Odelaido "Donlyo" Garza holds an old microphone and addresses the crowd outside the Farmworker Association of Florida. He speaks in Spanish, and is translated to English. "I didn't expect this news," he says. "We just heard that they will close."
As the state prepares to spend $91 million to buyout the muck farms along Lake Apopka, a few raise their voices in dissent. Despite the claims of environmental necessity, the farm buyout will take good care of the farm owners but mainly leave the 3,000 or so farmworkers to their wits. "Donlyo," as he is known in the farm community, is afraid he will lose his home.
At high noon Sunday 150 farmworkers, their families and supporters walk a half mile to North Orange Blossom Trail, Apopka's main street, holding signs and chanting, in a bid to tell motorists on their way to the Zellwood Corn Festival of the farmworker's plight. The timing of the traffic lights makes the effort difficult. Tirso Moreno, coordinator of the event, speaks through a bullhorn:
"Welcome to the good-bye corn festival," he shouts. "The farms are closing and the workers are losing their jobs. No farmworkers, no consumers. We need your support."
The workers are strung along the road for 500 feet between two bank branches. Geraldine, a 47-year-old African-American woman, stands at the head of the line. She says she's been working on the muck farms since she was 6. "You fight and struggle to do an honest job, to try to make an honest living without taking anything from anyone," she says. "You try to make an honest living and they don't even want you to make that."
Geraldine bought a house here 10 years ago with a loan from the Farmer's Home Administration, she says. The low-interest loan allows her to make the payments with her two part-time farm jobs. It's a three-bedroom, the first home she's ever owned. And she can only keep it as long as she stays in farm work.
A blond family of four in a Jeep Cherokee cracks their windows to listen to Tirso's bullhorn. Truckers honk and give the thumbs up. One young man in a pickup truck shouts, "You can work at Taco Bell!"
Geraldine shakes her head. At $4.75 an hour? $5.25? And who will buy even 99-cent burritos here when they don't have jobs? Geraldine has six grown children, the youngest of whom are still struggling to go to community college on farm labor pay. Geraldine has a daughter who has two children and earns $176 a week, she says. She lives in Hawthorn Village, a local low income project that also requires its tenants to be farmworkers. When the jobs go, the low rents go too. Rules are rules.
Maybe only a few people in Apopka will lose their homes in the wake of the buyout. Maybe a few hundred. The people who arranged to spend $91 million in taxpayer funds will continue to live comfortably.
Governor Chiles was expected to sign the buyout legislation this week although Jeannie Economos, an organizer with the Farmworker Association, still had not given up efforts to persuade him to veto it. Last Thursday she cornered the Governor at a book signing in Orlando. Chiles was on the road promoting a coffee table book called "700 North Adams Street." It features beautiful photographs and a history of the Governor's mansion.