Slavery in the Tomato Fields

Slavery in the Tomato Fields

The one-story, L-shaped house at 209 South Seventh Street in the southwestern Florida city of Immokalee stands in stark contrast to the couple of dozen trailers that surround it on three sides. A handsome royal palm shades the front lawn. The dwelling is fairly new, well-painted, and in far better repair that the average Immokalee residence. Between 2005 and 2007, Mariano Lucas Domingo lived at that address. New to town, broke, and homeless, he faced the prospects of many recently arrived migrants—sleeping at missions and in encampments in the woods and sustaining himself through once-a-day trips to the local soup kitchen until he amassed enough money to get a room in one of the trailers and buy his own food.

Domingo must have thought it was a great stroke of luck when Cesar Navarrete, a strapping 24-year-old Mexican he met on the streets of Immokalee, not only gave him a job but invited him to crash on his family's property on South Seventh and even offered to front him some pocket cash. For 50 dollars a week, Navarrete's mother, who also lived in the house, would provide meals. Domingo could pay her after his first check—a handsome sum. Navarrete was willing to give Domingo one dollar for every bushel-basket-sized bucket of tomatoes he picked, more than twice what many crew bosses were offering at the time. As for Domingo's lack of documentation, no problem. Navarrete knew someone who could get him false papers. Domingo, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had come to the United States with the dream of making enough money so that he could send some home to care for a sick parent. With little quick calculation, he determined that he'd be clearing 200 dollars a week from Navarrete, leaving him with plenty of spare cash to wire back to Guatemala.

From the outset, it became apparent that Navarrete's promises were too good to be true. Domingo's 20-dollar-a-week rent wasn't for a room with the family in the neat house but for shared space with three other workers in the back of a box truck out in the junk-strewn yard. It had neither running water nor a toilet, so Domingo and his "room" mates had to urinate and defecate in one corner. It turned out that there were about a dozen other men living behind the Navarrete residence, some in trucks like the one Domingo now called home, others in old vans, and others yet in a crude shack. Navarrete's mother's promise to provide food turned out to be two meager meals a day—eggs, beans, tortillas, rice, and rarely some sort of meat—only six days a week. Often the food would run out before everyone got his share.

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