Home Truths

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

Just then a woman with permed, bottle-blond hair flags down the cart. She holds up a black box full of costume jewelry: rhinestone earrings and gold chains like the ones she is wearing -- fantasia she calls it in Spanish, shaking her curly head so her earrings jingle. Her smile reveals two gold-capped teeth. Rivera gently admonishes the woman. It's illegal for residents to do business out of their units, she whispers, and sends the woman on her way.

A Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department truck stops to ask directions; a water heater has been reported stolen in trailer 1706. "Every day it's something different," Rivera shrugs, steering back toward the office. Sometimes the tenants come to see her for help dealing with alcoholism and domestic violence. Or they suspect that their teenage children have gotten into drugs. Most often they have trouble making the rent and come to negotiate some kind of a payment plan. She'll give them as much time as she can before evicting them. When a family is thrown out, it's usually because its members had been continually disruptive, allowed unauthorized relatives or friends to stay in its trailer, or engaged in some other verboten activity.

"This is housing for migrant families but not any migrant families," Rivera explains. "We give them a nice, clean decent place to live and we expect them to obey the rules. I truly believe that if you give them a nice place to live, they keep it up. If it's ugly, why should they care?"

Leaning forward in a worn easy chair that sits just inside the open door of his trailer, Vicente Sanchez (no relation to Esmeralda) carefully raises one leg. The skin between his dusty trouser hem and the leather straps of his brown sandal is red and swollen. His calf looks as fat as a grilled chorizo about to burst from its casing, and just as tender. Seventy-six years old and one of the Royal Colonial's two oldest tenants, Don Vicente, as he is respectfully known, was recently released from Homestead Hospital. "They took one of the veins in my leg and put it up here," he explains, pounding his chest. "I can't work."

His large frame sinks heavily into the chair as he stares absently at the snowy screen of a small TV tuned to an afternoon telenovela. The trailer's wood-paneled walls are crowded with school and wedding photos of Sanchez's ten children and their offspring. A straw cowboy hat rests within easy reach on the sofa. A few feet away, in the kitchen area, his wife Maria stirs a pot on the stove while a little boy in diapers, their grandson, plays at her feet. The musty smell of beans thickens the air.

"My life has been very sad," Sanchez murmurs. "All I've done is work and work in the fields because I didn't know how to do anything else. I didn't have an education. I've worked the land, that's all I have to say about what I've contributed to the world. And there's pain and suffering in this life."

Orphaned at age six, Sanchez started doing farm work soon thereafter in his native Michoacan, Mexico. Later, when he was married, he and his growing family crossed the border into Texas where they picked cotton. They kept following the crops, arriving in South Florida in the fall of 1969. "There was plenty of work then," he recalls, stroking his gray mustache. "And not so many people. Now there's people from South America, from Haiti. It's all filled up."

That first season Don Vicente and his family lived in a wooden cabin in one of the dozen or so private labor camps set up by farm owners for South Dade's winter harvest season. The camps were maintained by the growers themselves or by independent contractors, foremen who gathered together incoming field workers and offered them jobs. Other migrants lived in the Redland Farm Labor Camp, a Homestead Housing Authority facility that today is populated by former migrants who work year-round in agriculture and other jobs. Mostly these camps housed men who had come to South Florida alone, men who had left behind their families. Accommodations were rudimentary; the cabins had no indoor plumbing and no electricity.

Back then Mexicans had begun to arrive in the area from Texas, where cotton-picking machines had started to replace human hands in the fields. In the Fifties and early Sixties, the migrant pool in South Dade was made up of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. By the late Sixties many of the Puerto Ricans had moved north to settle in New York or had returned home, creating a need for farm workers in the area, one that Mexicans would fill from then on.

In 1973 the U.S. Department of Labor plopped down 400 trailers on land near the entrance to Everglades National Park, creating the Everglades Labor Camp. The facility was run by the county, which in 1980 paid about one million dollars to the federal government for 200 additional trailers; these had been used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house people left homeless by floods in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1972. Under county management of the park, workers paid $17 to $35 a week to rent a trailer.

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