Mobile Exhibit on Cases of Modern Slavery Stops at Saint Leo

March 09, 2010

Mobile_ExhibitStudents, faculty, and staff at the main campus experienced for a short time on Monday what it would be like to be a migrant farm worker locked in the back of a truck at night by a boss who turned out to be a kidnapper.

The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum is a mobile exhibit that replicates the truck used in an actual criminal case. It is complemented by didactic panels and other exhibit items that introduce visitors to some of the real-life abuses endured by migrant workers who have come to Florida seeking work harvesting citrus fruits and tomatoes. Some, but not all of the workers, are from Mexico or other Central American countries. They are recruited by business people, or crew chiefs, who hire enough individual laborers to create a crew for harvesting jobs on big farms. The growers typically pay the person who assembles and oversees the crew, and that person, in turn, is supposed to pay the workers.

But sometimes crew operators have failed to pay the laborers at all, or enough, or manage to lure the workers into indebtedness to the crew operator for shelter, meals, and drugs or alcohol, so that the workers can’t earn enough to leave. In the worst cases, including one that went to federal court in 2008, workers have been beaten and locked up at night to keep them from escaping. Such abuses have been a recurring problem.

A laborers’ group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, created this exhibit to travel around the state and to bring awareness to the issue. (Immokalee is in South Florida and one of the state’s agricultural centers.) Randall Woodard, assistant professor of theology and religion, jumped at the chance to get the exhibit to visit Saint Leo, with underwriting from the Department of Academic Affairs. The exhibit’s visit fits with the university’s efforts to infuse teachings about social justice issues into a range of academic courses, he noted. The exhibit was displayed on the lakeside patio of the university’s dining hall, where the daytime population of the campus would see have the opportunity to see it, walk in, and speak with curators.

Woodard also brought a class studying introductory theology and Christianity to see the exhibit. A common reaction was surprise: students thought slavery and associated crimes had been eradicated in the United States. One student wrote: “No one deserves to live and feel like that.”

English Instructor Allyson Marino also visited with an upper-level class whose students are reading recent Latino literature. The mobile museum was good foundation for a book coming up in the course syllabus. In another week and a half, she wrote, “we will begin a novel by a Mexican-American author about a family of migrant farm workers in California––a contemporary answer to The Grapes of Wrath.”