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Organizing After Victory:Immokalee Encuentro

By: 
Marc Rodrigues
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    Over the first week of August, approximately 70 activists, organizers, and trainers gathered in Immokalee, Florida—home of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—for the first-ever Student/Farmworker Alliance National Youth and Student Encuentro. This week-long gathering featured anti-oppression trainings, workshops on various topics, and a two-day strategy session where participants discussed and began to plan for the next phases of the movement in solidarity with farmworkers. Coming on the heels of the tremendous victory by the CIW over Taco Bell in its 4-year-plus boycott campaign to improve wages and working conditions for tomato pickers in Taco Bell’s supply chain, the Encuentro provided a space for face-to-face discussion and collective strategizing over how the movement should proceed.

First conceived almost immediately after the CIW victory, the Encuentro was planned primarily by a handful of Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) staff and interns based in Immokalee who serve as a resource base for the larger, decentralized network of the SFA and allied groups. Taking their lead from the CIW, the SFA and its allies organized the “Boot the Bell” campaign, which successfully removed or prevented the establishment of over 20 Taco Bell businesses on high school and college campuses (with dozens more campaigns in effect when the boycott ended). The smartMeme Strategy and Training Project was brought on board at an early stage to help with the formulation and facilitation of the crucial strategy session. SFA leadership sought to lay down the framework for a space where important discussions would be had, yet be flexible enough to implement, and indeed be dependent on, the input and active participation of folks from across the network.

The SFA Encuentro serves as an example of an organization thinking strategically at a crucial turning point—in this case immediately following a victory which was impressive, inspiring, and precedent-setting, but only the first step in making the changes that the CIW and its allies would like to see.

The week started off with an introduction by CIW members themselves to the community and history of the Coalition (including the almost 10 years of community-based, grassroots organizing in and around Immokalee before the national boycott became necessary), followed by anti-oppression trainings and general workshops, and wrapping up with the strategy session. Thanks to solid planning and great facilitation, the strategy session proved to be useful and several working groups were formed committed to continuing the work in the weeks and months ahead, including an anti-oppression group and a fundraising group. In addition, a permanent people of color caucus within SFA was established. As a result of the strategy session the structure and institution of the SFA became much more concrete and clarified which will help our work be more effective.

Horizontal space

A relatively diverse group of participants made their way down to Immokalee, further sharpening discussions yet also providing some challenges. There was some difficulty, for example, in having discussions where people were at substantially different levels of political education and involvement in the CIW/Taco Bell campaign. Organizers tried to adjust for this and put some grassroots political education into practice by providing a program and binder full of analysis on Immokalee itself and what it meant to be a guest there; anti-oppression; militarism, globalization and anti-imperialism; a glossary and explanation of common acronyms; as well as dozens of pages of analysis and constructive criticism on the current “movement” culled from sources such as Colours of Resistance. In hindsight, it was unrealistic of us to expect people to have the time or energy to carefully peruse through these materials during the Encuentro, but we feel positive about the potential for them to increase the depth of awareness and praxis in the network.

Questions remain as to how to fully incorporate all voices in an open space where people are coming from such different levels of experience. Another challenge and important learning experience for the organizers was the fact that much of the leadership of the SFA based in Immokalee were so concerned with creating a decentralized and horizontal space that we were often hesitant to step up and take on the necessary leadership or point-person role to get things done, leading to some preventable logistical sloppiness.
Positive and important aspects about the Encuentro were the discussions around taking leadership from and being accountable to the CIW as student and youth allies. Far too often our movements have failed on these questions with disastrous results. Participants began to grasp an understanding by the end of the week of what it means to act autonomously yet under the guidance and direction of the CIW and constantly working to stay accountable to the folks we claim to act in solidarity with. Another important development in the Encuentro was the awareness of the larger, global “movement of movements” and our role in it woven into the week’s discussions, stemming from the very usage of the term “Encuentro” to describe the gathering in the spirit of the Zapatistas.

Several of the workshops made explicit connections between the issues being faced by farmworkers, the inspirational social movement that is the CIW, and free trade, militarism, and resistance throughout Latin America and beyond. Organizers made it a point to give CIW members ample time and space to convey their own stories, and several spoke about the damage done by policies which had forced them to leave their homes and be subjected to extreme exploitation and even cases of modern-day slavery in the agricultural fields of Florida.

CIW member and activist Rolando Sales explained, “The Coalition has shown what an important role it plays in the community, and has achieved something that extends far beyond the community...it’s important that we keep organizing the new people arriving in Immokalee and discussing with each other the importance of knowing our rights...students also have an important role to play, knowing about our struggle and having access to different resources and institutions that we don’t have access to...”

Against oblivion

In one telling moment, CIW member Gerardo Reyes-Chavez spoke of the changes that the Coalition and the struggle had brought about, declaring that the industry and mega corporations such as Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands (the largest fast food corporation in the world) could no longer continue to exploit farmworkers with impunity once confronted with what he called la verdad de nuestra existencia—literally, “the truth of our existence.” This phrase immediately hit me as having a double meaning—there is the reality of the day-to-day life of a farmworker, the story CIW members used to gain allies and support across the country— but it also refers to something much more basic: The reality that we exist. The connection was clear between the Zapatistas waging their war against oblivion and putting on masks in order to be seen, and the struggle of the CIW and its members, forced off their land, told to forget their indigenous languages and ways of life, forced to migrate to the US, and told to work without causing trouble or making noise—invisibly.

The entire Encuentro was full of moments like this. Listening to a profound and revolutionary analysis that comes from the reality of experience rather than the dogmatism of rigid ideologies and listening to people’s stories about atrocities experienced by themselves and their families as a direct result of US imperialism in Latin America created an intensely personal space. I hope this space reminded people why we struggle and that what we struggle for is not a subculture or an academic matter but a necessity, and, to paraphrase Assata Shakur, it is also a necessity that we win.

As one participant, Luis Gomez from the DC area, put it: “…for the movement I think the Encuentro was key, to have everyone’s energy, points of view… the movement consists of many people and their struggles, the Encuentro helped bring those different issues and mold them into one, one where we all stand in solidarity with each other and fight for a common goal—justice…” Spaces such as the Encuentro and the discussions, relationship-building, and strategizing that happened there need to happen much more often as they put us one step closer to building a real movement that actually has the potential of winning.

Further inspiration was provided by members of Son Del Centro—a collective of musicians who came out of a cultural and community center in Santa Ana, California and who have become a staple at recent CIW and SFA events—who filled the space with son jarocho music, a Mexican folk music with roots in the Afro-Mexican community and culture of Veracruz, Mexico. One of the many aspects of the CIW’s work that has made it unique has been its integration of art— and Encuentro participants had the opportunity to learn about son jarocho through Son Del Centro’s interactive workshops and to work collectively on a SFA banner thanks to David Solnit of Art & Revolution.

In the Encuentro’s horizontal discussion, mutual respect, sharing of deeply personal stories, and the recognition of the larger struggles we are all a part of, a political space was opened up which was deeply personal, and vice versa.
With the end of the Taco Bell boycott, the SFA found itself at a unique crossroads—victorious and successful but at the same time looking to maintain and strengthen its base. It appears that so far the SFA is on the right path, and the network has emerged from the Encuentro newly energized and focused to take on the next corporate target chosen by the CIW, the entire corporate agricultural and food system, and beyond.

To request a free information packet or get involved in your community or on your campus, please contact the SFA at: [email protected] or 239-657-8311; write to us at PO Box 603, Immokalee, FL, 34143; visit the SFA website at www.sfalliance.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marc Rodrigues is a regular contributor to Left Turn; graduate student in Labor Studies at UMass/Amherst; was an intern with the Student/Farmworker Alliance this summer; and hopes to spread an appreciation for revolutionary love throughout our movements.