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Will some Mexican farm workers soon be leaving?

If the United States and Mexico enter into a free trade agreement that brings about new opportunities in Mexico, Florida could lose many of the Mexican workers who pick its fruits and vegetables. Lupe Melchor, 48, is one such worker who dreams of going home.

"I don't like it here," Melchor said, reciting a litany of bosses who have cheated him, teachers who have been unkind to his children, and neighbors who have snubbed him because he picks tomatoes for a living. "Many people have already returned."

Such talk worries Ronnie Maxwell, a Dover strawberry and watermelon farmer who, like most Hillsborough County growers, hires Mexicans to pick his entire crop. "If it weren't for the Mexicans, we'd be out of business," Maxwell said.

A labor shortage would devastate Hillsborough's $400-million farm industry. But it is by no means certain, and it is just one possible outcome of the free trade agreement that officials plan to start negotiating this month. In fact, some experts fear the opposite effect, that a flood of goods imported from Mexico might put Florida farms out of business and take jobs away from area workers.

Workers have mixed opinions, depending on how optimistic they are about an economic recovery in Mexico, and also on how well they have adjusted to life in the United States.

These differences have made it difficult for labor leaders to rally workers against the trade agreement. "I put it up to a vote, and it was just too close," said Randy Cecil, director of the Vero Beach-based Rural Progress Association, which has 600 Florida farm worker members.

Many farm workers own farm land in Mexico to which they would gladly return if they could earn a living. But their small farms do not generate nearly enough to support them in a country where inflation was 28 percent last year, and where unemployment in recent years has been reported as high as 45 percent.

Melchor said he owns about 15 acres in the central Mexican state of Michoacan. There, a local family grows avocados, beans, corn and chili peppers while Melchor works in Florida.

Melchor lives in Wimauma, a southeast Hillsborough hamlet with a large farm worker population. He has a mobile home that he bought for $5,000 down and $175 a month, three small dogs and a huge satellite dish in the front yard. His five children were born in Michigan, Missouri, Fort Pierce and Bradenton.

After 25 years, Melchor has decided that "the government here is full of hypocrites. They are good for nothing." His notion of government sometimes extends to the insurance and utility companies that, he said, make life a struggle for someone who in a good week earns $250, and some weeks nothing at all.

He and his wife, 43-year-old Maria Guadalupe, speak longingly of Mexico, where small farmers grow their own food and sell it proudly in the local market. Though perhaps romantic, this is the image they carry with them as they navigate the indignities of piece-rate labor, a language barrier and snobbery from Tampa's white-collar residents.

"There, you don't have to worry about getting sick," Mrs. Melchor said. "Here, if you live in the (migrant labor) camps and you get sick and can't work, they throw you out. If you don't work, you don't live."

Pulling her 9-month-old baby onto her lap, she concluded, "In Mexico, the farm worker is worth more than he is worth here."

Gilberto Suniga, 21, says he agrees wholeheartedly with that statement.

Suniga, whose older brother owns a vineyard in Mexico, said he moved to the United States this year after finishing his college studies. He came out of curiosity, and because he had trouble finding work in his home town of Aguascalientes.

Suniga picked tomatoes in Immokalee, has worked at a fruit stand in Wimauma, and is about to head north to Quincy for the summer harvest.

"It is difficult to live here," he said in Spanish. "The housing is expensive. I hardly speak any English. I earn a little over $100 a week. And I can't communicate with many people. Back in Immokalee, at least there was Spanish radio."

Victor Barrios, 23, also talks of homesickness. Over lunch in a tiny Wimauma diner, he described the 10 acres in Michoacan where his family grows corn and spices, an enterprise that Barrios subsidizes with money he earns picking tomatoes and oranges in the U.S.

"I came here to get ahead," he said. "I go home about once every year, every two years. My father is there, my mother, my brothers." If he could earn a living, he says, "of course I would go back."

Dire economic need

U.S. trade officials do not claim that a free trade agreement will cure Mexico's vast unemployment and underemployment problems overnight. But they predict that, over time, both countries will benefit if they can sell products to each other without import tariffs or investment restrictions.

Charles Ries, deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for North American Affairs, predicted Mexico will see a more dramatic improvement, because its economy is only about 4 percent the size of the U.S. economy.

That means more jobs, higher pay and, if the economic studies are correct, fewer Mexicans crossing the border for work.

Few would disagree that dire economic need is what propels Mexican workers to Florida. "I once hired a college-educated banker from Mexico," said Maxwell, the Dover farmer. "With my $5 an hour, he did better than he ever could in Mexico."

The workers tend to live and associate primarily with other Mexican-Americans. That results from limited access to housing and often from the farm workers' own preferences.

"Studies show that a significant number don't want to settle in the United States," said George Sorn, executive vice president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, referring to research used to draft the U.S. immigration reforms of 1986. "They like to come here and earn money, maybe six to nine months of the year."

Sorn said his and other agricultural groups are pushing for the trade agreement to include special protections, and long adjustment periods in Florida, where growers compete directly against Mexico during the winter months.

His organization would like to see Mexico raise wages so its production costs will be closer to those in Florida. Sorn says he doubts there will be an exodus of workers unless improvements in Mexico are extremely dramatic. He believes Mexico's high birth rate will provide even more workers.

And the workers' desire to return to Mexico is by no means universal.

Several Mexican produce vendors, interviewed at a wholesale market in Tampa, said they have comfortable lives that they doubt can be duplicated in Mexico.

"I think everybody thinks they are going to go back," said Santos Vasquez, 38, who picks tomatoes in Ruskin and sells them in the wholesale market. "But the way things are (now), nobody's going to go."

Vasquez left his mother, brother and sister when he moved to the United States 16 years ago from Michoacan. There, he said, his family grows corn on an arid patch of land that in some years is productive only three months of the year.

"We don't have money to plant what we want," he said. "Part of the year, we go into the mountains and cut wood to sell."

Vasquez is back-and-forth on the issue of which he prefers, Florida or Mexico. He misses the mountains. He also misses his mother, but he'd like to bring her to the United States.

"In Mexico, the government steals your money," he said. Moments later, he complained, "Here in the United States, we feel that we are in jail. Anything you do, you have to ask the government's permission."

Finally, Vasquez concluded that opportunities are better in Florida. "Here, you can have whatever you want. Sure, you have to work hard. But in Mexico, maybe you can have a donkey."

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