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March: Immokalee farmworkers begin march to Orlando

Sunday, February 20, 2000

By MARY KELLI BRIDGES, Staff Writer

At first glance, the tall statue on the back of the pickup looked like a small-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty.

The pickup inched along U.S. 41 shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday for the start of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' walk from Fort Myers to Orlando. The 230-mile march is aimed at calling attention to workers' efforts to get higher wages and scheduled to end on March 4.



Florida Gulf Coast University professor Judith Lee, left, prays with supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at St. Francis Xavier Church in Fort Myers on Saturday. The group was preparing to begin a 230-mile walk from Fort Myers to Orlando to call attention to wage and other concerns. Dan Wagner/Staff

The statue, which workers say also represents liberty, was a bit different than the one of New York fame.

In the statue's left arm was a bucket of tomatoes; her right hand extended outward, offering up a single tomato.

On the pedestal, a simple message: "I, too, am America!"

The words echoed the concerns of about 200 people who gathered for a short rally in Fort Myers before the march began.

"We march for dignity and respect," said Samuel Mar, a member of the coalition. He was among workers who held a month-long hunger strike two years ago that was aimed at improving wages and working conditions.

Mar said he hopes that motorists and residents who learn about the farmworkers' plight will get involved, write letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and support the workers.

"The outside people might help out," Mar said.

Along the way, the marchers will spend evenings in churches, unions and other halls.

They spent Saturday night at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Punta Gorda.

They're hoping that also along the way, residents will join in the march, even if only for a few blocks, to show their support.



Lucas Benitez

Coalition spokesman Lucas Benitez said late Saturday that they would log about 16 miles in the first day, and probably as many miles on Sunday.

After that, they'd vary the miles.

Speaking through an interpretor, Benitez said during Saturday's trek that they had been greeted by supporters along the route. "Yes, lots of people, they have fed us and given us water," he said.

He said plans for the march today include linking with "a big group" of supporters, but it was not certain how many would be joining them.

The marchers will end the walk with a March 4 rally at the Orlando offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, which represents some growers across the state.

Benitez said while the marchers will arrive at the FFVA offices on a Saturday, when the offices are closed, they would wait if they have to to meet with FFVA officials there.

"We asked for a date, we told them we probably would be there on Saturday. We asked for an appointment, but it can be another day," Benitez said.

"We can wait there."



A bicyclist gives a thumbs up to the marchers as they pass over the Edison Bridge on U.S. 41 into North Fort Myers on Saturday. Dan Wagner/Staff

Though the workers have asked to talk to the FFVA about raising the per-bucket tomato wage from 45 to 75 cents, a spokesman for the group said Friday that the FFVA has no authority to discuss wages with the workers.

The association represents many growers in Southwest Florida, as well as elsewhere in the state, though it is not an official bargaining agent.

Saturday's pre-march rally drew more than just farmworkers and members of the coalition. There were students and professors from Florida Gulf Coast University, religious leaders, local firefighters and other people representing groups from St. Petersburg, LaBelle and as far away as Pennsylvania.

"We just feel it's a way of being in solidarity with these people," said Sister Muriel Cameron, of Religious of the Sacred Heart in LaBelle.

Sister Carol Bialock agreed.

"If they weren't doing the work, we wouldn't have the agriculture industry in Florida because no one else would do it," she said.



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