Home Truths

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

Notorious for its crime and squalid conditions, the Everglades camp was set up in 1973 with trailers furnished by the U.S. Department of Labor. They were already dilapidated when Hurricane Andrew blew them to kingdom come in 1992, paving the way for the new homes. Later this summer additional tenants will move into the 240 Everglades Villages houses currently nearing completion. By 1998, 520 homes are slated to be built on the 110-acre plot, which also encompasses the Andrew Center, a still-active encampment of 532 trailers adjacent to the old Everglades camp.

The new housing complex, developed by the Everglades Community Association (ECA), a nonprofit agency that maintains both the Royal Colonial and the Andrew Center, is being paid for with $41.2 million in grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service; additionally, the We Will Rebuild Foundation, a private nonprofit group founded by local business leaders to help fund recovery in the area after Hurricane Andrew, kicked in a one-million-dollar grant. The finished project will have a population of approximately 2500 people, making it the largest planned community for farm workers ever built in the U.S.

Like Esmeralda Sanchez, Marta Cruz, a vivacious 26-year-old who wears her straight black hair in a smart, blunt-cut style, comes from a family of Mexican migrants. She grew up traveling from state to state in the U.S. but says she now wants to put down roots, a desire made apparent by the suburban-style decor of the living room of her immaculate trailer. China figurines and seashell sculptures crowd onto shelves around a large television set and stereo system. An aquarium filled with tropical fish sits in one corner. A matched set of plush furniture was store-bought in Miami.

"A lot of people here throw everything out and move on, but I couldn't do that," the young homemaker explains as she sits on a French colonial style sofa holding her baby Carlitos. Her toddler Laura points at the fish in the aquarium and burbles "Kmart."

Cruz's husband works in a Homestead packing plant, and the couple has already lived in South Florida year-round for four years. "There's a lot of young people like us who don't want to migrate because they don't want to move the kids," Cruz says. "We want to live in a house."

Architect Robert Chisholm designed Everglades Villages' two-, three-, and four-bedroom homes with the future tenants' wishes in mind. These agricultural workers are rural folk who come from small villages in Latin America, where they were accustomed to wide open spaces. They prefer to live in low-rise detached houses with small lawns. When queried on what they'd like in a new home, the men asked for driveways that extend right up to the front door, the better to keep an eye on their valuable trucks; the women wanted large windows in the kitchens so they can watch their children playing outside. The completed development will also include a soccer field, a community center, three child-care facilities, and classrooms for various educational programs, including English-as-a-second-language courses. Security guards will patrol the grounds from dusk to dawn in an effort to discourage the kinds of crimes that typically plague low-income housing developments A robberies, drugs, gang violence.

All of this is somewhat atypical. For more than twenty years, many South Dade farm laborers have lived in trailer camps. Now, if everything goes according to plan, the completion of Everglades Villages will do away with such camps, marking the end of an era for Dade County's migrant farm workers. "We've lived with trailers for too many years," asserts Juanita Mainster, a former migrant worker who serves as ECA's director of resident services. "The problem is that for farm workers, what's temporary can easily become permanent."

Like other South Dade agencies that serve migrants, ECA wants to improve the workers' standard of living. The two ECA-run parks (Royal Colonial and Andrew Center) are the only organized trailer facilities for migrant farm workers. The ECA's lease on the Royal Colonial expires in September 1997, and all of the trailers on the Andrew site will be replaced by new permanent houses by 1998. But Everglades Villages is not designed to preserve the seasonal ebb and flow of migrants, which can amount to 25,000 people each year. Instead, it will accommodate the growing number of South Dade residents who are defined as seasonal farm workers. Some labor in the fields in the winter, then find other jobs, such as construction work, during the summer. Those who don't find work get by on their meager savings or they collect unemployment benefits. Other year-round residents work in local nurseries cultivating tropical fruits or indoor plants.

"We're definitely seeing a trend toward settling here year-round," says Arturo Lopez, the director of the Coalition of Florida Farmworkers Organization (COFFO), a nonprofit that provides immigration assistance, substance abuse counseling, and other services for farm workers. "Those who have the possibility to stay here will stay."

Through Everglades Villages, ECA is encouraging its tenants to establish permanent ties in South Dade by providing affordable housing. At the same time, current trailer residents who don't qualify for a house will have to seek shelter elsewhere when the trailers are gone. "It won't be as easy to go and come back," contends Mainster. "Federally funded farm workers housing has very specific regulations. You can't just leave a house empty for long periods of time. You have to keep paying the rent."

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