On Saturday, September 3, at about 8:30pm, the world lost a strong warrior in the struggle for social and environmental justice. Geraldean Matthew transitioned peacefully from this world to the next, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the lives of the countless people whose lives she touched through her dedicated and unselfish work in and for her community for more than three decades.
Born in Belle Glade, Florida to a farmworker mother, Geraldean grew up as a young girl traveling the seasons up and down the east coast harvesting crops as varied as corn, cabbage, oranges, peppers and even Christmas trees in Southern Canada. Eventually, her family settled in the agricultural town of Apopka, Florida, where she remembers working in the vegetable fields on what is Florida’s fourth largest lake. The Lake Apopka farmlands are infamous for being the site of bird deaths and alligator reproductive anomalies due to the extensive amount of fertilizers and pesticides applied to the crops. Geraldean remembered being sprayed directly by pesticides and bringing home empty pesticide containers for various uses around the house—long before there were any regulations to train farmworkers about the dangers and health effects of pesticide exposure.
As a young woman in the late 1970s, Geraldean met the four courageous nuns who moved to Apopka and formed the Office for Farmworker Ministry to work with the largely African American and later Hispanic and Haitian communities in the area. That was the beginning of Geraldean’s education about the issues of social injustice and her becoming engaged in what would become a life-long work of making a positive difference in her community. Later, as a staff member of the Farmworker Association of Florida, Geraldean was known as fearless in her outreach to the HIV/AIDS community in Central Florida, leading the way into potentially dangerous environments if she knew there was someone in there who needed her help.
In the 1990s, when the Lake Apopka Farmworker Project was established at FWAF, Geraldean was at the forefront of efforts to help farmworkers displaced by the closing of the Lake Apopka farms to find re-training, new jobs, housing and assistance for their basic and immediate needs. Oftentimes, thinking more of others than of herself, Geraldean woke early to transport people to jobs miles away and worked late into the night doing outreach and education. Later, in 2005, she was the co-coordinator, along with anthropologist Ron Habin, of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Environmental Health Survey, which sought to identify the health conditions in the community of former Lake Apopka farmworkers and their experiences of pesticide exposure. A decade later, she was most proud of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project, which she helped inspire, and of the book Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food by author Dale Slongwhite, which captured the stories of some eleven former farmworkers and community members.
In the last year of her life, as Geraldean was suffering the consequences of multiple chronic illnesses likely related to decades of direct and generational exposure to organochlorine pesticides, Geraldean Matthew told Fed Up author that they had at least two or three more books yet to write together; that she had many more from a lifetime of stories that still needed to be told. Sadly, those stories leave us along with Geraldean, as she moves on from this world to the next. Still, those Geraldean leaves behind have a wealth of stories of their own from a vast treasure of memories of working alongside Geraldean for years—at rallies and demonstrations; lobbying to decision makers in the state capitol; going door-to-door conducting a health survey; testifying at meetings and conferences, including at the EPA; speaking to countless church, student and civic groups about her personal life and the conditions for farmworkers; outreaching to AIDS patients in crack houses and on the streets; organizing meetings and community events; and motivating and inspiring others to get involved.
Geraldean may be gone, but her spirit lives on in all whose lives she has touched and by leaving the world a better place for her having been in it. We will miss you Geraldean. You are now free of the suffering of this world. May you be at peace and may your spirit soar free!