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Woman looks for Florida descendants of agricultural guest workers

Lyrianne Gonzalez is compiling oral histories of descendants of the federal farm guest worker program.  She took out this ad in the Caloosa Belle newspaper this past week, attempting to connect with Florida descendants of those workers who became U.S. citizens.
Lyrianne Gonzalez is compiling oral histories of descendants of the federal farm guest worker program. She took out this ad in the Caloosa Belle newspaper this past week, attempting to connect with Florida descendants of those workers who became U.S. citizens.

Lyrianne Gonzalez in New York is looking for Florida descendants of the federal program that brought foreign workers to farms here. The guest worker program dates back decades, and usually brought foreigners to American farms for set periods of time, and then the workers went back home. But some guest workers chose to pursue legal U.S. citizenship, and then settled in Florida and other farm states.

A woman in New York is advertising in small community newspapers in South Florida, hoping to interview descendants of agricultural guest workers. That's a federal program that goes back decades. It brings in foreign workers to help out on farms for set periods of time: often 10 months. Then the workers return to their home countries.

But over the years some guest workers decided to pursue legal citizenship in America, and Lyrianne Gonzalez wants to talk with descendants of those workers. She said workers from Jamaica and Barbados often came to Florida to help pick oranges and harvest sugar cane.

The effort is personal for Gonzalez.

"I'm very, very proud to be the granddaughter of a guest worker," she said.

Gonzalez says her grand-father came to America from Mexico as a guest worker in the southwestern states. He spent time on farms in the 1940's and 50's. Then he took the legal path to U.S. citizenship. Other family members followed him.

Now, Gonzalez is compiling an oral history for her doctoral thesis at Cornell University in New York state. She believes the stories of descendants of guest workers make up a little-known ingredient in the melting pot of America.

"How does that impact popular American opinion on these racial and ethnic groups?" she asked. "Understanding the lasting effect on workers, communities and future generations feels essential at this point."

Reverend Israel Suarez has worked the past 47 years to help the Hispanic community in southwest Florida. Suarez now heads the Hispanic American Citizens Council in Fort Myers. He was enthusiastic when told of the oral history project.

"Hey it's wonderful," he said.

Suarez said he tells undocumented people to follow the guest worker path.

"They have to fight, they have to move on," Suarez said. "They have suffering. They have to find a way that they can be a citizen."    

Lyrianne Gonzalez says she's heard of abuses in the guest worker program: people not paid, or kept as servants after their contracts ended.

"You know I'm considering the racialization and abuses these guest workers face, and how that then informs the trajectory of their children, their grandchildren," she said.    

Gonzalez can be reached at: leg88@cornell.edu

Mike Walcher is a visiting assistant professor in the FGCU Journalism program. He also does some work for WGCU News. He can reached at mwalcher@fgcu.edu.

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Mike Walcher