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Gonzalez Tours Farmworker Housing `Here, There Are No Flowers’ By J. Christopher Byrne Washington On a gray September morning in Washington, after years of consciencewrenching documentaries, countless private studies, and public indignation, farm labor housing was finally getting its day on Capitol Hill. To many in the packed hearing room, it somehow seemed fitting that the soft-spoken congressman from San Antonio, Henry B. Gonzalez 65 years old and still fighting for poor people after all these years should find himself presiding over a subject so close to his heart. “The question of migrant farmworker housing is not easy to address,” the subcommittee chairman was saying to the audience. “No one is anxious to make a A free-lance writer specializing in farm labor issues, the writer worked until recently with the National Association of Farmworker Organizations in Washington. political cause out of a situation that involves people who are powerless in every way, who command no national organization, who are in effect invisible to the American eye. But the point is that these are human beings, these are the people who literally put food on our plates.” The farmworker activists in the crowd, worn weary by years of headbutting with a recalcitrant Congress, nodded ever so slowly, a glimmer of hope flickering in their eyes. Around them the federal bureaucrats DOL and FmHA-types stared steadfastly at the chairman. The tone of his voice, they suspected, betrayed a hidden partiality. “Two years ago this committee commissioned a study of farmworker housing,” Gonzalez said. “That study has yet to be formally released, but its findings are available to the committee. It shows that despite the enactment of laws intended to produce adequate housing for farmworkers, very little has been accomplished. According to the study, there is a need for 1.2 million housing units for farmworkers. Only a third that many decent units are actually in existence today: “There has never been an effort before now to devote hearings to the sole subject of housing for migrant farmworkers,” Gonzalez said. “These workers are the least powerful of all people in this country. By the very nature of their work. . . .” To a long-time Capitol Hill observer, there is something strange about the chairman’s speech, something decidedly out of sync with other congressional hearings. He seems to be speaking from the heart instead of from a script. “. . . they live from day to day, with no certainty of any kind.” Two farmworkers scheduled to testify before Gonzalez’ House subcommittee on housing and community development hang on every sentence, every word the chairman says. Just prior to the hearing Gonzalez had ushered them into his private office for coffee and posed with them for photos they could take back home to their families and friends. When he learned that one of the workers was from the Rio Grande Valley, he put his arm around him and said quietly, “You As many as eight farmworkers lived in one of these huts on the Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez conducts farm labor housing hearings Maryland Eastern Shore. at a Maryland community college. 6 NOVEMBER 20, 1981 Photos by Chris Byrne