It is a day off for Jose Regalado. He looks as if he could use a year off. His eyes have a blank gaze and he walks in a trudge of weariness. At 29, he has done more manual labor than most Americans will do in a lifetime. During those lifetimes, they will eat well because of people like Regalado (a pseudonym). He is a migrant farm worker.
Regalado is one of some 3,000 to 5,000 illegal immigrants who work the fertile fields of Okeechobee County in central Florida. Most of the laborers here are Mexican, with a scattering of Haitians and American blacks and whites. They are impoverished, mostly unprotected by collective bargaining and uncared for by government in such basic rights as field sanitation, housing and health care. The Mexicans have the added psychological torment of knowing that as undocumented workers they can at any moment of the day or night be caught in an Immigration Service swoop and packed off to jail, Mexico or oblivion. For Regalado, Okeechobee isn't much better than any of those three.
On this dusty and dry Saturday afternoon, he is with his wife of 13 years, Elena, who also is 29. They have six children. The oldest is a strong-backed boy of 12 with just the kind of build that will last for decades of picking oranges in the groves of citrus country. The Regalados live five miles outside of Okeechobee, a flatland town that sits on the South's best-known lake and calls itself "the speckled perch capital of the world."
The Regalados aren't into sport fishing. They are thinking about another kind of fishing -- for a ride at the end of May to Michigan where there is work in the fruit orchards. Somewhere up there is a town that calls itself "the cherry capital of the world," and Regalado's life will be the same: rising before dawn to work after sundown to keep his family fed.
Their home in Okeechobee is a rented corroded trailer that is one of about 20 run-down dwellings in a dead end between a dirt road and a swamp. The Regalado trailer rests on cement blocks. Steps leading to the inside are a pair of old metal milk boxes. The encampment, with trailers that look like the squalid bunkhouses that used to hold the chain gangs of the Old South, lacks sewerage and clean water. The Regalados buy bottled water in town.
For all of this, they are gouged $260 a month in rent by an absentee landlord. For a playground, the children have the shells of a few wheelless abandoned cars. In the bushes are small mountains of discarded beer cans and larger mountains of uncollected garbage.
The poverty of the Mexican migrant workers in Okeechobee coexists with some of the country's greatest agricultural wealth. A recent survey reported that 93 percent of the county's acres are utilized by dairies, cattle ranches, feed mills and groves. The combined appraised value of these enterprises is $369 million. More than 200 farms are grazing beef. Between cows for milking or eating, the county has six times more animals than humans.
When the comparison is between Holsteins and Mexicans, the animals fare better in many ways. They have clean water to drink on the range, for one thing, which is more than Regalado can count on in whatever field he happens to be working. The incredible aspect of Regalado's life is that despite everything he is grateful to be here and would like to become a citizen.
That is all but a pipe dream. An attorney with the Bel Glade, Fla., Rural Legal Services program estimates that the failure rate among migrants for citizen applications is well over 90 percent: "If they are lucky enough to find a lawyer, they probably won't get an immigration judge who is sympathetic. Florida is thick with illegal workers and there is little sympathy for them."
In Okeechobee, the most humane feelings for the Mexicans are shown by the Rev. Hugh Duffy of Sacred Heart Church. He visits the families regularly, speaks to them in Spanish and has helped set up clothing, food, housing and immigration-assistance programs. He is a dealer in God's mercies, beginning with survival basics. Duffy, who was born in County Donegal, Ireland, and studied theology at Harvard, is an impassioned advocate for the immigrant poor of Okeechobee. But he is not so fired up as to misunderstand what is happening: The agricultural economy is expanding at the same time that exploitation of the farm workers increases.
In the Regalado living room, or what they are trying to make pass for one, the children listen to their father as he speaks with a visitor. "I am working hard for them," Regalado says. The oldest son looks on knowingly. At 12, he has been to the fields and understands the meaning of hard work. The misery of it -- that there is probably no way out -- he will learn later, perhaps at age 13.