Human rights strategist Greg Asbed has been granted a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship. A co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg’s story, and the story of the immigrant farm workers who have fought for and won significant gains in worker rights against great odds, has been documented in I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won by Susan L Marquis, forthcoming from ILR Press this fall. The following is a brief excerpt from the first chapter.
God, it was frustrating, but the two knew they were in the right place. When Greg Asbed and Laura Germino looked out the window of the small storefront office, they faced the cracked asphalt, broken concrete dividers, and courageous weeds that made up the Pantry Shelf parking lot. Throughout the day, the occasional beat-up Ford or rusted Chevy would pull in, seeking the shade of the grocery store wall. But most were walking. Women, arms loaded with bags, walked out the market’s doors and down streets patterned by the shade of trees loaded with Spanish moss and the glaring sun of southwest Florida. Some carried fruit that reminded them of home in Haiti, but most were carrying the soda, chips, and other junk food that was cheapest in the overpriced market.
The two paralegals, who made up two-thirds of Florida Rural Legal Services’ Immokalee operations, had to arrive early if they wanted to witness the reason for this unincorporated town’s existence. Immokalee was effectively a labor reserve for the big citrus, pepper, tomato, and other produce farms that filled the interior of the state. In the dark of predawn, a hundred or more (mostly) men shifted from one group to the next, clumped around the late-model pickups, the harshness of the headlights emphasizing the exhaustion on their faces. Men stood in the beds of the trucks or on the concrete dividers, shouting in Spanish and English, and indicating with a jerk of the head, a wave of a thumb, that the lucky souls could board the worn-out buses waiting there. If you didn’t get on the bus, you weren’t working that day.
Immokalee was the key. It was the hub of the East Coast farmworker community, the source of the river of migrant workers that flowed from Florida to Maine.
Greg Asbed and Laura Germino were here because of this flood of farmworkers. If you were going to work with farmworkers, if you believed it was possible to take on one of the most intractable labor issues in the United States, Immokalee was the place to be. Laura had seen the opportunity first. Over and over again she heard the name: Immokalee. Working intake for the farmworkers picking apples in the mountainside orchards outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, she kept writing it down as the migrant workers gave Immokalee, Florida, as their permanent address. Laura had just returned to the United States after serving with the Peace Corps. . .
While Laura was in Burkina Faso, Greg had been in Haiti. He was now in graduate school. When Greg and Laura found time together, their conversation returned time and again to two subjects: the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing farmworkers and the profound lessons Greg had learned during three years in Haiti. Stepping off the plane in Port au Prince, Greg had been reasonably sure this was not what the other neuroscience majors from Brown University had been preparing for. Haiti was in the turmoil of the last six months of the twenty-eight-year Duvalier family dictatorship. That was followed by Duvalier’s overthrow and two-and-a-half years of military junta, when the real violence and instability broke out. Undaunted, Greg joined in, becoming part of the grassroots movements building in protest across the island. The protests weren’t the blindness of angry mobs, but Greg realized instead that communities were organizing themselves. Most importantly, the organization was done from the inside; it was community-led action, declaring the right to jobs and housing and their right to elect the nation’s president. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide reclaimed the presidency from the military junta, these community groups cheered the victory they helped make possible.
What if instead of concerned outsiders advocating for workers, the workers themselves came together as a community? What if instead of legal aid groups playing whack-a-mole with those caught violating the law, the workers’ community fought for their human rights?
Now, back in the United States, Greg asked, “What if?” The conversations he and Laura were having converged. What if instead of concerned outsiders advocating for workers, the workers themselves came together as a community? What if instead of legal aid groups fighting individual legal battles, playing whack-a-mole with those caught violating the law, the workers’ community fought for their human rights? What if the lessons of Haiti were applied in the farm fields and communities of the United States? What would change then? And could it be done?
It was increasingly apparent that Immokalee was the key. It was the hub of the East Coast farmworker community, the source of the river of migrant workers that flowed from Florida to Maine. And while issues of wage theft, dilapidated housing, and poor working conditions existed in all of the eastern farming communities, the abuse was greatest, the conditions harshest, in Florida. If anyone was going to shed light on the treatment of farmworkers, Greg and Laura knew it had to be there. So, like the immigrants who flooded into Immokalee each season, the two Brown graduates looked for a way to get there.
* * *
Settling in at the table at the shop in Ave Maria, the closest “real” coffee shop to Immokalee, it doesn’t take long to see that Greg Asbed is one tightly wound, highly physical man. Spend some time talking with him and you’ll see that all that barely controlled energy is linked to a tremendous analytic intellect. This is not the scattered energy of hyperactivity. This is the tightly focused energy of someone who is confident he knows where true north lies. Leaning forward, hands tight on his knees, there are things to be said, things to be explained. There’s a lot going on: Walmart, Pacific Growers, training, audits. So much finally happening that it all comes out in rapid fire. Look, he says, here’s what you need to understand. Greg reads everything and is an accomplished writer, having published academic book chapters, commentaries in traditional newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, and online in blogs including the Huffington Post. Greg is an avid basketball player and a fanatical Dallas Cowboys fan. Both are essential to keeping Greg sane in the midst of twenty-five years fighting this battle and figuring out how to make it work. With some pride in his willingness and ability to do hard physical labor, Greg waxes rhapsodic when telling of the skill and talent of the CIW’s much-sought-after watermelon harvesting crew that he worked on for years. It is not hard to imagine what he dreams of when tossing or catching a melon.
When Greg talks, it is evident that out of his family’s history grows a strong sense of the risk of the vulnerability of immigrants, anger at injustice, and a belief in the strength of community.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Washington, DC’s suburbs, Greg attended the prestigious Landon School before heading to Brown. But, like many Americans, Greg traces his family history to immigrants arriving in Baltimore in search of a better life. Greg’s history is just a bit more recent than some. After seeing all but her older sister killed in their village of Izmit by Turkish gendarmes during the Armenian genocide in 1917, Greg’s grandmother Hripsimee survived a five-hundred-mile forced march and was then sold by Turks to itinerant Kurds, who in turn sold her to another Armenian family fleeing Turkey into Syria. The two goats and a single coin paid for her as a child bride also likely saved her life and resulted in the son who became Greg’s father, Norig Asbed. Settling in what is now Kobane, Syria, Norig revealed himself to be a brilliant student. Upon his completing the village’s parochial school, the village supported Norig’s enrollment at age eleven at the Melkonian Institute in Cyprus, a school for Armenian children. Norig was unable to return to Kobane and his family for six years. When he did, he taught at the local school and elsewhere in the Middle East, eventually becoming a student of nuclear physics with Nobel laureate Niels Bohr and then taking on doctoral studies and completing his master’s degree at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. Norig fell in love with Ruth-Alice Davis, a noted pediatrician and early woman graduate of Columbia University’s medical school, who was chief of the maternal and child health clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital while Norig was in graduate school.
When Greg talks about his grandmother’s strength as a young girl in the face of so much violence and fear, his pride in his father’s overcoming poverty, and his admiration for his mother’s work in the Philippines and in public health in Maryland, it is evident that this history is still very much alive and running through his veins. Out of his family’s history grows a strong sense of the risk of the vulnerability of immigrants, anger at injustice, and a belief in the strength of community. Greg’s anger combines with respect for the courage and hard work of the farmworkers, a respect born of eighteen years harvesting watermelons side-by-side with other CIW members from Florida to Missouri.
Harvesting watermelons is hard. Unbelievably hard. It is another one of those jobs, like picking tomatoes, that you might take for granted. But this is a skilled trade.
It’s worth talking for a moment about those watermelons. Harvesting watermelons is hard. Unbelievably hard. You may remember Edgerrin James, an all-pro running back who played for the University of Miami and then for the Indianapolis Colts. James was raised in Immokalee and harvesting watermelons was, as he lets us know, “the highest-paying job I had before my $49 million one with the Colts.” The point here is that when James showed up at “the U,” his coaches were in awe of his strength and endurance. Summers harvesting watermelons built James. “It helped shape me so much that I was all muscular when I got to Miami even though I never lifted a weight in my life. I was hardened in every way.” Florida watermelon crews—known as “gators” when they were largely African American and then “sandillero” when the demographic shifted to Latinos—were known for their skill and strength. The CIW watermelon co-op was no different.
Members of the co-op proudly declared, “Yo soy sandillero” as they headed north with each season’s harvest. Harvesting watermelons is another one of those jobs, like picking tomatoes, that you might take for granted. But this is a skilled trade. Greg gives us a feel for the work:
Workers must learn the complex interplay of five or six different signs that indicate when a melon is ripe and ready for harvest—or else get fired without recourse for cutting green melons. They must learn to throw and catch twenty- to thirty-pound oblong fruits with just the right arc, often keeping pace on foot with the moving field truck. Thousands of times a day they must pitch melons to another worker up to ten feet away. . . . They must also accurately estimate the weight of melons flying by at a rate of two or three per second on a fast-moving conveyor belt or risk having a load rejected for mis-sized melons—another fireable offense. But perhaps the most important skill watermelon workers must develop is an almost Herculean endurance . . . sixteen hours a day under a hot summer sun, in temperatures that often climb well over 100 degrees. . . .
Hripsimee’s strength? Greg called on that strength when he first started with the others picking watermelons. “[I] wanted to pass out in the 100-degree temperatures and endless heavy-ass work and I wouldn’t let myself because I knew she suffered far worse on her forced march across that desert. Knowing that I came from that strength—forged and tested in the most intense crucible of survival. . . . Sounds dramatic, but it’s real.”
That physicality and stubborn strength that wouldn’t let Greg give in to the heat combines with an exceptional ability to analyze and see the big picture. Impatience with those who don’t understand how the pieces fit together combines with patience and persistence to do what must be done to win the fight he and Laura have taken on.
I Am Not a Tractor!
How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won
Susan L. Marquis
ILR Press | $29.95 hardcover