When the Florida heat is sweltering, a certain group of Floridians do not turn on air conditioners to cool off.
Way into the afternoon heat, farm workers in Homestead, many of them immigrants, will be out in the fields picking produce. At Sifuentes’ okra farm, they do that covered in heavy clothing and rubber boots and a layer of polythene disposable clothing to protect them from the itchy okra sap.
“The only option is to come very early in the morning and pick enough okra before the sun comes out strong because then the picking speed will be slowed, and I wouldn’t make enough money,” said Catalina Santiago, who works in the field with her parents.
“It can really get hot out here, but you just have to keep your mind off the heat and continue picking,” she said.
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Two artists have come up with a cool way to keep farm workers from overheating by combining art with attire. The result: Cool Ties.
For the past year, they have been giving Cool Ties to the farm workers to be worn around their necks while out in the sun. The gifts are thanks to Suzanne Moe and Marcela Noriega, known by the acronym SUMA, who run a community arts project.
The cotton ties, which resemble kerchiefs, are filled with nontoxic polymer crystals. When soaked in cold water, the tie absorbs the water and expands into a gel, which stays cool for hours. Worn around the neck, the tie provides a personal cooling system.
“Oh my God. It’s too cold. It feels like I have air conditioner,” Santiago said when the tie was recently put around her neck.
The 18 year-old said her parents brought her on the farm as a way to instill an appreciation for the hardships in life and also to underscore the value of an education and hard work to make a living. Santiago plans to start college in the fall and wants to become a nurse.
Blanca Rivas, the crew foreman, moves around the farm placing empty boxes in strategic spots for the farm workers to fill with crops, described the ties as a great gift.
When the SUMA team heads out to the fields to hand out cool ties, they must get clearance from farm owners.
The Sifuentes Okra Farm sits on approximately 40 acres of land. On a recent visit, about 20 workers were picking okra, their bodies barely visible from a distance but their presence evident by the shaking of okra plants that were being harvested.
As the pickers made their way to the empty boxes to deposit the harvested okra, Moe and Noriega distributed the ties, explained how they work, assured them they had permission from the farm owners and told them the did not have to pay.
Not everyone always accepts the gift.
“Some of them are skeptical and we just have to keep talking to them to make them comfortable with us,” said Moe.
Those who received Cool Ties during the recent distribution reacted with first-time excitement.
Louis Santos, 63, described the feeling as “wonderful” while Gonzalez Abenamar, 34, described it as “refreshing.”
Moe and Noriega moved to Homestead three years ago from North Virginia. As artists, they immediately set off to try to find ways of contributing to and impacting society through something they know best — art.
“Working as community artists, one of our goals is really to look at what is it in our community that will have some challenges and problems and how can we address that problem through the arts and create something that is a practical solution,” Moe said.
In their quest for what to do in the community, Moe said, the towering issue was the need to recognize the community holistically because most of the region is agricultural.
“We wanted to create a way that we can connect with the community, recognize these individuals who are working so hard and also solve a problem that affects everyone,” she said.
“We all get hot. Under the sun, we are one, so it’s unifying,” Noriega said. “Once we came up with those little pieces, we decided Community Art Cool Ties was the project.”
Earlier this year, Homestead Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley said the Cool Ties initiative is a move toward the right direction for the community.
"It's always great when art serves a greater purpose: to bring the community together and help those who need it most. I'm very proud to feature Cool Ties and their noble mission as a Homestead based initiative,” Shelley said in a statement featured on the website.
When they began the project, Moe and Noriega pledged to donate 7,000 Cool Ties to regional farm and nursery workers. They accept tax-deductible donations to help fund their activities and plan to replicate the project in agricultural communities across the state and beyond.
Without water, the ties look like feeble pieces of cloth shreds that can easily be blown away by wind. But they are intricate because of both the science and the design.
“It looks simple, but we went through a lot of thinking. We went to laboratories to get the details right. For instance, the number of crystals and the thickness of the cloth,” Moe said, declining to divulge specific details of the design saying it is a “house secret.”
The patterns featured on the Cool Ties come from drawings created by members of the community. The two ladies organize art events where people go and draw whatever they want. The creations serve as pieces of art used on the ties.
“We want to show that art can be involved in social change, that art does not only belong to galleries,” Noriega said.
The Cool Ties can be used by anyone who needs to beat the heat: athletes, joggers, hunters, hikers and even fishing enthusiasts.
They sell to the public for $15 at Everglades National Park, Courtyard Marriott Homestead hotel and in different shops from Homestead down to the Keys. The ties also can be purchased online at communityartcoolties.com. The money, Moe said, is used to help in the production of more ties to give to the farm workers.
“The only benefit we get is the satisfaction of doing something that creates an opportunity for others to come together and do something good,” she said, “And also, the gratification of helping people.”