Miguel’s narrative marks a clear turning-point when he knew he could remain in bondage no longer: “A week before Easter it happened.” He told other workers: “Now is our time to leave.” Miguel had arrived in the US from Mexico in 2001, and ended up as a slave in a labor camp run by the Ramos family in Lake Placid, Florida, after being recruited in Arizona. He and several others were transported to Florida and then told they owed $1000 each for transportation. The Ramoses also deducted from their weekly pay for food, rent for substandard camp housing, and work equipment. Miguel sometimes ended up with only $20 a day, and had no control over records of payment and credit. His employers were armed with guns, watched for workers trying to escape, and cut off access to the outside world. Relatives of the Ramoses owned the stores where workers were taken to shop.
Miguel reached the turning-point from slavery to freedom in 2001 with the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based worker organization of over 2000 members in Immokalee, Florida’s largest farmworker community. Between 1997 and 2000, CIW helped end three modern-day slavery operations, resulting in freedom for over 500 workers, and in 2001 it began investigating the Ramoses. In November 2002, three members of the Ramos family were convicted of conspiracy to hold 700 workers in involuntary servitude. In May 2004 they were sentenced to a total of 31 years and nine months in federal prison.
I come from Mexico. I have one son and he has cancer. It costs a lot for the medicine and treatment, and the government helps out but they can only give so much treatment and it still costs a lot. The wages in Mexico are so low and I wasn’t earning enough there. It’s maybe $40-60 for a whole week of work. I thought if I could go to the United States and earn $6-7 an hour, maybe in a whole day I can earn $48-50. And with that, I could be earning in three or four days more than I can earn in a whole week in Mexico. I could be sending that home. It would help sustain the family and help pay for my son’s sickness. My dream was to work like in Mexico but not with the same wage that I get there. In Mexico if you don’t like working with one guy you can change. When I came to the United States, I thought I could change jobs if I didn’t like one.
But it was a really tough decision to come to the United States, because you have to cross the desert and I heard that they kill people there. I gathered together some money, and borrowed maybe 3000 pesetos. Here that is not much money—$300. We decided together that we’d go, five or six of us. We had more courage to go as five or six together. In a larger group we had the strength to say: “Yeah, we’re going to do this.”
I went to the border of Mexico and the United States and into Arizona, walking. We really had no idea where we were going or how to get there, we were just kind of walking in the direction of the house of the guy who gives rides to Florida. In the desert we spent about eight days looking for the house, and we looked for a boss who could send money to the guy who would drive us. Then we could pay him back by working. From the 21st of February to the 14th of March was the time that it took to get from Mexico to the border, to cross the border, to wait around in Arizona, to get a ride and then to come here. Ramiro Ramos is the one who sent the money and arranged for us to come here. We didn’t know of him, but we just asked around for somebody who would give us a ride across and who we could work for; someone who could pay for our ride and then we could pay them back. Supposedly you can find these people. If you just ask around people will know them, and so that’s what we did. It wasn’t a direct way to get to Florida. We had to stop and wait and change.
When we arrived, we hadn’t eaten for three days. We arrived in front of a shop, 14 of us. The driver said: “You wait here, I’m going to look for the boss.” He went off, but he didn’t find him. He came back and said: “Uh, don’t move, you just stay here. There’s no problem with Immigration or Border Patrol. You just wait here.” This was my first time in the United States and I was afraid of Immigration. Then the guy spoke on the phone—it was hard to talk to this guy cause he was always on the phone.
Another guy came up to us and said: “OK, OK, so we’re all here to work, right? You’re all here to work.” He told us about the jobs. He was one of the Ramos family. He said: “Do you have any money to pay me for the ride? Here’s the telephone, call your family members in the United States and tell them to pay me for the ride.” I knew I didn’t have any family here. “If I had family here,” I said, “I would have come with them. I wouldn’t have taken your ride, and I wouldn’t have to owe any money.” That when he first threatened us. He said: “Look, you’re going to work here, and it’s hard work. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to be motivated. You’ve got to cut oranges and you’ve got to harvest those oranges, you’ve got to use a big, heavy knife. If any of you assholes try to leave without paying back your ride, that’s when I’m going to really fuck you up.” He said that we can take something to eat but whatever we took we would have to pay for. Then Ramiro Ramos came and said: “Don’t take much food, and hurry up because we’ve got to get to work tomorrow.” He took us to a little ranch and we started to get more threats. I was with a friend and he asked about a television. Ramos said: “Shut up and don’t talk about TV. This isn’t a place to watch TV. This is a place to work and if you’re going to complain about it we’re going to kill you and throw your ass into the pond.” We had to work but we didn’t have any social security cards or insurance, so we weren’t really sure what this work was going to be like.
We didn’t work for money by the hour, but by the bucket. It wasn’t really a bucket, it was a really large container that we had to fill with oranges and carry over to a large bin. We had to fill one of those bathtub-size things at least ten times and this took at least an hour. There were so many oranges and we had to pick up only the really nice ones. I was working from really early in the morning to really late at night. We could only fill maybe three or four tubs and that that would get us maybe $28. We had to pay not just the ride money but rent and some taxes. They took it from our check, and charged us money at the shop for cashing the check. He would never take us to another bank. There was almost nothing left after they took out everything. One day it was only $20 and what am I supposed to do with $20? How can I send that when they charge money to send it? We started talking to each other about what to do and decided we were not earning anything. It was a misery wage—the same as it would be in Mexico.
There was this time when a guy was talking about going. We saw him go toward the Cash and Carry supermarket and they saw him too. We heard one of them outside of our apartment talking on the telephone, saying: “We’re going to get that motherfucker. We’re going to get him and we’re going to throw him into the pond with the alligators and kill him.” There were about eight of us in the house and we knew he meant what he said. Those words are serious because that’s how they work. The words have meaning. We knew that they can hit us hard or shoot us with a gun. Around 40 guys who were working for Ramos were there watching us. They were everywhere.
Four of us tended work in the same place in the fields and we started noticing this new guy. He came in 15 days after we arrived. He was an older guy, maybe 47 years old. He was always tired and always threatened by them. He said he wanted to sit down and take a rest, and asked one of the guys watching if he could just take one day off. The guy said: “We don’t want any fucking assholes to be resting here. This is a place of work and if you want to go rest you can get the hell out of here.” It made me feel so sad to see this old man so tired. He wanted to rest and he was being forced to work. We had to take all these threats and we couldn’t say anything against them.
I felt like a slave from the moment I arrived. We couldn’t pay for the ride and they started to threaten us. It was horrible. We were piled in a dorm, three beds on top of each other, six in a room. The person on top had to jump over all of us just to get to the floor. From the 14th of March to the 14th of April we hadn’t had a single day of rest. Even when it was raining we had to work. We had to work every Saturday and Sunday. We were afraid because the bosses kept threatening us but we still had to endure all this stuff. We were talking about getting out somehow but we couldn’t do it in the middle of the night or even in the morning because they get up really early to start working and could easily find us down the road in the car. When they found us they were sure to kill us. I was thinking about my family—that’s why I came here, to send them money. So I said: “One day we’re going to have the opportunity.”
Around that time a couple of people arrived. One was a Mexican, his name was Lucas Benitez, and the other was the other was an American. Her name was Laura Jamino. They asked us: “how are y’all doing here? What’s the situation like here?” And none of us wanted to say because we thought maybe they’re spies of the boss. In Mexico you learn from your parents to kind of lay low and assess the situation because otherwise you end up dead. But there was another group who were there before we arrived, and they called out to them that we were getting threats, they’re not paying us wages, we don’t have papers. They started to open up, saying things like: “I’ve been here for six months but they’re not even paying me enough for the ride that I have to repay.” I didn’t say anything to Lucas and Laura because I didn’t really trust them but I did say: “Give me your card.” I was the only one who took a card.
A week before Easter it happened. I said: “This is the day we’ve got to leave. We’re working here and we’re not earning anything and they keep threatening us.” I was really scared because that same day two people had disappeared. I said: “Why don’t two of us try to go and two stay behind? Then two can give a shout out to the others if something happens, like Ramos comes.” Two of the other guys went to make a phone call to Laura who decided to try to meet us at a hotel across the street. But the brother of Ramos came in and said: “I don’t want any of this shit going on. If I catch any of you motherfuckers messing around I’m going to kick all your asses.” We were all scared and thinking about what to do. I said: “I can’t take it this. I’ve got to go. Now is our time to leave. I can’t take this slavery anymore.” I was scared and surprised at the same time.
I grabbed some scissors and stuck them in my boot. I thought, if any of them come I’m going to stick those scissors right in his neck and they’re going to have to call the police. And that’s it. We were all really scared and then a car pulled up and I saw Lucas in there. I said: “I’m going to get in that car. I’m going to get the hell out of here.” I knew I had to jump in that car. I knew that this was my chance to leave. As soon as I jumped in he drove off in a big circle really fast.
I was afraid but I knew that in Mexico there’s a lot of violence but we still live in a free society there. So if there are rights that we have there then we must have those rights here too. He brought us all the way here to Immokalee. The coalition was the one that freed us. If it wasn’t for that, who knows what would’ve happened? Maybe we would’ve been killed or left there stranded, away from our families.
Now things are different. I have permission to work, and I’m working eight hours a day but for a boss who pays me. I work eight hours, no more, no less, and it’s my own will. I know if I want a day off he’s going to give it to me. And I know if I want to work ten hours I can work ten hours, but not because I’m being forced to. My wage is really satisfying and my son is doing really well. He’s getting his medicine and I send what I can. It’s still not a lot but I send what I can. I’m still afraid for my family. It’s been four years since I saw them. America is beautiful but it’s not with my family. It’s a scary thing if you come here illegally. If you try to work you could end up in the same situation as a slave. I think the world should know that these things happen.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, February 13, 2005, at the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in Immokalee, Florida, USA.