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Published: Thursday, 4/14/2005

Farm labor rally draws hundreds to South Toledo

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Robert Torres, left, of the Office of Latino Affairs and Michael Haack, 16, carry their flag in the march. Robert Torres, left, of the Office of Latino Affairs and Michael Haack, 16, carry their flag in the march.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Gripping the edge of a flag bearing the legend, "United for Justice," Michael Haack marched down Broadway in Toledo's old south end yesterday, surrounded by area high school students and members of the Latino community.

The 16-year-old Phoenix Academy student wasn't born in Mexico, and neither were his parents or grandparents. But he feels strongly about his Latino heritage, and even stronger about fighting to ensure that all farm workers have rights.

The young man was one of about 200 people taking part in the noon march and rally organized by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The group gathered to show support for immigrants and migrants who work in farm labor.

"My grandparents were born in Toledo, but they worked in the fields," Mr. Haack said. "I'm here for immigrant rights, for Latino rights."

About 8 1/2 million undocumented aliens are in the United States, according to FLOC. About 400 people die each year trying to cross the border, the organization says.

Baldemar Velasquez speaks during a rally at Golden Rule Park after the march.
Baldemar Velasquez speaks during a rally at Golden Rule Park after the march.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Baldemar Velasquez, founder and president of FLOC, said every day desperation drives people to risk death to enter the United States, leaving their families behind for a life of back-breaking labor.

He said that only by raising awareness locally and nationally will those workers come out of the shadows and be protected.

"This great country of ours is big enough to absorb immigrants from all over the world," Mr. Velasquez told a cheering crowd during the post-march rally in Golden Rule Park. "We want to send a message to Washington that we want employees having righteousness and justice."

Mr. Velasquez then mentioned Urbano Ramirez and Raymundo Hernandez, two workers who died while working in the fields in North Carolina. FLOC has been collecting money during the last few years to give to the workers' widows.

Since 1999, Mr. Velasquez has made four trips to Mexico with area students to give the widows money. He said he wants them to know that Americans care, and he wants the students to put a face on the tragedy.

Nicholas Cabanillas, 11, carries a Farm Labor Organizing Committee fl ag down Broadway.
Nicholas Cabanillas, 11, carries a Farm Labor Organizing Committee fl ag down Broadway.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Jami Meiring, an eighth grader at Toledo Christian School, battled the wind while holding a red-and-black FLOC flag. The 14-year-old doesn't have any Hispanic blood in her lineage, but said she supports the movement based on principle.

"This is something big and very important. And if I can help a human life, then I will do that," she said.

"If we can get enough of us out here to support this, then maybe something can be done."

Students from nearly a dozen schools participated in the march. That was a welcome sight for 67-year-old Cirilo Guardiola, who came to the United States in 1949 to work on the farms. Mr. Guardiola eventually was able to get a steady job as an auto worker.

But he never forgot his days picking cherries and tomatoes, so he joined FLOC about four years ago to help make life better for today's workers.

He hopes to join other area activists in a trip to Washington later this month to continue calling attention to the need for organization among farm laborers and other Hispanic migrant workers.

"I used to be a farm worker. I used to work in the fields, and the way they treat the people has to change," he said.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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