Freedom Ride Journal: Day Three
September 29, 2003
It's a rally like past rallies, where riders shout slogans and tell stories, the press takes pictures, scribbles and nods. But this rally doesn't end with a march or a send-off prayer from a bishop. After this rally, we aren't the same people when we get back on the bus.
Just beyond the fringe of the crowd, another group gathers, standing silently. They know the cheers, but they don't clap. They don't dare to.
It's their fear that makes them stand out--the way a woman clutches her protest sign, not even noticing she's bending it; the way the men avert their eyes, hide behind their own shadows.
It's not long before riders from my bus drift over and start asking questions. Most won't talk, except the woman with the sign. She talks quickly, like she's afraid she'll be caught, like she has only a matter of minutes to tell her story. They're farm workers, she says, from a nearby field. And from the look of it, the way the dirt has woven itself into their clothing, created a new layer of skin, they came straight from the fields to the rally.
The woman tells us they had to sneak away from the farm, 20 people squeezing into a van. They've never even driven to town before today.
They plant and harvest onions, zucchini, pickles, cabbage, lettuce and apples, produce that gets shipped all over the country. They begin work in the dark and end work in the dark, six days a week. For their sweat, their crooked backs and bloody fingers, they are paid $80 a week. They are undocumented and live with fear like a ball-and-chain, dragging it wherever they go.
Most immigrants are brought to the farms by contractors, middlemen who do the talking for the farmers. The contractors and the farmers get rich, and pay low wages because they can.
Maybe it's that no family can survive on $80 a week that upsets people. Or maybe it's that they're so hungry. We can't tell how long it's been since they've eaten.
Whatever it is, all of the riders are deeply moved. As we get back on the buses, watching them standing there, someone yells that we just can't leave. I can't just leave these people here, he says, and go on to Washington to tell my story. He takes off his hat and passes it around the bus.
Riders who took off a week without pay, riders who earn $8.50 an hour cleaning bathrooms, give money. In less than 15 minutes, $440 is collected from the three buses, along with bottles of water and food we have on the bus.
They're scared even then. But a woman cries when she's handed a thick stack of bills, when people hug her and kiss her on the forehead.
We cry too. Some of us weep. We embrace each other for a long time.
It hits some riders close to home. The farm workers are from the same town in Mexico as Rafael. Mary remembers picking cotton, perhaps in another lifetime now. Isidro tells me about the way his brother's hands were sliced from picking grapes in California, little scars running up and down his fingers.
We know this exists in the United States, but we are shocked just the same. Paulette says she doesn't know how she can go back home and tell her husband what she just saw, that his 32 years in the military have inadvertently defended this system. She's ashamed of her country. We all are.
I wonder all evening about what they went back too, where they sleep, how they snuck the water bottles and the 24-pack of soda out of their van. I'm not hungry when we stop for dinner, but I can't turn the food away. I eat, and think about the onions that are in the macaroni salad.
I find out later, when I'm interviewing a farm workers' rights activist, that they went back to a room slightly bigger than a king-sized bed, of a mini-van. One square for every family. They have a burner for cooking and a toilet that doesn't flush. The farmers claim they don't charge rent, but the workers owe $15 for gas every week. I ask him what we can do, and he tells me we must unite.
Back on the bus, driving back to the hotel, there's a sense of renewal. The purpose of the Freedom Ride is clearer than ever. If anybody on the bus had misgivings about why they're here, they don't after today.
I think of the march we went on earlier today, they way the slogan, "The people, united, will never be defeated," has become the heartbeat of our bus. I think of Paulette when she says, "Mr. President, we're marching. We're coming to you. We're coming to Washington and we're going to see you there."
Read more journal entries and coverage of the Ride.
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.