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Apopka farmworkers say pesticide exposure caused illnesses

Former workers and activists trying to draw attention to health problems in the community

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2011:05:30 08:41:45

But Mary Tinsley, a facilitator at the Lupus Foundation's Apopka branch office, says people in this community don't have the money to go to the hospital, nor do they really like to tell people that they think they might have lupus. She says she knows of about 50 individuals in Apopka who suspect they have lupus. Of those, she says, 30 are former farmworkers. (Tinsley herself has been diagnosed with lupus as well; though she never worked on a farm, her mother was a picker for Lust farms in the 1950s.)

Tinsley holds monthly meetings about lupus and provides information on health insurance and physicians to people who want it. The problem, she says, is getting people to admit that they think they might have it.

"It's very hush-hush," she says. "Since lupus is an autoimmune disease, they associate it with AIDS, though it's nothing like it. So they are fearful of joining up and having others find out."

Since no one on the outside seems all that interested in looking in at the Apopka farmworker community, some community members are trying to take their message out to the world.

Two years ago, Lee and others, frustrated that no one seemed to care that so many former farmworkers were dying off due to all manner of mysterious illnesses, decided to memorialize their friends who were dead or dying. They took a page from the AIDS community and began working on the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt.

Members of the community were asked to sew squares to tell their own stories or the stories of family members who'd passed away. The squares are revealing: In one, a pregnant woman works in a field next to a crate labeled "DDT"; in another, a car full of children represents the generations of kids who accompanied their parents, who could not afford child care, to work in the fields.

"They can take the stories with them when they pass, but the squares of the quilt help tell them before they are lost," Economos says.

Sadly, Lee notes, "some people couldn't make the squares because of their own afflictions from the pesticide effects - they couldn't use their hands."

But Lee, Apopka resident Sarah Downs and others have now assembled a colorful memorial that they hope will draw some attention to - as well as some donations for - improvements in health care for their colleagues.

Lee and Matthew have traveled to fairs and festivals and community events with the quilt. It's been on display at colleges and coffee shops, and all during May it hung each Monday night at the Audubon Park Farmers Market at Stardust Video & Coffee.

The quilt remembers people like Lee's mother, who worked on farms for much of her life and who Lee says suffered from a variety of medical conditions that were never diagnosed: "Her joints would ache and ache," Lee says. "We would have to bathe her, and she would yell, even with us just gently washing her. She was never diagnosed with lupus, but who knows? I think about the work we did and chemicals we touched during those times. My grandmother used to always say, ‘It was in the air and water.'"

No one disputes that it's in the air and water. But proving that it's in the people is a whole other matter.

"No one wants to touch this," Economos says. "It is very complicated. Also, it can be controversial. … The farmworkers were exposed to many different pesticides, which vastly complicates the issue. It is not as black and white as ‘cigarette smoke causes lung cancer.'"

We just need help," Lee says. "Hopefully, the quilt will get people to start looking again." n


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