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In the Fields of America’s Green Prison

In Honduras there is almost no middle class. Either you are wealthy and politically connected, or you make ends meet with agricultural work, probably on a banana plantation or coffee finca. You work, your children work, and the lack of social mobility means you will probably do so the rest of your life.

It should be no surprise that Honduran farm workers have many times become dissatisfied and taken action. On April 17, 3,500 families began a squatting campaign to regain control of disputed farmland. While the workers argue that they have been waiting over a decade for land titles for the use of public lands, the landowners respond that the lands were legally purchased from the government. Almost 30,000 acres nationwide are in dispute.

But this is only the latest issue in a long lineage of struggle for land use and worker’s rights. One of the nation’s most famous literary works, Prision Verde (Green Prison), recalls Máximo Lujan, a banana plantation worker who instigates and leads a workers’ uprising against the oppressive American company that is consuming all of the arable land and mistreating the Honduran workers. While it is a work of fiction, Prision’s author, Ramón Amaya Amador, wrote the book to represent the all-too-real conditions of Honduran campesinos (poor workers).

Amador worked for a time on a banana plantation in northern Honduras before he was able to get an education and begin a long career in journalism. His writings and political activism focused on the large economic rift between rich and poor in Honduras. Eventually, however, because of his connections with the communist party, Amador faced political persecution and fled to Guatemala in 1944. Shortly thereafter, he published Prision Verde.

Due to the worldwide economic downturn of the Great Depression the 1930s were a tough time for Honduran agriculture. Banana exports shrank and many found themselves out of work. Then-president Tiburcio Carías Andino found himself needing to strengthen ties with U.S. corporate landowners to grow his domestic power. Courting Americans to run plantations in Honduras was one way to bring business to the country, but it necessitated economic incentives and strikebreaking. Andino kept himself in office for an unprecedented 16 years through this combination of economic and military control.

Eighty years later, many poor Hondurans still find themselves trapped in a Green Prison. Amador used to term to describe the banana plantations because even though the campesinos worked in terrible conditions for almost no pay, they felt trapped and, in a sense, compelled. The workers were either cognitively dissonant or simply ignorant of their own exploitation, and so continued to be attracted to available plantation work.

In Honduras, then as it is still today, it’s not so much an issue of trust, but rather an issue of inevitability. Many workers might feel as though there is nothing to be done about exploitation or harmful government policies. I teach at a bilingual school in the small town of Gracias, in the department of Lempira. When posed with the question of failed or harmful government policies, many of my high school students responded the same way:

“Sure, it’s bad, but we need the government.”

“Even if there’s corruption and poverty?”

“We don’t have another option.”

Regardless of the success of the government (success being economic or otherwise) there is a sense here that the government needs to be here. Without it, there would be no one around to make decisions. It seems for many that the need to be led has been ingrained into the national conscience. Even those who don’t live in the green prison still share some of the ideological weaknesses.

Many in the United States might look at the problems of plantation exploitation and see it as a foreign problem. In the banana republics of Latin America, this kind of system has grown to appear to be the norm. But surely, those same problems have not crept north into the United States.

Unfortunately, they have.

There are almost 1.4 million crop farmworkers in the United States today. 80% of them are Hispanic, and up to 90% could be illegal. It’s a vocation that many undocumented workers flock to: no special skills required and no questions asked, just a couple of dollars an hour.

People need to work to support their families, but depending on your immigration status, the options may be very limited. Very quickly, many become trapped in their job, stuck between the law and their own poverty. An article in the Economist from late 2010 told the not-uncommon story of the Vega family’s struggles to come to America and work. Felix Vega worked picking strawberries in California and described his situation like this: “The hardest part is not being free, not being able to go out…It’s like being in a jail.” What a telling remark.

Americans don’t think about farm workers in the States in terms of exploitation. Since the workers come voluntarily they accept the terms of the deal. They want to work, so why stop them?

Americans used to know what it was like to be migrant farmworkers. The plight of the tenant farmer of the Great Depression was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. There used to be a deep-rooted sympathy for the family pulling themselves up by their all-America bootstraps. But not anymore, at least not when the family illegally came from Mexico.

A March 2012 whitepaper from the United Farm Workers (UFW) set out to inventory the issues most affecting American farmworkers. Some of the headlining issues include the fact that most farmworkers are exempt from wage and hour guarantees in the Fair Labor Standards Act, or exclusion from collective bargaining protection under the National Labor Relations Act. Add to this the fact that deportation is a constant threat used as leverage over workers, and the picture starts to look eerily similar to what many would call exploitation in a Latin American or East Asian context.

Those who come over the border in droves and rush straight into the pitiful dregs of farm labor want two things: money and citizenship. The former being easier to get than the latter, it is the main concern. There are, however, great lengths that some will and years some will wait for a chance at a green card.

In the pursuit of becoming a real “American” millions set themselves up for cultural and economic humiliation. What are the alternatives? At the moment, there is no reprieve.

These immigrants find themselves trapped in a modern American trap: a new green prison.  Those picking strawberries might not be so different from those harvesting bunches of bananas. Both are in dire need. Both have no positive option to pursue. Both are stuck.

Yet they continue to come and settle for what they are given. This phenomenon can’t be surprising though, since undocumented workers live in a world constantly telling them that they do not belong, that they are doing something wrong. Under the thumb of the grandiose United States, there are no options but to settle. Modern farmworkers know they are sending themselves to prison, but that sentence is (hopefully) better than the national and domestic troubles at home.

Honduras has suffered a great deal in the last hundred years because of economic turmoil, especially for the poorest parts of the country. Workers here, however, have always held onto an internal drive that has kept the fight for awareness and rights alive. Banana workers were vital to the 1955 coup that led to provincial elections in 1957. This same demographic is striking en masse today, in some of the same places. What else can they achieve this time around?

We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, it would be wise for the United States to consider what might be boiling under the surface of the exploited class so close to home. Honduras and many other Latin American countries serve as examples of what can happen when exploitation persists to a fault, so to speak. To refer back again to Steinbeck:

 “[T]he great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

Dean Galaro lives in Honduras. He can be reached at: Dean Galaro dgalaro@gmail.com.

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