Home Truths

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

The completion of the first phase of Everglades Villages represents a victory for people like Kirk and Mainster, who have fought through the years to provide quality housing for South Dade farm workers. But the new homes are not a solution for everyone. Vicente Sanchez, who served as a resident ECA board member for four years, doesn't share Kirk's enthusiasm about the project. "The houses are too expensive for us," Don Vicente laments.

Rents at Everglades Villages range from $350 to $390 a month; with financial assistance from the federal government, tenants pay an average of $250 or one-third of their monthly income. "Everything's gone up," Sanchez notes. (He now receives Social Security payments and food stamps, and points out that the $63 a week he pays to rent his trailer is more than he can afford.) "I remember a time when I paid seventeen dollars for two trailers for my family. Now nobody gets two trailers. With the Americans it's just, 'If you can't pay, get out.'"

He sits back in his chair and thinks for a minute. "I have a son in Georgia. When I get better I'm going to take a trip to see if it's any better up there." (True to his word, just a few days later, during the first week of June, Sanchez packs up his family and vacates the Royal Colonial, leaving no forwarding address.)

Although the Royal Colonial now houses migrants instead of retirees, it still retains the pleasant air of a place designed to get away from it all. The Andrew Center, on the other hand, was specifically built for farm workers. It's a bleak place, an army barracks -- more than 500 trailers laid head-to-toe on a field of concrete.

An old dog sleeps outside the center's guardhouse, where a pistol-packing security officer is always on duty. Beyond the chainlink fence that surrounds Andrew, there's not much to see: the Dade Correctional facility across the street, with its silver barbed wire glinting in the sun; the colorful new Everglades Villages houses that rise to the west. Otherwise there's just the great expanse of the Everglades itself, plus some remote groves cultivated by local nurseries. The nearest store is a Circle K grocery in a gas station about a mile north on Redland Road; it stocks "todos sus productos Mejicanos," even Coca-Cola bottled across the border.

"Tourists pull into the camp and they don't know what it is. They think maybe it's part of the prison and they take pictures," laughs Mariana Anguiano, the Andrew Center's housing counselor. Anguiano stands outside the doublewide that serves as her office. "This is a Third World place in the middle of what's supposed to be a tourist mecca. Well, you sure aren't going to find it in any guidebook."

Anguiano deals with the center's 500 families, plus the residents of 32 additional trailers that serve as dormitories for single men. As is the case with the Royal Colonial, the tenants here are predominantly Mexican, with many hailing from Oaxaca, what Anguiano refers to as deep Mexico. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans also live in Andrew, plus three Haitian families, and one black American man.

"The Royal Colonial residents are more sophisticated," ventures Anguiano, an easygoing blonde with a lusty laugh. "They've been here longer. In this camp I have the true migrant farm workers, the ones who pick tomatoes and cucumbers and beans. The ones who follow the crops."

Because of the large number of residents at Andrew, the serious problems that affect the farm worker population as a whole are likely to crop up here more often than at the Royal Colonial. "I looked out the office window yesterday and I saw a guy who was so drunk he fell down," relates Anguiano. "Right in the middle of the day."

New Paths, a substance abuse program sponsored by COFFO, is based in a doublewide trailer next to the center's office. People in the program receive group and individual therapy. Most are men referred by the Metro-Dade police after DUI or domestic violence arrests. "Alcohol is a cultural problem with this community," asserts Dr. Oscar Danilo Pozo, who runs the COFFO clinic. "We have to show them that drinking brings economic problems, domestic violence problems, legal problems, housing problems."

Anguiano is more direct: "To most of these people drinking is a matter of survival. That's the way it is. The men work in the fields all week and on weekends they drink and they beat their wives -- and they think it's nobody's business but theirs."

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Anguiano talks knowledgeably about the farm workers because she was once one herself. She was able to move on, to "get out of the system" as she puts it, by joining the army. When her service hitch ended, she worked for Texaco in Texas and then for a cellular phone company in Homestead that blew away with the hurricane. Although her current job is to enforce the rules at the Andrew Center, she admits she can't help but see things from a migrant's point of view.

"They expect people to come here and follow the rules and regulations," she says. "But there are things that we take for granted that they just don't know. They're used to leaving their kids at home, because in their villages they have extended families; there's somebody to take care of them. Here someone will call the HRS on them if they find the kids at home alone. If their kids have lice in their hair, they sit 'em between their legs and pick them out. Here, the doctor sends them to buy all this stuff that they don't even know how to use."

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