News & Commentary

Fatal bus crash in Florida a reminder of how farmworkers are largely forgotten

Mexican migrant workers pick blueberries during a harvest at a farm in Lake Wales, Florida, U.S., March 31, 2020. (OSV News photo/Marco Bello, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Victims of a fatal bus accident that claimed the lives of eight migrant farmworkers were remembered at a prayer vigil — and the tragedy shows that farmworkers are all too often “lost and forgotten,” said one of the organizers.

The Farmworker Association of Florida and Sister Ann Kendrick, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, led a May candlelit gathering of some two dozen outside the association’s Apopka, Florida, offices.

During the early morning of May 14, a bus carrying 53 farmworkers to their shift at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, Florida was struck by 41-year-old Bryan Maclean Howard, who later admitted to driving his pickup truck while under the influence of several controlled substances, including prescription drugs and marijuana oil. Howard, who remains jailed without bond, pleaded not guilty to DUI manslaughter charges.

Among those killed when the bus veered off the road and struck a tree were Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24; Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20; Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21; José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27; and Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46. About 40 of the passengers were injured, some critically, according to media reports.

According to Mexican President Andrés Manual López Obrador, the deceased were among 44 Mexican nationals who had been hired to work on the farm under H-2A, or temporary agricultural worker, visas.

Cannon Farms closed its operations through May 16, saying in a May 14 Facebook post, “Please pray with us for the families and the loved ones involved in this tragic accident.”

The Farmworker Association of Florida also has launched a GoFundMe campaign with all proceeds going “to support the victims and their families affected by this terrible accident.

“Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it’s important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times,” said the association in its GoFundMe post. “We are adjusting the proceeds as time goes by, as our staff is in communication with the individuals from the accident. We are being attentive to their needs in these difficult times.”

As of May 16, the campaign had raised just over $85,000.

Sister Ann — who founded the Hope CommUnity Center, an Apopka-based farmworker advocacy group that aids some 20,000 individuals each year — echoed the association’s message, describing farmworkers as “the lost and forgotten.

“Every year thousands of agricultural workers go to work in the fields, groves, and plant nurseries of Florida,” she wrote in a message posted May 16 to the center’s Facebook page. “Do you have any idea how these people, workers, families are? How do they live?”

She said that having spent more than 50 years among migrant and seasonal farmworker communities, she had been “blessed,” and had “fallen in love with this immigrant hard working community.

“These immigrants value their work, love, and respect the earth and the lives of plants, trees, creatures,” she wrote. “The relationship that these workers have with the land is a sacred trust. The connection of these often forgotten and little respected or protected workers is holy, is beautiful.”

In her post, Sister Ann decried recent legislation, signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis April 11, that bans local governments from requiring heat and water breaks for outdoor laborers.

“How can the governance in Florida in particular, show up with such (a) cruel, inhuman, dangerous, and deadly proposal; kill the Heat Stress (Bill),” she wrote.

She also railed against “jail(ing) someone transporting undocumented people” and “paint(ing) a false picture of these essential workers.

“Instead let’s be honored, thanked, and respected!” she wrote. “I ask this as I go to (the) memorial of eight workers just killed yesterday and fifty injured on their way to work.”

By Gina Christian | OSV News