Monday, February 10, 2020

Attending Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston Festival

On Saturday, February 1st, Lake Apopka Farmworker Mural artists Linda Lee and Sarah Downs traveled to Eatonville, FL for the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival and mural unveilings. The festival was located beside a wall in which several murals displaying African-American figures and aspirations were placed, allowing Linda and Sarah to gather inspiration for the Lake Apopka farmworker mural project. Additionally, Linda Lee was able to bring her great-grandsons and granddaughter to the event to participate in various activities and learn about black history.

The festival is in celebration of Zora Neale Hurston, a renown African-American author famous for her work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which took place in various cities throughout Florida, including Eatonville. The festival was in celebration of black and African pride and influence throughout the world.

The festival and mural reveal provided excellent opportunities for Sarah and Linda to speak with other muralists and learn about different resources. There was also plenty of face-painting and mask-making for Linda's great-grandsons to enjoy!

Friday, January 24, 2020

Artists Interview Locals for Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Mural

Last week, mural artists Linda Lee and Sarah Downs were able to meet with Apopka, FL native Leroy Bell to discuss the history of Apopka, and the changes that the community has faced over the decades. This interview was conducted as part of the oral histories the Farmworker Association is collecting for our Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Mural project.

Leroy has lived in Apopka his whole life, and together, he and Linda were able to reminisce about the community throughout the later half of the 20th century. Linda and Leroy discussed all the local, black-owned businesses that used to exist throughout Apopka, and all the personality and liveliness that was brought into the community through their presence. The pool houses, candy shops, theaters, furniture stores, and neighborhoods that existed made Apopka a close-knit community where you knew your neighbor, and they knew you too.

Leroy provided great stories, memories, and locations throughout Apopka to help inspire the art for the Farmworker Association's ongoing mural project. In addition to Leroy's history, we also had the opportunity to interview Mary Beckett, a former Lake Apopka farmworker who still lives in Apopka.

Mary told us about her life in Apopka and before she moved here. Born to a sharecropping family in Alabama, Mary moved to Apopka as a child and spent her entire life as a farmworker for different farms and nurseries. The interview revolved around her every day life growing up, and the hardships that her family faced. She was able to reminisce about the old Apopka community, mentioning that every time they got paid she would make a stop to the 10 cent store to buy nail polish and candy.

We are continuing to plan interviews with former Lake Apopka farmworkers, as well as their families so we can include the perspective of multiple generations on the community mural. If you know of anyone who is interested in participating in the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Mural, please call our office at 407-886-5151! To learn more about our mural project, click here visit the donation page.

Additionally, the Farmworker Association was happy to host a toxic tour on January 23rd with members from St. Luke's United Methodist Church. The tour was eye-opening for those in the group; many had spent their entire lives in Apopka but they did not know the extent of the pollution in Lake Apopka. Visitors were able to reminisce about how clear and popular the lake was when they were growing up, but now it is impossible to see through and not a single person can be seen boating. Toxic tours provide important information to the community, keeping alive the real history of Lake Apopka by remembering the strength and resilience of the farmworkers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Gathering Inspiration for the Lake Apopka Farmworker Historical Mural

As the logistics for our Lake Apopka Farmworker Historical Mural are underway, the main artists for this project, Linda Lee and Sarah Downs, wanted a chance to get inspired by several art exhibits located in the Winter Park, Florida area.

While the mural is still in its formative stages, one of the focuses of the mural is going to be the history of the black communities in the Apopka area in central Florida; therefore, we wanted an opportunity to experience African-American art to inspire Linda and Sarah. Luckily, two art exhibits are currently displayed at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park.

At the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, the current exhibit is, "Soul Utterings: Creative Works by Kianga Jinaki and John Mascoll". Jinaki just so happens to be an African-American quilter whose displayed pieces reflect the history and culture of black people in both African countries and the United States.

Coincidentally, the Hannibal Square Heritage Center was also hosting one of its quilt-making gatherings, which happen two Saturdays every month. While visiting, Linda was able to talk to other local quilters and observe some of their works, including quilter Lauren Austin, who is the artist that inspired Linda to make the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts nearly a decade ago! This was a great chance for FWAF to observe inspirational art and interact with other local quilters.

After the Heritage Center, we ventured to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, where the current exhibit is, "African American Art in the 20th Century", which is visiting from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There we were able to observe the different voices and expressions of African American art over time and from different areas of the world, giving us a lot of insight into different artistic visions.

Both exhibits at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum featured artists and pieces that we will further discuss in our community meetings for the mural project. Having the opportunity to interact with such fantastic pieces of art was truly a privilege we will not forget! Additionally, the children's section at the Cornell Museum gave Linda's great-grandsons a well-deserved break from all the museum discussions!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Community Engagement at Innovation Montessori Ocoee

For the past few weeks, the Farmworker Associaton of Florida has had the pleasure of participating in a community engagement course at Innovation Montessori Ocoee. Former AmeriCorps member and now-teacher Lashae Copeland invited FWAF to participate in several courses to help teach a group of seventh graders about farmworkers in the community.

The first class was led by Dale Slongwhite, author of Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food. She began the class by asking the group of 12 and 13 year-olds a simple question, "Who here eats?" The simplicity of the question seemed to throw off the students, a few of which needed reminding to raise their hands. From that question came deeper ones. As Dale pulled avocados, tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, spinach, and a carrot out of a bag, she asked the students, "do you know where these fruits and vegetables come from?" Once again, the students seemed stumped.

The students already understood that grocery stores are a location where community members can purchase produce, but when we asked how the grocery stores got their food, there was silence. From there, Dale was able to guide the students through the process of how food gets to their dinner table. When discussing farms, Dale introduced them to the definitions of "farmers", "crew leaders", and "farmworkers".

As students became familiarized with the difference between a farmer and a farmworker, they quickly realized that a farmworker would have to work in dangerous, exhausting conditions considering the physical labor and harsh heat that the job would bring. We then showed them a timeline presentation of the Lake Apopka farms. Even though many of the students knew Lake Apopka was nearby, none of them knew about the sordid treatment of the farmworkers and environment of Lake Apopka.

After learning about the history of the Lake Apopka farms, the students separated into breakout groups to discuss different scenarios that would highlight the struggles of farm work. From the exercise, the students reflected on every day situations that are impacted by farmworkers. For example, one group discussed how every single item on a fast-food hamburger would get to their hands. They realized that everything, from the bread to the lettuce and the burger, would need to pass by human hands in order to make it to themselves.

As the students learned more and more about the process of obtaining food and the jobs of farmworkers, the question came up as to how they were treated for their efforts. When we told them that farmworkers are often the victims of harsh treatment, unsafe conditions, and wage theft, there was an air of confusion in the room. One student stressed that what we were describing was illegal, and should not be allowed to happen. While we agreed, of course, we stressed that this happens far too often, and it is still something that farmworkers struggle with in the current day.

The next week's class was led by both Dale and Linda Lee, a former Lake Apopka farmworker who spends her time spreading awareness of the Lake Apopka farmworkers and the injustices farmworkers face. This class time was spent focusing on the hardships that Lake Apopka farmworkers faced after the farms were shut down due to environmental concerns. The class watched the short film, "Out of the Muck", which introduced the students to several Lake Apopka farmworkers.

After the video, Linda spoke with the students about her life in the muck and as a Lake Apopka farmworker. She told them about the harsh weather conditions that she faced, as well as the wage theft that happened often to her and other farmworkers. Linda also discussed the presence of environmental racism in her neighborhood, seen through the presence of toxic sites such as medical waste incinerators and landfills, all of which are located in areas that have homes, schools, and other public services.

Linda then displayed her blue quilt from the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project. The students listened as she explained different people and memories that are portrayed within the quilt squares to commemorate those who worked on Lake Apopka farms.

After listening to Linda and learning about the Lake Apopka farmworkers, the students will make their own quilt squares in the next class. This will allow the students to reflect on everything they have learned about farming, environmental justice, and the Lake Apopka farmworkers. Hopefully, by spreading awareness of the Lake Apopka farmworkers and their history, these students can promote change and equal rights in the future!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Spreading Awareness of the Lake Apopka Farmworkers

On September 25th and 26th, the Farmworker Association of Florida was given an opportunity to spread the stories of the Lake Apopka Farmworkers to several classes of college students.

For several years now, Dale Slongwhite, the author of Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, and Linda Lee, the lead artist behind the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial quilts, have gone to Seminole State College to teach students about the history of the Lake Apopka farmworkers. This is done through the courses of professor Anne Riecken, who invites Dale and Linda to speak so that her students can gain insight into this example of environmental injustice.

Dale began the class by introducing herself and how she was inspired to write her book, which features interviews with multiple Lake Apopka farmworkers. She said that while attending a conference on environmental justice, she heard Linda speak about her past as a farmworker. Linda's story was so unique and shocking that Dale wanted to do more to investigate and spread the story of those who worked on the Lake Apopka farms. After nearly five years of work, Dale published her book in 2014.

After Dale's introduction, a short film was shown to the students. The film, Pesticide Lake, explores the long term effects of pesticides on the Lake Apopka ecosystem and the former farmworkers. Linda reflected sadly afterwards, stating that all the other Lake Apopka farmworkers featured in the video have passed away. The video is only four years-old.

Linda's time to speak came after the film, and she stated, "Muck life is a hard life."

Over the course of three different classes, she covered a variety of topics that explored her and her family's lives as farmworkers. The common themes of Linda's discussions were the unfair treatment of farmworkers and the health issues that arose from working with constant pesticide exposure.

Constantly, the farmworkers on Lake Apopka had their wages stolen by crew leaders and growers who exploited their work. Linda recalled a time when she and several other farmworkers stayed after work until 11 o'clock at night to move cabbages because they were promised compensation for their work. She said they never saw a dime from that evening. If a farmworker complained to a crew leader about their stolen wages then they were fired, or even run out of town by the farms that employed them. The options were either allow your wages to be stolen, or face unemployment and homelessness.

Additionally, farmworkers were at a constant threat of being sent to labor camps. Often when farmworkers were walking somewhere there would be cars that came along and offered them a free ride to their destination. Once they got in, they were taken to camps where they were given food, alcohol, cigarettes, and other items. When they would try to leave, the camps told the farmworkers that they owed them money for the food and alcohol that was given to them, and they would have to work it off if they wanted to leave. However, it was nearly impossible to work off their debts to the camps, since the camps would charge the farmworkers to eat and live on their property. Escape was usually the only option out.

While the treatment of farmworkers by the farms they worked on was difficult enough, Linda said the health consequences have been seen at a massive level. Former farmworkers went on to develop different diseases caused by the constant pesticide exposure. Lupus, kidney failure, black lung disease, and different forms of cancer were just a few of the causes of death that Linda named for those facing pesticide exposure over the years. Additionally, many of the diseases caused by pesticide exposure were passed on to following generations, meaning that the farmworkers' children and grandchildren still face problems caused by the pesticide exposure from decades ago. However, because the government refused to spend any money researching the long term effects of the pesticides on farmworkers, the farmworkers have not received any help in paying for or receiving medical treatment. At one point, Linda says she would attend 10-14 funerals a week. "They were human beings," she said, speaking about the farmworkers, "and they were good human beings, too."

Dale and Linda always take the time to hold up one of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial quilts for the class, so that the students can see how the lives of the Lake Apopka farmworkers are memorialized.

The environmental injustice that farmworkers still face is seen in the placement of toxic facilities right beside the homes. The health effects of living by such toxic locations is still having an impact on families. Linda ends her discussion by encouraging the students to stand up to politicians and advocate for what you believe in.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Visiting the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts

Yesterday, I began my 11-month service term with the Farmworker Association of Florida as a Notre Dame AmeriCorps member.

Despite growing up a mere 20 minutes away in Orlando, I was unfamiliar with the organization, and I still have a lot to learn about the Apopka community and history. However, my first day presented the perfect opportunity to learn about the stories behind the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project, giving insight into the culture and history of Lake Apopka farmworkers.

Linda Lee, one of the main artists for the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts, was at the Farmworker Association to display her work from nearly ten years ago. Linda's reason for placing her quilts on display was for visiting author Nano Riley. Nearly 20 years ago, Nano wrote her book, Florida's Farmworkers in the Twenty-first Century, and in the process she interviewed several people from the Apopka community.

Linda knew multiple community members presented throughout Nano's book, and even had family members featured as well. Nano is now back to write an article about the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts, and Linda was happy to display the quilts as well as her other projects.

I was able to ask Linda about specific patterns and the stories and inspiration behind them. The pattern below is referred to by Linda as, "The Forgotten Women". She said she made this quilt to commemorate the women who worked in the muck for years, but were never remembered or thanked.

The pattern below was inspired by her memories of her father, who was a farmworker in the orange groves that employ so many Florida farmworkers. Linda said this is an image of her father climbing up a ladder to harvest oranges from the trees, with the truck that was always taken out into the groves with him.

The image below shows two patterns, one featuring a boy holding a basketball, and the other shows a woman with her purse. Linda often uses human hair in her creations, saying she was inspired by her granddaughter, who was a hairstylist, and occasionally sewed hair for her clients. She brushes and rolls the hair on the quilts to keep it looking nice. When referring to the quilt of the woman below, Linda said she calls her the, "Sassy Lady", claiming, "she's just what they call a baller."

While Linda was given the opportunity to display her quilts for Nano, we also made a visit to the home of Mary Ann Robinson, another quilt maker and former farmworker from Apopka.

Nano interviewed Mary Ann for her article, asking about the life of both her and her mother as farmworkers in the muck. Mary Ann's description of the muck work was eye-opening. She described how the crop dusters would make daily pesticide drops over the farmworkers, and how the grueling work was something she stopped as soon as she could. While Mary Ann spent about six of her teenage years working in the muck, her mother was there for almost 20 years. The lack of research behind the Lake Apopka farmworkers' health conditions means it could never be proven, but Mary Ann believes that her mother's early-onset Alzheimer's was caused by the repeated exposure to pesticides.

Mary Ann has a quilt displayed in her home as well, specifically dedicated to the memory of her family, the majority of whom were farmworkers as well. Several of the squares feature pictures of her different family members.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Linda and Mary Ann yesterday. Their involvement with the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project and their first-hand experience as farmworkers allowed me to gain so much insight into the history of Apopka and the Farmworker Association. Although I still have 11-months left in my term, so I'm sure I will have the opportunity to learn even more.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum: from slavery to mass incarceration

"Education about the legacy of racial inequality, truth and reconciliation, is what leads to real solutions to contemporary problems." EJI.


Last Friday July 26, in Apopka, Linda Lee, Mary Ann Robinson (organizers of Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt), Linda Lee’s grand-daughters and great-grandchildren: Cinnamon and Cheyanne, Pootie, Duke and Squirt, Luckner, (organizer of the Haitian community at FWAF) Leonor and Maria, (FWAF leadership group), Ana ( FWAF youth group), boarded a bus that came from Miami and went to Alabama, picking up almost 50 people working in grassroots organizations with FLIC.

Together we were going to visit two physical spaces made by Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to publicly confront the truth about our history, as a first step towards the recovery and reconciliation of our communities.

On Saturday July 27th, we all entered the first national memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, black people terrified of lynching, black people humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, black people oppressed by contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculptures gave us a first image of slavery. Observing those faces and bodies, we began a tour of lynching and contextualized racial terror through texts, narrations, monuments, sculptures, art and design.

It was really really hot. From afar we observed 800 monuments that were shining with sunlight in a memorial square. These monuments symbolize thousands of victims of lynching, of racial terror; the names of lynching victims are engraved in the columns, as well as the counties and states where this terrorism took place.

"The monument is more than a static monument", there is a space of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national monument will serve as a report on which parts of the country have faced the truth of this terror and which have not.

Lynchings of racial terror were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people across the country and were widely tolerated by state and federal officials. Lynchings were the center of a systematic campaign of perpetual terror to promote an unjust social order. They were not isolated hate crimes; lynchings were terrorism. 

EJI documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

A sculpture by Dana King dedicated to all women who sustained the boycott of Montgomery buses, took us to the era of civil rights. And writings by Toni Morrison, Ida B. Wells and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took us deep into a history of racial injustice, resistance and resilience.

EJI, through the Community Remembrance Project, is inviting counties across the country to reclaim their monuments and recognize lynching victims, collecting land from sites where they occurred. Eventually, this process will change the built environment of the Deep South and beyond to more honestly reflect our history.

In 1860, Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama, one of the two largest slave states in America.

The Legacy Museum is located where once enslaved people were imprisoned, close to the Alabama dock and train station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century.

We couldn't take pictures inside the museum, and as Luckner said,”you need to come and see the museum to understand the experience”. But we were there and it was very real. The space used technology to dramatize slavery, the evolution of lynching of racial terror, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in the United States. The materials explore the history of racial inequality, but also its relationship with contemporary issues, such as mass incarceration and police violence.

Back again with mixed feelings, Cheyenne reflected the importance of processing this information that seems hidden; information that is not told to us in the schools or in the media. It is clear that very little has been done to recognize the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation, and that’s why people of color are disproportionately marginalized and disadvantaged in the present.

Ana, mentioned how in the same way, the true story of the genocide that was committed on native communities since the colonization and the oppressions in which these communities live to this day, is never told.

In a system dominated by white supremacy and its capitalist models of extraction and gentrification, it was very powerful to see Linda Lee, Mary Ann, Luckner, Leonor and Maria, organizers of the black and brown Apopka community, walking on a memorial that claims the voices of victims of a war of racial terror that has not ended yet.

In the midst of the structural racism that is impregnated as a virus in our communities, it was very powerful to listen and exalt the fighting voices of black communities, who through our new generations such as Cheyanne, Cinnamon, Ana, Pootie, Duke and Squirt, keep demanding justice and reparation today.

It is our duty to understand the history of racial injustice in America so we don’t perpetuate racism in our communities and in our social work.