In Florida there is an Indian River that flows through a swamp in the northern half of the state. It behaves nothing like a river at all—instead it commingles with the land to make a land-water hybrid, which is what much of Florida feels like anyway. You can’t dig more than a few feet without hitting the water table; climate change projections show half the state underwater in 50 years. Floridians live in matchbox houses that lay flat on the ground. They never dig into their foundations and spend their money on gouged-high home insurance that doesn’t even protect adequately against the constant threat of hurricanes. And they drink orange juice.
Every December I am allowed once again to assert my Floridian snobbishness about orange juice. I don’t care if Tropicana orange juice is manufactured in Bradenton, FL, a mere hour away from where I grew up, it doesn’t taste real. Real is tangerine juice squeezed by an enterprising farmer, sold on the side of the road in repurposed gallon jugs. Real is depulping the oranges stolen from the neighbor’s orange tree on an old and rickety motor juicer, smearing juice on our sweaters when we push back the sleeves. Real is when a tall glass of orange juice is a meal in and of itself. Last year, my first winter in New York, I got the December scurvy and spent $9 on a half-gallon of the fanciest orange juice I could find shipped up to a Manhattan gourmet bodega straight from Florida. It tasted like home. It was Indian River orange juice, a blue label with an Native American warrior on the front.
There’s that kind of Indian, and then there’s our kind of Indian.
When my mother first moved to Florida she knew no one; she took me and my baby sister to the Food Lion in the dead heat of that summer, a grocery store deserted by snowbirds who had flown up to the northeast for the season. We were one of five families of Indian immigrants in Zephyrhills, a sleepy town north of Tampa. (It was an event when the Taco Bell opened.) I had four friends who looked like me; everyone else was a mystery. The broadcast weather report gave us freeze warnings a few times a winter, when the orange groves were in danger of freezing over. Behind our house stretched empty farmland. My sister and I once watched a horse released from a trailer, proud and free and happy to be alive. When the woman who owned the farm saw two little brown girls sneaking over the border fence, she ran us off her property.
It’s hard to set down roots in Florida. The soil is a white, thin sand. It’s hard to hold on to. There was no fall, with graceful falling orange leaves, no daffodils, no crocuses. Instead the jasmine bloomed at night, the hibiscus during the day. Hardy plants that could withstand the long hot summer were often spiky, tough, and low to the ground. We gathered weeds and gave the bouquets to our mother. My sister started crawling and kept falling into the unfamiliar blue pool. My mother’s van got stuck in the mud and our racist neighbor had to pull it out with a tractor. Snakes got into the house and cockroaches flew off the ceiling. We shopped at Bealls and my mother had our house painted pink and green. We grew up Floridian, whether the neighbors liked it or not.
There are thousands of immigrants from India in the vast empty expanse north of Tampa now. The land of orange groves has steadily been infiltrated by an influx of Indians claiming a new land as their own. Convenience store owners and doctors and motel owners, but engineers, Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, IT professionals, too. The river still flows. My mother says she runs into Indians in Publix these days and doesn’t even know who they are. The University of Florida boasts, of all things, an Indian fraternity. There are huge populations of Indian Gators at UF and Seminoles at Florida State. My mother even went up to Dade City and bought herself a farm, 4,500 bushes bearing a fruit with the name of a color, though blue, not orange. And my sister comes home from UF bringing back orange-and-blue Gator swag.
The people who happened to name the Indian River what it is, named it a doubly false name. It is neither a river nor Indian; instead it is a series of lagoons, populated by Seminoles who were run off their land. It may have been Native American, once, but it certainly isn’t anymore. And it was never in India. It flows through northern Florida, bringing water to the orange groves and the scattered population living in housing developments built on dredged soil, the strip malls assembled on reclaimed land. It is a river of another kind entirely, one that mixes soil and air and earth, to produce the fruit of the vine, the fruit that is then processed and bottled and shipped up to New York City, to an apartment on the sixth floor in Brooklyn, a piece of Florida on a cold December night.
My old neighborhood in Lutz is changing, slowly and then all at once, from a rural neighborhood to a suburb filled with strip malls. The LA Fitness has replaced the cow pasture on the corner. A housing development claimed the orange grove a mile away. But some things stay the same. Like the taste of orange juice.
Listen to Sonia read her essay:
First photo by Color Blind Media.
Second photo by State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.