Martín Espada, “The Florida Citrus Growers Association Responds to a Proposed Law Requiring Handwashing Facilities in the Fields”

What kind of people want to deny those spending hours in the fields, aching and sweating while picking as fast as possible, soap and water?

No. That’s the wrong question. “What kind of people” absolves me, but I recognize the rhetoric. “An orange, / squeezed on the hands, / is an adequate substitute / for soap and water.” I know the shamelessness. How people can be so blatantly cruel, how “pride” and “power” are poor terms for discussing motivation. This is entitlement, replete with an ugliness impossible to understand through a book.

Trump is not only a symptom of reactionary rage. He’s also a product of the low, broken standards we have for the truth, the treatment of others, and our institutions. We’re much more comfortable with a company or trade association lying to our faces than with admitting we take full advantage of poor workers. We’re much more comfortable with abuse and dismissal of those pushing us toward betterment than building the best we can.

The Florida Citrus Growers Association Responds 
to a Proposed Law Requiring Handwashing Facilities
in the Fields
Martín Espada

An orange,
squeezed on the hands,
is an adequate substitute
for soap and water

Low, broken standards do not immediately present themselves as irrational or cruel. Watch enough commercials, attend enough school. You will begin to believe ExxonMobil has truly committed to fighting carbon emissions or that companies which offer free college care about their workforce’s development. The rough belief the system works—I’m alive! I have stuff! I can find a job and be loved!—grounds the faulty assumption that we, as a society, care enough to build and develop others. With that assumption, we make ourselves naive.

So we’ll hear “An orange, / squeezed on the hand, / is an adequate substitute / for soap and water” and believe it isn’t as shameless as it sounds. We’ll believe workers with little pay and no documentation have rights and a labor organization fighting for them. Not only must they have representation, but the fight must be on relatively equal terms. No one would deny soap and water to demean others. The farm owners must be terribly worried about profits; they must fear bankruptcy in a competitive market.

The sheer amount of rationalization performed on behalf of agribusiness worth billions will boggle future minds. They’ll ask how it was so hard to understand that money seeks power. That once money has power, it resists all challenges to that power, just or not. This lack of understanding might be an ancient problem come to life. The closeness of democracy and tyranny in the Republic, where the one who wants to rule everyone else is given rights and privileges he can exploit because of democracy. Or the suggestion of the Laws, where even the most law-abiding citizen might secretly believe the tyrannical life is best.

Plato is wise, but if I were asked what ails us, it’s sheer ignorance. The heart of the ignorance doesn’t concern knowledge exclusively. Some do know large corporations run farms and take advantage of workers. But even a number of those who know don’t attend to the extent of it and what it actually means. These are just facts on paper, or a report they saw on television. How other citizens live is a game. After all, no one asks about their own struggles!

The low, broken standards are the standards we set for ourselves. When I hear older men ranting about how some kid “got what he deserved” or how a group of people could just “shape up” and make life better for themselves, I don’t just hear anger. I hear decades lost through cynicism. No could be better than me, and no one should try.

Strangely enough, there is a sense in which an orange does cleanse. As a symbol for fertility, it was used in some still life paintings to represent the second part of the Trinity. An orange, an emblem of the Sun, can symbolize passion and rebirth. The workers pick these and in a literal sense are closer to the Sun for their efforts. Their efforts are those of the spirit, a spirit none of us on Earth can do justice speaking about, because their struggles are thousand-fold. Representatives telling their stories can only highlight some of the suffering. They cannot quite convey the Biblical scope of it.

This isn’t to say the workers are spiritually pure or have some lost innocence. It is to say that working people until they break is so massively unjust, so incredibly inhuman, it makes the very fact people do that kind of work otherworldly. We often equate knowledge of the law or justice with knowledge of God. But what of knowledge of injustice? As I grow older, I think about the times I was treated badly, and I discover how much was happening in some situations that I didn’t understand then. How things were rigged from the start. It doesn’t mean everyone who meant badly was Evil Incarnate. But it does mean some bad or misguided intentions became that much worse because they were enabled.

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