- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Heide Castañeda, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Florida
This is how one undergraduate student in my Cultural Anthropology course at the University of South Florida (USF) reflected upon her visit to the “Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum,” set up by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on our campus in April 2010. The Museum consists of a cargo truck outfitted as a replica of the trucks involved in a recent slavery operation (U.S. v. Navarrete, 2008), accompanied by displays on the history of forced labor in Florida. The exhibit toured the state – 23 cities in all – over the course of six weeks in the lead-up to the 2010 Farmworker Freedom March.
“Eye-opening” was the most frequent phrase students used in their reflections. “The thought of slavery in the modern day never crossed my mind,” was a sentiment echoed by many. In fact, the state of Florida is often considered “ground zero for slavery in America.” It remains one of the top three destination states for forced labor and trafficking because of its economic dependency on agriculture and tourism, industries in which slavery can flourish with relatively little resistance. Additionally, Miami International Airport has ranked among the top points of entry for trafficking, and individuals are often transported to neighboring states. After exiting the Museum’s cargo truck, one student noted, “Now I look at these trucks in a different way.”
Pedagogically speaking, taking students outside of the classroom to apply concepts they are learning is, of course, nothing new. Students can’t learn about historical processes associated with social inequality from a textbook alone. The students in my course, like many at USF, are ethnically diverse and most have grown up in Florida. Working class backgrounds are common, and many are the first in their families to attend college. We toured the Modern Day Slavery Museum near the end of the semester, after weeks of discussing comparative political and economic systems, social inequality, and constructions of race and ethnicity. In our discussion afterward, students were particularly struck by the apparently seamless transition of forced labor in Florida agriculture from the late 1800s onwards.
The practice has persisted, first at the expense of enslaved Africans, then of convicts, the homeless, and now Latino immigrants. As one student noted, “I was shocked to see people of Latin and Caribbean descent being exploited!” Many spoke directly with the farmworkers on-site representing the organization about life and work in the fields. The immediacy of the topic, and the fact that it was taking place in their backyards, was key to students’ engagement. As one wrote, “This was a topic I was not familiar with, although it is happening right here in Florida. There was even a case that took place in my hometown of St. Augustine – this was shocking to me because St. Aug only about 12,000 residents, and I feel as though I should be more informed!”
Support from college students has been instrumental to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) campaigns over the past decade. Beginning with a national boycott organized against Taco Bell in 2001, CIW has asked restaurants and food service companies to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound in order to nearly double their wages. College campus boycotts of Yum! Brands and Taco Bell, in particular, were central to the success of that four-year campaign. Since then, CIW has been successful with campaigns aimed at persuading McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, and Aramark, among other retailers, to sign agreements to pay the extra penny.
Now CIW has its sights set on the supermarket chain Publix. On April 16th, following the Modern Day Slavery Museum tour, hundreds of protesters marched for three days in the Farmworker Freedom March from Tampa to Publix’s headquarters in Lakeland. Workers from Immokalee were joined by faith-based organizations and student groups such the Student-Farmworker Alliance. They continue to urge Publix to pay more for its tomatoes and to take a stand against abusive work conditions.
The students’ reflections from visiting the CIW mobile museum illustrate how interactions outside of a formal classroom can provide constructive spaces for understanding the relationship between history, race, and labor. Furthermore, beyond simply learning about injustices, many students draw upon their own background experiences and feel motivated for to engage in action. College campuses and organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance can be important partners in social justice efforts.
Photo by Cindy Skop, Lakeland Ledger
Heide Castañeda, PhD, MPH is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. A medical anthropologist who has worked with unauthorized labor migrants in Germany and in the United States, her work focuses on social inequality and medicine. She is a founding member of the blog “Access Denied: A Conversation on Unauthorized Im/migration and Health,” located at http://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/
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