident," Rafael says. The driver couldn't open the van's front doors. "I smell gasoline," Rosa heard someone say. "There is no one inside but Rosa," she heard another comment. Fearing the van might catch fire, the driver managed to lift Rosa from the wreckage and hoist her through the driver's window.

An ambulance rushed two of the workers, Rosa and David Matias, to Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. The driver couldn't produce a license or proof of insurance. The van had a Tennessee tag.

The bill for that day's treatment and several followup visits was more than $10,000. Like many illiterate and illegal migrant farm workers in the United States, Rosa did not know her rights. She didn't know that as an employee of M. Sanchez & Son, which also had hired the driver, she was entitled to medical care through workers' compensation insurance. Indeed, she didn't know there was such a thing as workers' compensation.

Nor could she have known she would become party to a federal lawsuit of David-and-Goliath proportions against her employers. In November, Rosa joined seven other migrant laborers who eke out a living picking tomatoes and bell peppers on the state's richest farmland. The migrants say their employer cheated them on pay and didn't protect their safety. It's a big deal for farm workers in Palm Beach County, who -- unlike farm workers in some other parts of the state -- have never stood up to the boss.

But before moving forward, her story needs to go back, to Tacana, San Marcos, Guatemala, where her journey to the United States began.

One morning six years ago, Rosa overheard her mother, Ursula, in anguish: "I don't know what I'm going to do," Ursula wailed. "I might as well take poison." As a result of years of farm work on the coffee plantations on the hillsides of Tacana, Ursula's hands were gnarled and often swollen. She was always in pain. She had to make repeated trips to the doctor. The bills kept mounting. A neighbor lent the family $4000 to pay off the debt. Rosa's oldest brother, Dilmar, had gone to the United States several years before, worked as a migrant laborer, and sent his mother $4000 to pay off the loan. But there were always more doctor visits. More pain. More bills.

It frightened Rosa to hear her mother talk of suicide. She began to cry. She had to do something. She thought of Dilmar, how much money he was able to earn in the United States.

A family friend named Hector had a business smuggling people from Guatemala across Mexico to the U.S. border. Rosa left the house to find him. When she did, she asked Hector when he would be heading north.

Tomorrow morning, Hector said, he was leading a group of 10. She begged him to take her. "You're too young," Hector insisted.

But Rosa kept up her entreaties. "I don't want to see my mother suffer," she cried. Finally, he relented. Hector told her to be at the place they called the Las Vegas Ridge at 5 a.m.

Hector promised he would loan Rosa $1500 for the crossing, on the condition she would pay him back when she started work.

That night, as Rosa and Ursula lay side-by-side in the bed they shared, the teen lied to her mother. She said she wanted to go to Tapachula -- a town near the Guatemalan-Mexican border -- to do farm work for a month. Then she would return. She didn't have the heart to tell her mother she planned to leave for the United States in the morning.

Ursula begged her 13-year-old daughter to reconsider. She didn't want Rosa to do farm work. She was too young. It was enough that Ursula ruined her health doing backbreaking labor in the fields. She wanted a better life for her diminutive daughter. "I know we can't give you everything you need," Ursula implored, "but please stay here."

Rosa couldn't sleep that night, she was so full of emotion. At 4 a.m., when she got out of bed, her mother appeared to be sound asleep. She put on a dress and packed another into a small knapsack, along with a few pieces of bread. "I don't know if my mother saw me leave or not," Rosa says. "But that was the last look I had of her."

Hector was surprised when he saw Rosa at the Las Vegas Ridge. But he kept his promise.

On the first leg of the journey, the migrants trudged through the mountains toward the Mexican border, walking from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. Rosa says she sobbed the whole way. "Don't cry," the others told her. "In a year you will be a different person with a lot more money. This is an opportunity. You will be happy."

It made Rosa feel a little better to think about the money she would earn in the United States, but she already missed her grandmother and her mother. Rosa was close to both women. Her grandmother called her negrita, the dark girl, or mi flacca, my skinny girl, and bought her pretty dresses and shoes.

Hector became the child's protector. He told the other men that Rosa was his little sister. "When we get close to Mexico," he told Rosa, "we'll buy you a dress and fix up your hair. That way the border patrol won't ask questions." Rosa sat next to Hector when the group boarded the bus that would ferry them into Mexico. She pretended she was asleep when officers walked down the aisles questioning passengers. But still they stopped.

When the officers questioned Rosa, Hector came to her rescue with a fantastic lie. He insisted that she was his wife. Rosa giggles when she thinks of it. "I went to a fair and saw her," Hector said. "I liked her, and we married." Hector left the bus with the men. They asked him lots of questions, Rosa says. When Hector returned, the officials let the group travel on.

Somewhere in the Mexican countryside, Hector and his group left the bus to make the rest of the journey on foot through the mountainous Chihuahuan desert, where temperatures reach up to 100 degrees during the day and can be bone-chilling at night. They walked for four days. At night, the group didn't sleep but kept walking. Hector rationed water to Rosa since she was just a child. She ate the bread in her knapsack. But on the fourth day, both bread and water ran out. Rosa was hungry and tired and hot and very sad, but she knew she had no choice but to try to keep up.

Between October 1999 and September 2000, the U.S. Border Patrol reports 369 people died, most of hypothermia, dehydration, or drowning, trying to make the passage from Mexico into the United States. Another 1,643,679 were apprehended trying to cross the border.

"We held on. We dealt with it," Rosa says of the group. "We kept going."

Rosa knew she had arrived in Texas when she saw the American flag waving high from a flagpole. She had made it. "I felt happy," she says. "Finally I was here and would know this country. Imagine how hard it was for me to get here."

Rosa's destination was Tennessee, where her brother Dilmar was working. She climbed in the bed of a small truck with 12 others, who hid under a tarp. Hector wished Rosa well, leaving the group and eventually returning to Guatemala.

But when Rosa got to the Tennessee town, whose name she doesn't know, she discovered Dilmar was no longer there. He had moved to West Palm Beach. "I didn't know what to do," she says. Rosa telephoned a neighbor in Tacana who got word to her family. Fifteen minutes later, her grandmother Felipa was on the line. "How could you think of such a thing?" Felipa said. "It is craziness to go over there."

And then she said words that turned out to be a portent. "I'm afraid you will never see me again."

Rosa found a place to stay and secured work in a tobacco processing plant. It seemed like the words of her traveling companions were true. She earned $240 the first week and $310 the second. Rosa sent money to her mother to pay back Hector. She eventually paid off the $1500 debt completely.

About a year after her arrival, Rosa moved to West Palm Beach to live with her brother. Dilmar is the rock in Rosa's life. "He works all the time. He goes to school at night to learn English," she says. "And he has no vices."

At first, Rosa plucked feathers in a chicken packing house, but when people started getting fired, she left and tried her hand at farm work. She picked bell peppers and tomatoes, first for DuBois Farms. Then about four years ago, she began working at fields owned by Mecca Farms through its labor contractors, M. Sanchez & Son. She was picking for Mecca at the time of the accident.

The farmland where Rosa found employment is ridiculously abundant. Palm Beach County contains 502,000 acres of agricultural land, about 44 percent of its total geography. Although the county has lost 69,000 acres, about 100 square miles, to development and Everglades restoration in the past 10 years, it is still the richest farming county in Florida. The county sold $1.2 billion in farm produce during the 2000-2001 growing season, $689 million in sugar cane, and $230 million in vegetables. "Nobody comes close to what we sell," says Arthur Kirstein, a coordinator at the county's Cooperative Extension Service.

Mecca Farms has been in Florida since 1962. The company owns and leases 8000 acres in Palm Beach, Broward, Martin, and St. Lucie counties, according to a June 2001 Palm Beach Post article. On the land, Mecca grows tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, grapefruit, and oranges.

For Rosa, the work was good. On the first of the three picks of a tomato harvest, when the tomatoes are big and numerous, Rosa boasts she could gather 190 buckets in a day. That would net her $76, or $9.50 an hour for an eight-hour workday. "When it is best, at the beginning of the harvest," she says, "you can earn $340, $350, $400, up to $500 a week."

But Rosa believes she was cheated on her wages. When a worker finishes picking a bucket and hands it in, he or she is given a plastic coin. At the end of the day, the coins are counted and the number recorded. Sometimes, though, Rosa says she was shorted by 10 buckets or so on her weekly pay. When Rosa objected, the crew chief dismissed her. "That is what is written down," Rosa says she was told. Rosa complained that the number was wrong. "Yes, but you workers are stealing tomatoes," was the response.

"At a certain point, you stop complaining," she comments.

Though Rosa planned to stay in the United States for only two years, she was earning more money than she could ever hope to make in her native land. Then two years ago, at age 17, she became pregnant and gave birth to Eber. "We met at work," she says of the baby's father. Rosa received Medicaid to help with the expenses of her pregnancy and birth. Now she receives food stamps to help pay for his care. She has moved into an apartment that she shares with Eber's Uncle Santos and two other adults, but she is no longer in touch with the baby's father.

Even after Eber's birth in the United States, the pull of home remained strong. Every time she spoke to her grandmother, Felipa would ask the same question, "When am I going to see my skinny girl again?"

On the day of the accident, Rosa was treated at the hospital and released. But when she arrived at her brother's apartment, she was in bad shape. Dilmar couldn't care for his sister because he had to work. Neither could her Aunt Louise, who also lives in West Palm Beach. "I couldn't really stand on my own," Rosa explains. Dilmar offered to pay for her to return to Guatemala, but Rosa declined. She did not want to leave Eber behind, fearing she would never again see her child.

Louise called the van driver, Wilmer Perez, who offered to care for Rosa in his home. (Perez is a pseudonym for a witness expected to appear at trial.) "The driver took care of her because no one else would," Rafael says. "Rosa's family ... thought the driver was guilty so she should stay with him."

The thought of someone outside the family caring for his sister upset Dilmar. "My brother was ashamed that I had to go live with the driver," Rosa explains. "But what my family couldn't do, he was able to do." Perez also cared for Rafael, who had cuts on his forehead.

Perez and his wife carried Rosa to the bathroom, assisting her on the toilet and helping her to bathe. The couple got pills for her. They took her to the hospital so the doctors could reexamine her. "She couldn't walk. She could only talk slowly," Rafael says. Although she was grateful, the intimacy of the care mortified Rosa. "I haven't talked to him since I left," Rosa says of Perez. "I want to stay away from him, because I am embarrassed. I am so ashamed when I see him I bury my head."

When it didn't seem like she was getting better, Perez called M. Sanchez & Son. He talked to Roy Rodriguez, a longtime labor contractor for Mecca and the husband of Maria Sanchez, the company owner. It was a wasted call, Rafael claims. "They didn't want to help," he explains. Rodriguez refused to pay for any care, including the original hospital visit the day of the accident, both Rafael and Rosa say. Perez has since left the company and works for another labor contractor.

After 10 phone calls seeking comment, M. Sanchez & Son declined to be interviewed for this story.

Troubled by Rosa's condition, her Aunt Louise again intervened. She called the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project (MFJP), which had helped her in a past dispute with an employer.

Cathleen Caron, a 32-year-old attorney recently graduated from American University's College of Law, took the call and made an appointment to visit Rosa. Caron has been working for MFJP on a two-year fellowship from the National Association of Public Interest Law, specifically to look into labor practices among Palm Beach County tomato growers. Because of the number of citations that had been issued against Palm Beach growers for state and federal labor violations, Caron says, the organization suspected ongoing problems.

Caron focused on Mecca Farms because of their past problems. On farms where crops are handpicked and the labor force is large, growers often employ labor contractors who recruit employees, transport them to the fields, supervise them there, and distribute pay. In 1995, Mecca was cited because 15 of its labor contractors didn't have valid drivers licenses, 21 of them hadn't registered with the state, and 13 didn't have proper insurance. Other violations committed by the contractors, and included in Mecca's citation, included failure to provide workers safe transportation and adequate housing, and charging for rent in housing that did not meet safety and health standards. The U.S. Department of Labor held Mecca responsible because farm workers are considered dual employees of both the contractor and the grower, according to the citation. Though Mecca was fined $59,150, it negotiated a settlement of $15,350 with the promise to "immediately address and correct any violations."

(New Times faxed a list of questions to the company. In response, Mecca attorneys said the company would not provide comment for this story.)

For Caron, finding Mecca workers was a challenge. Workers are scattered in private housing throughout the county. Caron followed vans hauling people from the fields in her bright blue 1998 Jeep Cherokee. She approached people as they climbed out. She stopped others on the street, visited churches, and asked any workers she met about the conditions at Mecca and with M. Sanchez, one of Mecca's largest labor contractors.

A Connecticut native with shoulder-length brown hair, dark-rim glasses, baggy khakis, comfortable shirts, and laser-beam intelligence, Caron is at ease around the mostly Guatemalan workforce that picks tomatoes here. After earning her degree from Dartmouth in 1991, she spent three years in Guatemala working on human-rights issues. Those experiences cemented her focus. "I realized I wanted to be on the front lines," she says, "dealing directly with people, working in the community where I lived."

Caron heard similar stories from Mecca and M. Sanchez employees. Workers complained they had been shorted on pay, that Mecca through its labor contractor sometimes failed to pay the federal minimum wage, that the company did not maintain accurate payroll records, did not transport workers to the fields in safe vehicles, and did not pay Social Security taxes that had been deducted from pay.

The day Caron went to see Rosa, the attorney was already preparing lawsuits against Mecca for violations in the fields and packing houses. Although she had seen much misery in Guatemala, Caron was shocked at Rosa's condition. She thought the 19-year-old was near death and needed to be hospitalized. Rosa's eyes were glassy, Caron says, her right arm and shoulder twisted, and her abdomen dangerously swollen. Caron rushed Rosa to the emergency room at the Good Samaritan Medical Center and stayed with her for eight hours while tests were run. The bill for that visit was $5800.

When Caron checked with the state Division of Workers' Compensation, she learned the accident had not been reported by Mecca's insurer. She called M. Sanchez & Son to let the Lantana company know she was representing Rosa. Caron says she was told M. Sanchez & Son had no record of an April 25 accident. The company finally reported the mishap on May 14, three weeks after it occurred, according to the injury report filed with the state. The insurer is paying for Rosa's medical care and lost wages of $165 a week, using the minimum wage as the basis of her earnings.

Eber's Uncle Santos, who cared for the boy while Rosa stayed with the driver, helps Rosa with the rent and food. "When she was with my brother, I treated her like she was my little sister," he says. "If she suffers, if she doesn't eat, if she lives in a little apartment, the child suffers the most."

Rosa's medical bills now exceed $20,448, and her doctor, S. Russell Wilson, is still doing tests. Eleven months after the crash, Rosa suffers from debilitating headaches. Every month, her abdomen swells, "como si estuviera en estado," -- "like I'm pregnant." Her left arm hurts so badly it is difficult to pick up her son. Rosa tried to return to the fields once she felt better, but she couldn't do the work because of the pain.

Late one night in July, Rosa telephoned Caron's Delray Beach apartment. She was sobbing violently. Felipa had died, Rosa said, and she had to return to Guatemala for the funeral. She gave Caron her word that she would return to South Florida, left her son with Santos, bought a one-way airline ticket, and flew home to Tacana.

Six years had passed since Felipa predicted she would never see her Rosa again. Indeed, Felipa was laid out for her funeral in the living room of the adobe house. When Rosa approached the body, however, she was overwhelmed. Felipa's eyes were open, staring deep into Rosa's soul. Rosa shouted out that Felipa was still alive. The others couldn't see what Rosa saw. When Rosa looked again, her grandmother's eyes were shut. Rosa knew Felipa was gone.

"My mother is all I have left now," she says.

After two months in Guatemala, Rosa decided it was time to return to Eber and to keep her promise to Caron. She again made the arduous journey on foot across the Chihuahuan Desert. "I don't know how she did it," Caron says.

Now that she's back, Rosa has vowed to Caron that she will remain in the United States, at least for now. In November, the MFJP sued Mecca, M. Sanchez, and Rodriguez over safety and pay issues among field workers. In December, the MFJP filed a second suit related to pay issues in Mecca's packing houses. Rosa signed up as one of eight lead plaintiffs in the field case. Caron hopes the court will certify the lawsuit as a class-action claim. If that happens, she estimates, over 1000 migrant workers employed by Mecca Farms since 1997 could benefit.

Mecca attorney Cathy M. Stutin, of the law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP, said in a letter to New Times that the company would not try the case in the media. "Because Mecca Farms is involved in litigation over the issues about which you inquired, we are constrained by the rules of ethics regarding impartiality and trial publicity," she wrote.

In comments to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in November, Mecca attorney Gary Smigiel said the plaintiffs were not employees of the farm, adding that the company requires contractors to adhere to the law. "We are very specific about [following minimum-wage and migrant-labor regulations]," Smigiel told the Sun-Sentinel. "If we find they do not, we do not use these people."

Gregory Schell, managing attorney of the MFJP, says this case seeks to establish through the courts that farm workers are dual employees of both labor contractors and growers, and that growers are responsible. "The whole fiction is that "They don't work for us,'" Schell says.

"Mecca pays the contractor who pays the worker," Caron reiterates. "Mecca wants to say, "It is out of our hands,' and the net result is that they are abdicating responsibility."

Caron was surprised in a way that the eight workers, some of whom are still employed by Mecca, agreed to become lead plaintiffs. Seven of the eight plaintiffs in the field case are in the country illegally. "Challenging your employer, even if you are a Microsoft executive, is never easy," Caron comments. "It was remarkable to see people go through the thought process, to consider it, and then go ahead and sign up. Most people said, "I'm doing this for everyone else.' I don't think anyone would have done it except for that."

Besides the lead plaintiffs, she says, another 50 present and former Mecca workers gave her their names and spoke to her about conditions at the company.

As Caron has worked with Rosa, she has seen stirrings of self-awareness. "She was so quiet and scared about being involved at first. She has gained confidence," Caron says. "I think part of that is seeing that the system is responding to her. The insurance started paying her hospital bills. She sees she really does have rights.... I think all of the people involved in the lawsuit are gaining the realization that they do have some stake in this country, that to some degree they are respected by a system that has been somewhat theoretical to them."

Santos is impressed with Rosa, too. "She has courage to do it," he says of her battle with M. Sanchez and Mecca.

When Rosa first met with Mecca's workers' compensation attorney in October, Caron says, the 19-year-old stared at the ground instead of looking the attorney in the eye. At a mediation hearing recently, Rosa seemed a different person, Caron says. "She even seemed taller."

Caron hopes that M. Sanchez and Son's insurer will pay for Rosa's future medical care and lost wages. So far, they have not come to terms. When the lawsuit is settled, Rosa wants to return to Guatemala. She would like to travel a little with her mother, maybe start a business selling clothes from Mexico in her village. The death of her grandmother brought home to Rosa the importance of family. "There I didn't have any money, but I had my family," she says. "Here I have money, but I don't have my family."

Eber sleeps for awhile while his mother talks. When he stirs and opens his eyes, he looks puzzled by the ribbon wrapped around his tiny hand. He follows it from his fist up to the balloon, smiles at the surprise of it tethered there, floating above him, and then drifts back to sleep.

"When am I going to see my skinny girl again?" Felipa always asked her negrita.

Rosa is crying.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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