As I sat in the back seat of the car for the hour-long journey from the Tampa Airport to who knows where in Florida, jostled by the stack of luggage next tome, the thought “Am I going to get lunch?” alternated incessantly with “What did I get myself into?”
Barely on my way to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food, I was really questioning whether I was up to the challenge.
The Coalition is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in Florida’s tomato fields and other low-wage jobs throughout the state. A few years ago, CEO Fedele Bauccio, Executive Chef Francisco Alvarez (then at Mount St. Mary’s College, now at a corporate account in Southern California), and I traveled to Immokalee tomeet with these incredible workers, hear their moving stories firsthand, and become the first food service company to create a code of conduct demanding fair treatment and pay for tomato pickers.
Proud as I am of Bon Appétit’s contribution to the cause, I’ve long wanted to help in a more personal way. So when Cheryl Queen, vice president of communication and corporate affairs for Compass Group USA, said she was going to accompany them for two days of the two-week march, I immediately said, “I’ll go with you!” with great enthusiasm and not much thought.
Next thing I knew, I was packing hiking boots and a sleeping bag.
A core group of about 50 marchers including Coalition members, college students, and community activists make the entire 200-mile journey from Immokalee to Lakeland, FL; they are joined along the way by hundreds of supporters doing a leg or two of the march. When we hooked up with the group, they were in the middle of a ceremony marking International Women’s Day, sitting in a circle under trees draped with Spanish moss and listening to a haunting guitar melody. One by one, people walked to the center, deposited earth into a ceramic pot, and spoke the name of a woman who had inspired them. After each name the group responded “Presente,” acknowledging that the spirit of that mother, grandmother, daughter, or friend was present. Tears streamed down faces, and I felt myself choke up when it was my turn to let go of the cool soil.
What had I gotten myself into, indeed? The possibility of missing lunch seemed much less important than it had just a few minutes earlier. I was ready to march.
“Two by two, two by two,” shouted members of the security team as we lined up behind a flat-bed truck carrying a DJ who was blasting music to march by. Much to my surprise, it turns out that if you’re a big group marching 200 miles, you actually walk on the highway behind a police escort. Staying in a tight line, two by two, shoulder to shoulder with the marcher next to you, is critical for safety. The group moves as one, everyone walking at the same, constant speed. Traffic stops for you, not the other way around.
Rights and Responsibilities
As my feet started to literally pound the pavement, I was glad that I had chosen a small flag to carry rather than a large banner. The strong breeze provided a welcome cool, but it also made the large signs bob and wave. I marveled at the strength of four women carrying a life-sized statue of a farmworker holding a bucket and announcing a “Nuevo Dia, New Day” for “Derechos, Rights.” Mile after mile, they hoisted the emblem of justice. As Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, one of CIW’s leaders, explained tome, “At first you feel the weight but soon, you forget the burden.” I thought to myself, “That’s why you can do this work. You forget the burden of the journey and focus on the goal.”
Gerardo also remarked that me and Cheryl joining the march was “historic.” Never before had anyone from a purchasing company walked alongside the workers demanding change. I have to say, it didn’t feel like our contribution was the historic part of the day. What felt most meaningful to me was the expression of our collective constitutional rights. Never before had I so dramatically seized my right to assemble and exercised my right to free speech in service of others’ pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
What We Have In Common
As we walked, drivers responded to the plea to “honk for justice.” Each time I heard the blare of a horn, I held my flag higher and walked a little taller. People came out of stores and restaurants along the route to wave. When I saw a man in a camouflage baseball cap flashing the peace sign out the window of his gigantic pickup truck, I thought about how we are more similar than different, more aligned than apart. These farmworkers, that truck driver, me — all people who want to be treated fairly. As Gerardo said at the start of the march, “Even though we may be poor, we too are human beings. We deserve respect and dignity.”
Hour after hour we walked, stopping periodically at parks for rest and refreshment. Then we’d return to the road. We chanted and we danced. At the end of my first day, I found myself toward the back of the human train, dancing with a college student. (Bet you didn’t know I can move down a highway doing the Roger Rabbit!) That evening, we were welcomed by one congregation for a fish fry and then by another for shelter. Cheryl and I rolled out our mats and tried to make the church’s rec room floor as comfortable as possible.
At 6 a.m., we were up and getting ready to do it all again. Day two was harder on the body. I had blisters, and the heat was oppressive. I also struggled mentally with boredom. The Florida highway we marched along was lined with fast food restaurants and, oddly, furniture store after furniture store. The music blaring from the truck was upbeat but also made conversation impossible. While I was surrounded by people, I was alone with my thoughts. My mind wandered and spun. I had to consciously bring it back to why I was there. When I focused, I found myself very grateful for the opportunity to lend my body in support of these workers. I often fought back tears.
That day’s route ended at the New College of Florida. The beautiful old buildings of the school sit right on the water. We rolled up our pants, took our shoes off, and waded into the warm bay to soak our tired feet. It was heavenly. Peaceful, joyful, and much more than I ever could’ve imagined I’d gotten myself into.
Learn more about the progress of the Campaign for Fair Food at www.ciw-online.org