Hearts and Mayans

Jack Leonard has opened his South Dade home to Guatemalan migrants. What more can he do?

By the time the first Mayans straggled here in 1986, the economic plate already had been scraped clean. They kept coming, anyway; as long as there were crops, there was always the promise of work. And at least there was no violence. Now an estimated 1500 to 1800 Mayans live in South Dade. Most can neither read nor write; many speak no Spanish, let alone English. Ignorant of U.S. laws and culture, they are terrified of authorities. In their homeland, asking questions most often met with grave consequences.

For the thousands of migrants who keep Homestead's tomato and bean fields picked clean season after season, C-Town Square is the first stop of the day. A block off the brick-lined sidewalks and antique stores of Krome Avenue, the supermarket lot serves as the transportation depot where capetazos, or work supervisors, choose their daily work crews.

Roosters crow in the distance and nighttime shadows still linger as the first workers arrive. They come from all directions, like ants in file, from the rundown apartment complexes that surround the market, from sagging, smoke-belching station wagons, up Northwest Second Street past the whitewashed El Calverio Pentecostal Church.

One gaily painted school bus cruises to a stop. The horn honks and a neon "Breakfast" light appears. Workers scurry to the window to fuel themselves for the morning's labor with steaming white-flour tortillas stuffed with shredded beef.

Within the hour, the lot brims with workers dressed in sweatshirts and work boots. Some are resident laborers who work the South Dade fields twelve months of the year. But most are migrants, following the harvests from Florida to the Carolinas to New York and back again.

In this daily lottery, two young Guatemalans, Higenio and Nicolas, hope to cash in today and find work.

His brown face spotted with renegade whiskers, Higenio arrived in Homestead several months ago. There is work here, he says, especially after the storm, but eking out a living has been harder than he'd imagined.

The first capetazo skids to a stop in a sporty white pickup. A blast from the four shiny silver horns on his hood announces his arrival. That one has a bad reputation, Higenio explains; most capetazos skim a portion of a worker's salary, but this one takes more than most and mistreats his workers, to boot. Yesterday Nicolas cleaned toilets in Kendall, earning the average daily wage of $40. His boss deducted eight dollars for Social Security. Nicolas thought it was strange that no one asked for his Social Security number, but he didn't say anything. Mayans never do.

The boys have heard of Mister Yak but they're not quite sure what he does.
"People go to his house if they have problems," Higenio thinks.
From across the lot, an engine sputters to life. It's the americano, a good man to work for. The boys bid a hasty goodbye and disappear into the dawn.

"When you're away from the States so long, you don't know where you are when you come back. My idea was to work within something like this," Jack Leonard says, waving a hand toward the trailers, the army tent, the village in his back yard.

Ray Heaton's brother Bob lived in Homestead, and when the two friends returned from Europe, they chose this agricultural center of 20,000 for a temporary stop. The original plan was to travel on to Texas, where Leonard had heard that William H. Crook, whom he'd met in Italy through Angelo Bottani, had set up a number of advocacy organizations. "Maybe it's egotistical, but after all the experiences I'd had, I thought I might have something to share," Leonard explains. "Besides, Texas sounded kind of fun, another adventure."

Crook, an ex-U.S. ambassador who directed the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program during 1967 and 1968, confirms that he traveled to Italy in the early Eighties to investigate investment opportunities. "Jack showed my wife and I around Milan," Crook recalls in a phone conversation from his home in San Marcos, Texas. "He was a regular, nice guy. I knew he was a business associate of Bottani's, but it was never clear what his job was."

After he and Heaton rented a house on 15th Street in Homestead, Leonard visited the recently opened South Dade Adult Center to see if they needed teachers. An intelligent man versed in several languages, with teaching skills and the will to teach the migrants? Principal John Hendricks's decision was quick. "Jack had very good qualifications: a desire to work with our most needy students and good teaching experience," says Hendricks, who has since retired. "I know in a short time if an applicant has what I'm looking for, and Jack did."

Leonard began teaching part-time at the center A GED classes in the morning and migrant education at night A but soon moved on to outreach centers around town. He introduced himself at Sacred Heart Church, the spiritual center for Homestead's migrant population, and met Father Dan K. Dorrity, who, as it turned out, had worked with Leonard's uncle at Hearst.

"We needed a teacher, and Jack was well trained and liked kids," says Dorrity, who now heads a program to assist AIDS victims. "I never saw a resume. I didn't worry about details like that." Dorrity turned over the Good Samaritan Club of the church to Leonard. The next summer, the church employed him to teach a fifth-grade class.

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