Sunday, August 5, 2007

Toxic Tour

In addition to our interviews on Friday, Jeannie, Geraldean, Nolan, and I drove around in the Farmworkers' Association van with Nina and Michele from the Orange County Health Department, on what Jeannie was calling a "Toxic Tour of Apopka." Geraldean narrated the landscape through the pouring rain, pointing out houses of recently deceased farmworkers, or orange groves where young girls ran (and, some say, still run, for the Hispanic farmworker population) from cruel overseers to avoid sexual assault.

Apopka strikes visitors first and foremost with its rural character-- just twelve miles north of Orlando, patchy efforts at upscale development lie interspersed with old farmland and weed-choked wilderness that reminds me much more of the South Carolina I grew up in than Florida. The farms, abandoned in 1998, still offer evidence of their existence-- the illegally buried pesticide containers that rise to the surface during periods of intense rainfall, or roads set back from Highway 441 that lead through orange groves and sod farms to land that is being "reclaimed" for wetlands. Like buried landmines, everywhere there are signs reminding people that pesticides are still in the soil, and that hunting or fishing are activities not to be undertaken, yet this is too little, too late for the people who worked the land for so long, toiling in the fields as the fine mist of organo-chlorines wafted over their faces from planes high above.

On Sunday we interviewed a woman who worked the farms back in the 1950s and 1960s, always wearing a hat to protect her face, even though supposedly nobody knew back then, no employer or crew supervisor informed them that they should leave the fields. Her face was smooth, nut-brown, almost unlined for a 77 year-old woman, but her arms and legs bore the strange, patchy discoloration symptomatic of pesticide-related skin disorders. "I was always vain about my face," she told us. And in many ways, her story was all too familiar: diabetes, inexplicable and painful skin conditions, arthritis, children and grandchildren with excessive numbers of allergies, learning disabilities, lupus. Slightly less than half of her children she buried before her. She didn't go into the reasons why.

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