During the spring semester, the Public Interest Law Center offers an alternative Spring Break opportunity where College of Law students pile into cars and drive down to one of Florida’s many small farm towns to do what they can to help migrant farm workers. When I volunteered during my 1L year, we went to Arcadia, Florida.
Once the bustling hub of DeSoto County, Arcadia is now, save for a yearly rodeo, mostly devoid of much traffic. Highway 17 cuts through the town, but you do not see much on that road. From this vantage point, Arcadia looks like another small town with an interesting name. Keep driving north and you get to Wachula, Florida, the cucumber capital of the world!
During our week stay, my fellow alternative spring breakers and I discovered the town beyond the road. We discovered labor camps housing from just a few to a few hundred workers and we were given a unique lesson as to how the orange gets into the bottle of orange juice.
We were tasked with helping Florida Rural Legal Services conduct outreach. Florida Rural Legal Services is a federally funded organization that is tasked with helping all of the documented migrant farm workers in the state. As you might imagine, for a state with as much agriculture and as long a growing season as Florida, this is a herculean task. As you might also imagine, federal funding does not always scale to the task.
Our days were odd. The first challenge of client outreach is actually finding the clients. Migrant farm workers in Arcadia spend their days picking oranges. This is very hard work that involves climbing ladders with 90 pound sacks around your neck all while wearing long sleeves and long pants to mitigate pesticide exposure despite having to work in the hot, Florida sun. The reality of this hard work is that as soon as the workers get back to their camps, they sleep.
To make things more difficult, the workers also do not get many days off. Usually, they get Sunday off, but even that is not guaranteed. When this is their only day off we also had to be sensitive and not monopolize it. Having a bunch of soon-to-be-lawyers talk your ear off in bad Spanish is not an ideal Sunday for most.
This tiny window of opportunity proved difficult in trying to get anything done. When we found workers, we, and our varying levels of Spanish overtook the camps, passed out fliers, and tried our best to explain to the workers that they had rights and that someone, in this case, Florida Rural Legal Services, was there for them.
There were additional hurdles such as crew leaders posing as workers and telling us, “Todo está bien!” (“All is well!” or “Everything is okay!”) and the occasional truck sent by the company to remind the workers that “big agriculture” was watching them. Honestly, it felt like we were not doing much or making much progress in helping them.
So, after a week of the best tacos I have ever eaten and trying our best to speak with as many farm workers as possible, we headed back to Tallahassee thinking that the workers we did find had probably helped us more than we had helped them. They had given us a window into the harsh reality behind the supermarket produce section, but what had we given them? Later, we heard back from Florida Rural Legal Services that the week had been a huge success. Many workers had called and many had very real problems. So, it turned out to be the most rewarding spring break I have ever had.