500 miles from Immokalee

Danny Guzman

Danny should feel comfortable here and the tomato pickers should see him as one of their own. But he doesn’t, and they don’t.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Guzman is in a labor camp in the South Carolina Lowcountry, some 500 miles away from Immokalee, Florida where he grew up in a farmworking family. He started picking tomatoes at age ten.

Danny knows what it’s like to faint from heat stroke, spilling your bucket of tomatoes as your body tumbles into the dirt and disappears between rows of pungent plants. He still has memories of speaking only Spanish, of missing meals, of watching his apologetic dad slice a Snickers bar into pieces so each of his kids might enjoy the rare treat.

But Danny found a way out of their world and into college. He’s here at this camp as an intern with the federally funded Migrant Education Program, being paid this summer not for his strong back but for his educated mind. This puts him on a higher plane than these campesinos and the awkwardness all but silences him.

Danny and two other interns, Julie King and Eric Britton, are here to lead an evening class in Ingles de Sobre Vivencia, Survival English, to a dozen or so farmworkers. Unlike Danny, Eric and Julie came from privileged childhoods. They grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. where they perfected Spanish at some of the best schools in the country.

SAF interns teaching English to migrant farmworkersThis camp, located about an hour east of Charleston, is one of hundreds hidden throughout the state. It consists of two long buildings that look like oversized storage sheds. One is for bunking the Mexican and Guatemalan migrants who pick tomatoes all day and sleep at night. The other is for those who sleep in the day and work through the night, washing and processing those tomatoes at a nearby packinghouse.

It’s hot here. The two women in the class took seats at the folding cafeteria tables promptly after finishing the dinner clean-up. Most of the men had to be enticed out of their bunks with the help of sweating bottles of water and cans of Coke so icy cold they sting your palm. They sit at the back of the room, quiet.

Nobody refuses a cold drink in this place. The tropical heat lingers well after the sun goes down, making everybody, and everything, sweat. Some of the white refrigerators lining the cinderblock walls have rusted entirely to orange.

Danny stands at the head of the class but off to the side as Julie and Eric teach. He fidgets, like he wants to get out of here, as his colleagues write essential phrases in Spanish and English.

Necesito agua → I need water.

Eric turns to Danny when a student uses a Spanish phrase he doesn’t recognize. Danny hesitates then steps to the front of the class. He translates and asks the woman a follow-up question. Her answer prompts Danny to ask another question, and then another and another.

“She knows my Mom!”

The class comes to a halt, transformed, as Danny explains how the woman used to give his mother a ride to the tomato-packing house in Immokalee. He makes no attempt to hide his joy or get back to the lesson. When the woman stands and extends her arm across the table Danny runs around it, demanding a hug. “Dame un abrazo!!”

Even the taciturn men now grin in disbelief. They toss out names of others in the camp who are from Immokalee and might know Danny. They see him now in a different light. Danny too is transformed.

The topic of class now is medical symptoms and Danny is no longer off to the side. The marker is in his hand now, writing the word “dizzy” on the board and breaking it into Spanish phonetics. When the subject turns to how to talking with a doctor, Danny draws on personal experience with Mexican folk-remedies and warns the students emphatically, as if speaking to someone in his own family, to tell the doctor everything they might be taking.

“Dígale al doctor todo lo que toma. Las hierbas. Los tés. Todo!”

The class ends with students completing paper exercises. Danny strolls from table to table, offering help, then exchanging small talk as the workers head back to their bunks.
Muchas gracias por venir, he says. Thank you for coming. They thank him back.

The gratitude is clearly mutual.

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