Independence days, labor rights celebration mix in Immokalee

Ruben Aquino, left, Pedro Ramon, and Hector Chavez, right, tune their instruments before taking the stage during a Mexico Independence Day block party behind the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on Sept. 18, 2011. The festival featured live music and updates from CIW for migrant workers on new workers rights. Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo

Ruben Aquino, left, Pedro Ramon, and Hector Chavez, right, tune their instruments before taking the stage during a Mexico Independence Day block party behind the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on Sept. 18, 2011. The festival featured live music and updates from CIW for migrant workers on new workers rights. Greg Kahn/Staff

For Immokalee’s Central and Latin American farm workers, there was an added air of excitement about Sunday’s annual mid-September celebration.

Not only did the city’s residents come out Sunday to mark the independence days of several countries, but workers hailed the start of a new tomato-picking season with a landmark labor rights agreement.

"Compared to last year, many people will have more money in their paychecks starting this season," said Lucas Benitez, 36, a farm worker and representative for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

As they have for about a decade, residents ate, danced and relaxed into the evening at the CIW Community Center, celebrating independence days across Latin and Central America. Sept. 15 marks the independence days for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, with Mexico marking the occasion one day later.

This year, CIW members also handed out fliers and made announcements about the new labor standards, which take effect this year at 90 percent of Florida tomato fields. The landmark negotiations resulted in a penny-per-pound wage increase agreement with most major tomato buyers, an abuse reporting system and regulations that farm workers only need to fill to the top of buckets, among other benefits.

Carmen Esquivel, who has worked with CIW since she discovered her brother was making $35 picking tomatoes, said most Immokalee workers know of the regulations, though some remain in the dark.

"We’re not just celebrating independence day, but the triumph of labor rights here," Esquivel said. "I think probably 80 percent of people here know the agreement. Those of us who know about the code have a responsibility to tell people who may not have heard and are coming down from the northern harvest."

At their heart, Sunday’s festivities still were rooted in the independence days that bear resemblance to the July Fourth parties held in the U.S., tomato farmworker Wilson Perez said.

The difference for Perez: In Guatemala, his family would travel to spots outside his village and set up camp for a few days, making torches and lighting off fireworks.

"It’s certainly fun here," said Perez, 21. "But I miss the celebrations and food and family there."

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