A picture of Rackham Auditorium prior to the Wallenberg medal ceremony.
An audience gathers in Rackham Auditorium to see Lucas Benitez receive the Wallenberg medal Tuesday night.Ellie Vice/Daily. Buy this photo.

Lucas Benitez, one of the co-founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a labor and human rights organization based in Florida, delivered a lecture in Spanish at the Rackham Auditorium as he accepted the 28th Wallenberg Medal Tuesday night.

The award was established in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a U-M alum who rescued over 80,000 Hungarian Jews toward the conclusion of World War II. The University bestows the Wallenberg Medal upon a recipient dedicated to the public good who advocates on behalf of those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Benitez now joins the ranks of recipients such as the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel and John Lewis.

Nursing sophomore Karah Post attended the event and told The Michigan Daily she had felt much anticipation for the lecture on workers’ rights.

“I’m in a global health class and we’ve been talking about workers rights a lot and I think it’s really cool that the speaker who’s so involved is coming here to speak,” Post said. “I don’t know that much about it, so I thought I’d come and educate myself more (about it).”

University President Santa Ono and LSA Dean Anne Curzan opened the event by introducing Benitez. Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, Benitez migrated to Immokalee, Fla., at the age of 17 to work in tomato fields. It was there that he became deeply acquainted with what Ono described as the harsh realities of labor: low wages, grueling workdays and a climate saturated with fear and violence. Ono said these dire conditions inspired Benitez to take action, eventually leading to the formation of the CIW in 1993.

”You came to America with a dream,” Ono said. “Then you saw hardships, long wages, cruelty, initiation. Rather than turn away and pretend that the suffering was not there, you strayed deep into those rough waters and acted for change. You remind us not to recline in some complicity, for the complicity of good people is all that evil needs to persist.”

Curzan additionally highlighted Benitez’s achievements outside of the CIW. She said Benitez also played a critical role in the investigation of several trafficking and slave labor cases, helping to free over 700 farmworkers in one case alone. 

“Lucas Benitez’s work represents a movement to harness economic influence of consumers to improve working conditions, labor practices and pay for farm workers,” Curzan said. “Lucas Benitez, a farmworker turned human rights leader, represents Raoul Wallenberg’s example that one person can make a difference.”

Benitez then took the stage and began the lecture by reflecting on how far he had come since working in the tomato fields as a teenager. A caption system was available at the event to provide translations for Benitez’s speech which was originally in Spanish.

“I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude for this moment,” Benitez said. “(When I was 17), it was $5.25 an hour, one of the worst levels of poverty in the U.S. It was giving us between 30 and 35 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. In order to make the equivalent of minimum wage, you needed to pick at least two tons of tomatoes per day.” 

Fueled by a desire for change, Benitez said he and his colleagues founded their coalition in a back room at the Guadalupe church in Immokalee. Benitez recounted a story of a young man arriving at the coalition’s office covered in blood after being attacked by his crew leader for getting a glass of water while on the job.

“The crew leader told him, ‘You are here to work, not to drink water,’ ” Benitez said. “When he was coming back he was attacked by the crew leader, covered in blood. When we heard his story, we realized that we needed to express that an injury to one is an injury to all. We marched through the town with that as our statement.”

Benitez emphasized the equation “Consciousness + Commitment = Change” and the need to transform the farm labor industry, which is notorious for abuse, into one built on respect and dignity. He stressed the importance of creating awareness among the public, and the success of their model in eliminating some of the worst human rights abuses, such as assault, sexual assault, child labor and forced labor.

“The legal system is built to respond to violations of human rights, but what we have built is a model for prevention,” Benitez said. “A world without victims is far preferable to a world where survivors must pick up the pieces.”

Daily Staff Reporter Emma Spring can be reached at sprinemm@umich.edu.