Home Truths

After decades of living month to month in trailer parks, some South Dade migrant workers have found a permanent address

Home Truths
After decades of living month to month in trailer parks, some South Dade migrant workers have found a permanent address

By Judy Cantor

A burly man cradling a black-haired baby strides across the empty shuffleboard courts at the Royal Colonial Mobile Home Park in Naranja and walks into the park's management office. He wants to settle his bill. It's barely nine o'clock on a Monday morning in May, but a line has already formed at the office counter. A nervous-looking young mother wearing a Selena T-shirt and Lycra shorts grasps her little girl's hand tightly and studies a bulletin board posted with several flyers printed in Spanish. Hands are needed to pick cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes in Ohio, and the Mexican League of Childrens' Soccer in South Dade is looking for new players. A notice from the Metro-Dade Police Department offers a reward for information relating to a February bus hijacking that left one Guatemalan farm worker dead and another a paraplegic. On the floor below the bulletin board sits a cardboard box filled with loaves of day-old bread wrapped in plastic bags, a donation for park tenants from a local supermarket.

Like other mobile home communities that sprang up in the Fifties in South Florida, the Royal Colonial was once home to white-haired snowbirds with plenty of time on their hands. But since 1994 the trailer park, located in a desolate section of South Dade that locals call the Dead Zone, has been populated by tired-looking, Spanish-speaking couples with small children. Many of the Royal Colonial's current residents are migrant farm workers who leave South Dade in the spring and return to pick tomatoes, squash, and beans from November to March. They make, on average, $6000 to $12,000 a year, and pay $63 a week during the winter harvest season to rent a three-bedroom singlewide in el campo (as the Spanish speakers call the place). Ninety-five percent of the families are Mexican or Mexican-American, but some come from Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, or Cuba. By the end of May this year, 60 of the park's 312 tenant families had already taken off to pick onions, tomatoes, and potatoes in New York State or cherries in Michigan. Others will pack up their pickups and vans just as soon as their children are out of school.

At the counter in the park office, a patient young Hispanic woman attends to residents' needs from behind a wall of protective glass, where another sign in Spanish is posted:

You can reserve for next year:
If you paid your rent on time
If you kept your unit clean outside and inside
If there were no reports of incidents or bad behavior
If you didn't have unregistered guests.

Dressed in a T-shirt, jean shorts, and sandals, Esmeralda Sanchez sits on the steps of her trailer, which is set on a grassy corner space in the center of the park. Sanchez has long chestnut hair, and the deep shadows under her eyes make her look like a college student recovering from the ordeal of final exams. Her fatigue comes not from pulling all-nighters, but rather from taking care of her three children -- ages seven, two, and one -- and waiting around for her husband Oswaldo to come home from his job driving a forklift. This year, like every other, the family will put their clothes, their TV, and their VCR in their red double-cab truck and head for Michigan. (They left in mid-June.) From there they'll go to Illinois, where there's usually work husking corn, and then they'll spend three months in Houston with Oswaldo's family before returning to Florida in November. "You get to see a lot of the country," Esmeralda says of the migrant life. "We have the basic things that we need."

The inside of the trailer is sparsely furnished, mostly stuff left behind by other migrants. The Sanchezes will pass along the sofas and tables and beds to neighbors when they leave. Esmeralda, age 25, grew up in Tamaulipas, Mexico, near the southeastern Texas border. Her father and uncles were migrant workers who traveled each fall to the United States while she stayed home with the other women and children in her family. Her oldest child Jesse finished second grade this year. "I have to put him in school wherever we are, even if it's for two weeks," she explains. "His teachers have advised me to start keeping him in one place, but he seems fine to me."

Back in Mexico, Sanchez attended college, majoring in physical education, but she dropped out after her freshman year to marry Oswaldo, who decided he could best support a family with migrant work. "My husband works all the time because we want the kids to have a profession and not to have to travel from place to place like this," she notes with a wan smile. "I think my father had the same thought. But sometimes things don't turn out the way you expect."

Marta Cruz, her husband Carlos, and their two children will also be leaving their trailer soon, but they won't be coming back to the Royal Colonial. The Cruzes, who have lived in the park for the past year and a half, are among 25 families who are scheduled to move next week to the Everglades Farmworker Villages, a federally subsidized rental housing project in unincorporated Dade near Florida City, just south of the Royal Colonial off U.S. 1. The new pastel houses stand on the former site of the Everglades Labor Camp, an older trailer park for farm workers, located on a lonely stretch of land just across from the Dade Correctional Center.

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