Lakeland, FL—the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continues to fight for social justice in the fields. The Immokalee workers, most of whom speak little or no English, many of whom are undocumented, are the laborers who harvest thousands of pounds of the tomatoes that we consume in restaurants, grocery stores, and fast food venues across the country. Over the last decade, CIW efforts have compelled huge corporations like McDonalds, Taco Bell, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s to sign a Fair Food agreement. The CIW is asking Publix, one of the largest buyers of tomatoes in Florida, to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes. Publix has continued to refuse. The CIW is launching a six day hunger strike on the front lawn of the headquarters of Publix.
Olivia, Evangelina, and I have traveled down to Florida to support this week of action. A van picks us up from the bus station in Orlando and drives us down to a church in Lakeland that will serve as a sort of base camp for this week’s operations. We are immediately put to work slicing fruits and veggies for the feast we will all share on this last night before the fast begins. About a hundred people arrive, and our introductions are translated so that both English and Spanish speakers can understand everyone. Most of the fasters are trabajadores del campo, men and women who work in the fields in Immokalee and plan to forfeit a week’s worth of pay in order to participate in this strike. There are also a number of allies, staff, and support people who have come from all across the country.
After the meal, the fasters are driven to another nearby church (fasters and non-fasting support staff will be staying in different locations), and people try to get to sleep despite their excitement. Olivia and I stay up for several hours, helping to get ready for tomorrow: cleaning the kitchen, preparing posters and banners, filling water coolers. Well after two in the morning, I walk silently from the kitchen to the main building of the church. The wailing of a distant train whistles pierces the night as a nearly full moon flits through charcoal clouds. Upstairs, sleeping bags are laid out across the floors. There’s something incredibly beautiful about that to me, just seeing everyone stretched out in rooms, or hallways, under tables, next to the piano, sleeping wherever they can find a space, because we are not here to sleep but for a larger purpose, and so for a few days the church will provide us with shelter so that we can do this work.
The chilly mornings begin with prayer. We sit in a circle on overturned tomato buckets in front of the entrance to the Publix headquarters. Mist hangs above the pond, the glassy water still in the windless morning light. For some reason, these mornings are intensely emotional. Elements from a variety of different religious traditions are incorporated into the ceremonies. Like all events this week, everything is translated between English and Spanish. We light a large white glass-encased candle that will remain lit through the entire fast. Prayers are uttered in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl. With a stick of burning incense pressed between his palms, someone kneels and touches his forehead to the earth. People speak and share the stories of why they are here. Smudge sticks are lit, bits of copal are crumbled into the sage, and as the smoke twists and curls away into the new sky, we line up to receive blessings. I have often wondered why fasting is such a deeply rooted practice in so many different spiritual traditions. Food is ultimately what connects our bodies to this earth and this life, and so perhaps when we go without food, when there is nothing left to connect our bodies to life, our need for a spiritual connection to the world is amplified. I’m still not sure exactly what it is, but each morning, we gather together, we remember why we have come here, our throats tighten, we light sage, and tears flow unchecked.
When Publix employees begin to arrive for work, we stand at the entrance with banners and signs: “I GO HUNGRY TODAY SO MY CHILDREN WON’T HAVE TO TOMORROW.” “ONE PENNY MORE/UN CENTAVO MAS!” “YOU ARE HUMAN. SO AM I.” This is not a time for yelling or cheering or chanting, a CIW organizer reminds us. Just try to look them in the eye as they drive by. These should be solemn moments. Throughout the day, people give speeches, play music, share stories, give media interviews. “Tienen hambre, are you hungry?” People ask. “QUE ES ESO!?” (What is that?) The crowd roars in response. Many farm workers stand up and talk about their lives in the fields. They tell us about the horrific working conditions, the battery, physical and sexual abuse, cases of modern-day slavery. What it’s like living as an undocumented laborer. What it’s like trying to raise children when you have to wake up at four in the morning to seek inconsistent work.
During many of these presentations, Olivia and I work logistics. Water is one of our main duties. We filter hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water during the week; at first we fill pitchers in the three sinks at the church and dump those into the coolers. Then we fashion an innovative funneling device that sends water cascading down into the coolers and impresses everybody who follows the sound of spilling water into the kitchen. We also do airport runs, take people to shower off site, maintain the food van for the non-fasting support team, assemble the tents, construct sun-shields, run to get ice or tools, drive to the church to refill the water coolers during the day. It’s a hectic madness, and it feels good.
In the evenings the sunset moon rises through fresh wind, huge and pale in the dusty blue. As colors settle into the pond, Olivia and I and the other drivers pull the 15-passenger vans around and load up. Then we roll out in a caravan of six vehicles and follow each other to the site of the evening vigil, a different Publix branch each night. When we arrive, six unmarked white vans pull up to a curb, doors slam open, bodies unload, and then we zoom away to hide the vans in parking lots across the street: suddenly, 100 people have appeared from nowhere. Publix management is not terribly happy about this. We light candles and hold a long vigil as cars fly by beeping their horns, and a delegation of CIW members tries unsuccessfully to enter the grocery store to negotiate for fair tomato prices. We drivers step away just before the vigil ends, so that we can retrieve our vans and pull them up quickly. We return to the church to drop people off, again in caravans of three or four vans, and we skid into the gravel parking lot one after another beneath the trees drooping with moss. Then we head back to the non-fasters’ church for food and evening chores and prep, then try to catch a couple hours of sleep before waking up at six again the next morning.
After six days without food, the fasters’ bodies are growing weaker, but their wills are strong. On the final day of the fast, hundreds and hundreds of people flood in from all across Florida for a three mile march across Lakeland to the headquarters of Publix. I drive the support van at a slow crawl alongside the march, a hundred feet behind a cop car, while traffic speeds by in the next lane. Cassidy passes cups of water out the windows. We stop to let people in when they need to rest. At a road block, I drive in the right lane around a long line of cars to cut ahead and stay with the march, and an officer waves us through. We speed ahead to catch up with the front of the march, and we pull over and bolt out to fill cups of water and pass them out. A call comes in that the support van is needed at the back of the march for an older man who has gotten overheated. We zoom back, tell the cops we need to get through, and the march parts for us to fly back and pick the man up. At another road block, I drive up on the grass to cut around a line of cars and stick with the procession. “Is everyone ok?” We call out the windows. “You’re almost there!”
When we arrive at the Publix headquarters, a glorious breaking-of-the-fast ceremony unfolds. “Are you guys hungry?” The MC asks. “QUE ES ESO!?” “Are you tired?” “QUE ES ESO!?” Loaves of bread are broken and passed around. I will not forget the look on one woman’s face as she pressed the bread to her nose, held it against her face with her eyes closed.
When it all turns into music and dancing, I drive a van full of people back to their cars at the spot where the march began. After dropping them off, I drive alone back to the headquarters with the windows down, sunset wind billowing through the van. It’s amazing how much went into this week. The community support, the expert organizing, the fluid execution. To me, this is all particularly moving, especially after my experiences with Occupy Wall Street. This fast was so well put together, the CIW didn’t just come to Lakeland without a plan and throw unfocused energy at their cause; they tapped into a deep well of preexisting resources and communities (local churches, Food not Bombs, other groups) and did months of outreach to rally people from all over Florida for the march and the breaking of the fast, the messaging was on point, the logistics were fluid. And just showing up here at the last minute, I still felt like I was actually a part of this thing, I felt like I could contribute in a small way to helping some of it happen. Warm wind gusts through the van, and the setting sun falls across sweeping fields. My phone vibrates in my pocket, and I almost check it, but then I decide to let it wait, because this scene is too beautiful, this moment too perfect, and I will not let it be interrupted. Back at the site I flip open my phone. It’s a message from Maria, who is 3,000 miles away and has no idea what I’m doing. All it says is, “U happy?”