Dred, You Got Okra?

On NW Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue, near I-95, Ignatius Murray, Overtown's Veggie Man, is practicing urban farming

Although his aim doesn't vault much beyond making a living for himself, to the people around him the garden has a meaning beyond just a plot of land and a wealth of vegetables. As he walks back down NW Eighth from a tour of his plots, a tiny woman hustling down the other side of the street spots him and as if on cue calls out. "Murray, hey, Murray!" she hollers. "Murray, you got any peppers?" Murray offers to gather up some that have just fallen to the ground, since he doesn't have any ripe on the bush. While he disappears into the greenery, Barbara Ann "Speedy" Brown stands before the garden, gazing out in awe. "Look at this. Just look at this. Murray, you got something here!" she shouts to him. "Gosh knows you got something here."

After accepting a small plastic bag of peppers, Brown walks away, declaring to anyone within earshot: "That's a man there. That's a man. That's a real man."

Jack of all trades (top); JOAT chows down (bottom)
Jack of all trades (top); JOAT chows down (bottom)

Murray came to the United States ten years ago because he thought he could make some fast money and then go back home. He had worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, welder, and plasterer in Jamaica before returning to the family farm at age 28. He figured there would be money in those trades here.

Things had worked out well on the farm for a while. Murray worked with his father until Mr. Murray became ill in his nineties, and then he managed the farm on his own. He married, built a nice house with his own hands, and raised eleven children on the income from the land. But in the Eighties, it seemed he always came up short no matter what crop he tried. It seemed like every idea he had to make money, every other Jamaican had at the same time. He planted peppers when the price was high and saw the price plummet when the crop came in and the market was glutted. "We have better soil over there," he says. "The food we have back home is good because the soil is better. But we don't have enough people there to buy what we grow."

Farming, like everything in Jamaica, is also beholden to the tourist industry. Everything in the economy rises and falls with the tourists. If Jamaica has a good tourist year, hotels and restaurants want lots of produce. If it is bad, they don't. When the tourist season wanes, the market dries up no matter what kind of a year the country had. Farmers also sell goods to the American market. Murray sold sweet potatoes at a nice profit when U.S. farmers had a bad year but the next year suffered when the United States had plenty of its own potatoes.

To the north, the United States loomed large in his mind. Like many before him who come here on the promise of better lives, Murray believed that in America his money problems would be over. "I believed, " he says, echoing the old immigrant creed, "you could pick money up off the street!"

When he arrived, making a living here proved more difficult than he had imagined. The trades he had practiced in Jamaica didn't help him as he'd hoped. Construction methods differed here, and he had to relearn plastering and carpentry and other skills according to local methods. Without a high school diploma, he says, he couldn't get certification, and thus the good pay that a welder commands. He had to work "under the table," and so didn't get paid much for his labor.

Still, Murray felt hopeful after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Dade County in 1992. There was plenty of work to be had in the construction trade as people rebuilt homes and businesses. He signed on to a work crew headed by a couple from Georgia and spent two weeks fixing roofs near Florida City. At the end of the two weeks, the bosses drove up in a pickup truck and told the workers to climb in the back so they could go get their paychecks. Somewhere on Bird Road, Murray and the others got out of the truck to wait under a tree while the pair went to the office to get their pay. Murray and the others are still waiting.

"I didn't even have a dime in my pocket," he cries. "I had to beg a bus driver to give me a ride home."

He was taken again by an African man managing a job on Miami Beach, after weeks of promised paychecks never materialized. "I couldn't believe this happens in America! I couldn't believe the people would do me that way," he cries.

In his desperation, Murray remembered his father's words: "Boy, if you come up and have some strength, don't use it to fight with men. Use it to fight the earth. You will always win."

When he moved into a tiny apartment on NW Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue three years ago, Murray's window overlooked a trash-strewn, city-owned lot. "It looked like a slum," he says. Since the lot didn't seem to have a caretaker, he began cleaning the debris, hauling out planks of wood, cartloads of old bottles, pieces of concrete block, and reams of cast-off construction debris. "People thought I was crazy," he says, laughing. "I didn't know who it belonged to, but I started cleaning it." As he cleared a spot, Murray tilled the ground and stuck in a banana sapling and a couple of stalks of sugar cane, actions that didn't improve the general opinion of his sanity. But as those plants and their offspring proliferated and bore fruit, he noticed the talk change.

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