Lucas Benitez: Dignity in the Fields

The YES! Breakthrough 15: In the tomato fields of Florida, fighting for our most exploited farm workers.
Lucas Benitez by Jeffery Salter

“Never think that you can’t do something without even trying first.”
Lucas Benitez

Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Photo by Jeffery Salter

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Lucas Benitez, 35, doesn’t call himself an organizer but an “animator.” This distinction says it all to me: My greatest heroes aren’t those who perform acts of bravery that most of us would run from. They’re those whose genius is enabling others to find courage within themselves—to act, not as lone heroes, but in common cause with others. Animators, says Lucas, are “people who animate the community to join and struggle together.”

In this world, it’s the courage of the animator we so desperately need.

Lucas, who arrived here at age 16 from Guerrero, Mexico, and helped found the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), is the first kind of hero, too. At great personal risk—sweating, he says, through his fear—Lucas was the driver for a daring 2001 rescue of four Florida farmworkers who were brutalized and effectively enslaved by growers. He played an important role in convicting those responsible: brothers Juan and Ramiro Ramos, who’d made millions holding workers against their will by, according to the FBI, “threaten[ing] them at gunpoint, promising torture and death if they tried to escape.”

Lappe-Mug.jpgSelected by author Frances Moore Lappé: “Lucas shows us that no matter the odds, we have a choice. He chose courage, now thousands of others have discovered theirs.”

CIW started in 1993 when Lucas and other workers got together to discuss working conditions. In 1995, they staged a weeklong protest that forced a grower to change his decision to lower pay. But an incident in 1996 galvanized Lucas and CIW. A teenage field worker had asked his foreman for a water break. The foreman refused; the worker stopped for a drink anyway. The foreman beat the worker brutally. Lucas helped spread news of the attack and more than 500 workers gathered in protest, waving the victim’s bloody shirt. The action grew to a boycott of the foreman lasting several weeks. In keeping with his belief in acting as an animator, Lucas was not the leader of this action. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to build confidence among the farmworkers in their own power and the power of collective action. Lucas keeps the teenager’s blood-stained shirt with him to this day.

Since then, CIW has grown to 4,000 members. Its work encompasses advocating for better working conditions and wages for the fieldworkers of Immokalee, Fla., and elsewhere, fighting against modern-day slavery, and working to bring justice to the American food system.

Lucas and his colleagues are strategic, systemic thinkers, both in how to build CIW’s strength in the farmworker community and how to leverage its power within a corporate food system.

To build solidarity and shared knowledge, they created their CIW low-power radio station, “Radio Conciencia,” as well as a co-op to help workers buy food and other necessities at fairer prices than the local stores charged. Their tactics have included a 30-day hunger strike by six members in 1998 and a 230-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000. 

tomato justice by national farm worker ministry
Slavery and Freedom
in Florida's Tomato Fields

See the side of tomatoes few
people ever think about.

Early on, CIW decided to focus demands for change beyond the growers themselves, targeting instead the centers of corporate power on which the growers depend. Yielding to a four-year, CIW-organized boycott, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell) agreed in 2005 to meet all the workers’ demands. For the first time in history, a corporation paid money down the supply chain, directly to farmworkers. The corporation also used its leverage to force growers to provide better working conditions. Two years later McDonald’s followed suit; Burger King and Subway have also signed “Fair Food” agreements guaranteeing better working conditions, a complaint-resolution procedure, health and safety programs, and worker-to-worker education.

Today CIW and Lucas are focusing their energies onthe supermarket industry. Only Whole Foods Market has stepped up to sign the Fair Food agreement, so they’re ramping up the pressure on Trader Joe’s and Publix.

Lucas says his goal is making “the Florida tomato industry a model of social accountability.” His effectiveness, I believe—showing up in a string of critical alliances with

church and student organizations as well as remarkable victories by the CIW over two decades—lies in a steady, understated leadership style that exudes moral conviction. He embodies the dignity, grounded in clear purpose, that he seeks to enable all farm workers to experience. Lucas’ life proves that courage is contagious.

Jennifer Kaye contributed reporting to this article.


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