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Former farmworkers share their memories of the field

DADE CITY

Three women huddled around the journal, bubbling with excitement as they flipped through its pages. A lifetime of memories started flooding back as Ramona Zarate, Viola Gomez and farmworker advocate Margarita Romo stood in Zarate's small living room, reunited for the first time in years. Two decades ago, Romo created the journal to chronicle the experiences of seven women — mothers and farmworkers — who endured the difficult, transient life of little cash and less stability. Oranges brought them to Florida. The next season, the next harvest, took many of them elsewhere. Zarate and Gomez were among those who shared their stories in print.

Once the 72-page book was completed, Romo sent it to lawmakers and other powerbrokers, hoping to open their eyes to the plight of these women.

Three women from the journal still live in the area. One still aches to work. One helps those who do. One turned her work into her own business.

All for a better life, and for their children.

The worker

Ramona Zarate worked for 35 years in the fields for a few dollars a day. She balanced on 30-foot ladders in sweltering heat to fill sacks with oranges. She worked 15-hour days in groves that often had little clean water and a single portable toilet far from the fields.

Now 70, arthritic and semi-retired, she lives comfortably in a modest, two-bedroom home in Dade City with her disabled son.

Yet she's itching to get back to work in the fields.

"It's just what I do," she said. "I work."

At age 8, while many of her peers attended school, Zarate rose at 3 a.m. to meet her father in the corn fields of Tamazula, a small city in southwest Mexico. For five hours, she walked six horses to the field, where her father loaded them with stacks of corn for the return trip.

Zarate quit school after second grade. Corn season was over, and her father needed her help in the sugar cane fields. After sugar season, she made bricks out of clay and dirt to build houses.

She taught herself how to read and write.

"I would sit on my own when I had a few minutes and read old newspapers I found wherever," she said.

She married at 16, and started crossing the Texas-Mexico border each weekend to clean homes in Harlingen. If you want a better life, friends said, move to America.

She and her husband, Magdaleno Contreras, arrived with their six kids in Dade City in the fall of 1974, just in time for orange season. They could not afford day care, so their kids ran around the fields while the couple picked fruit.

In 1975, Zarate had a seventh child. She fashioned a cradle for him from reeds and hung it on the orange trees. She poured water on him to keep him cool.

Her children found careers beyond the fields: A nurse assistant. A teacher. A chef. Zarate is proud. She became a U.S. citizen along the way. And she continued to labor in the fields.

"It's hard to explain," she said. "But being out in the field, you just feel free."

She followed the crop seasons. After harvesting Florida's oranges, blueberries, strawberries and cucumbers, Zarate and her family traveled to Georgia and picked summer onions. Then onto Ohio for lettuce and Virginia for apples before returning to Florida for winter.

But now, she said, more families stay in Florida. They find other ways of making money when the picking season ends, such as cleaning houses and landscaping. This is good, Zarate said, because kids stay out of the fields — and in school.

Conditions have improved. Farmworkers now are supplied with water; most fields have more than one toilet available. But work is harder to find because a lot of farms have been abandoned, either to development or diseased trees.

"You drive around, and you see a lot of fields just left alone to die," Zarate said. "It's very sad."

The helper

Had she not fallen in love at 15, Viola Gomez would have never set foot in the fields.

Gomez was an All-American girl: track star, a basketball MVP, a cheerleader and even homecoming queen her sophomore year at her high school in the tiny cattle town of Reserve, N.M. She was also one of 10 children, hungry for her parents' time.

A charming man nine years older named Bibiano Gomez came along in 1973 and showered her with attention. She was smitten.

"He was just so handsome," said Gomez, now 52. She remembered his brown eyes, his bright smile.

But he also entered the country illegally from Mexico, and delivered hay for a living.

None of that mattered to Gomez. She dropped out of school. Then she was pregnant. And then, after their first son arrived, the young family moved to Muleshoe, Texas, where Bibiano harvested potatoes, cotton and lettuce.

Gomez stayed at home to raise their child. She kept in touch with her own mother, who respected and supported her daughter's decisions.

One weekend, some friends at a cookout told them about a family who was looking for orange pickers. Housing was included, and the pay was good.

They flew to Tampa and took a bus to Dade City. A week later, Gomez started her first job ever at 21, picking cucumbers, then tomatoes, then oranges.

She enjoyed taking her son to the fields, out in the open, humming hymns and feeling free.

"I'm glad I did it," she said.

But she also saw crew leaders treating farmworkers unfairly. Sometimes they worked 12- to 14-hour shifts with no breaks. One morning, Gomez saw one of the crew leaders had allowed a family he favored to start picking cherry tomatoes before anyone else. Pickers are paid by the number of barrels they fill.

Gomez had enough. She returned to school and got her GED. She married Bibiano, and they later had another baby.

After a year, she and Bibiano left the fields forever. But the friends she made there remained her family. She continues to help migrant workers in the community.

"Farmworker people continue to be some of the poorest people out there," she said. "They get looked down on, even though they are doing an honest job."

Gomez initially found work with the Pasco County Housing Authority, managing apartment complexes where migrant workers lived. Now she works for a Plant City family who owns various affordable apartment complexes.

When people arrive from South America or Mexico, they don't know how to shop or manage their money. Gomez helps them. She also serves as a translator and refers people to medical care and social services.

"A lot of women are mistreated by their husbands," Gomez said, "And I am here to let them know there are people who can help them."

The businesswoman

A few days after her 6-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, Pilar Morales swam across the Rio Grande, arrived in Harlingen, Texas, then caught a Greyhound bus to Houston to look for her husband, who had been working as a janitor at a Kroger grocery store. It was 1986. Morales left her three other children with her in-laws in Mexico.

"I promised them I would be back to get them," Morales said.

But first she had to track down her husband. Friends in Houston told her Isidro had moved to Florida, where he'd heard he could make better money picking oranges.

Morales traveled to Florida, only to discover her husband had been spending time with other women. She felt like she was on her own.

"I wondered why I came here," Morales said. "Why did I come to suffer here?"

Now 48, she looks back and can see the reasons.

She knew she could not turn back. She was the 11th of 12 children, and she felt she could not turn to her own parents for help.

She looked for jobs in Dade City, but without literacy skills, she found opportunity only in the fields. For the next three years, she picked oranges and strawberries in Florida, lettuce in Ohio and onions in Georgia. Later, she found a job at a Pasco plant nursery, where she worked for a couple of years before heading back to the fields.

Despite the strain in their marriage, Morales and her husband stayed in touch because they both wanted to bring their kids from Mexico. The only way to make it happen was through Isidro, because he had obtained legal status.

Finally, five years after Morales arrived in Florida, Isidro obtained permits to bring their children into the country, and he reconciled with his wife.

For the next 10 years, the family went wherever they could find work. They packed lightly, sometimes bringing only one extra set of clothes per person.

"It was very hard on the kids," Morales said. "They would miss school and have to make new friends everywhere we went."

In 2003 her husband became severely ill, and doctors ordered him to stop traveling. The couple settled in a small beige home in Dade City. Morales said she didn't hate the idea of giving up farm work.

"My hands had become so ugly from picking onions," she said. "The onion juice would burn them and I would have blisters all over."

After a few years of working in lawn maintenance, the couple started their own business, employing about six people.

"People don't realize how hard field work is. And things have changed drastically since 9/11," she said, referring to tighter border patrols that followed the terrorist attacks.

Morales said strict immigration laws passed in states such as Alabama and Arizona have scared many Mexicans. They are afraid to drive, so traveling for farm work has become less of an option.

"My people are better off staying in their country because they won't be appreciated until the day Americans see their lettuce is missing," Morales said.

Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at jbaylon@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Former farmworkers share their memories of the field 09/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 2:44pm]

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