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Life of farmworkers' advocate defined by passion, service

DADE CITY — Norma Godinez lingered for two weeks in a hospital bed before her devastated parents unplugged the machines in the winter of 1981. She died a month before her fifth birthday.

Norma meant the world to Margarita Romo, then a Sunday school teacher in her 40s. They first met at a Bible study Romo taught at migrant camps. Romo considered the little girl her best friend. Norma shouldn't have died.

But she didn't stand a chance. Norma was a migrant farmworker child whose parents didn't speak English. They were poor. Had no insurance. No Medicaid. She had fallen out of a pickup truck and was shipped from one hospital to another until it was too late to treat her internal injuries.

The accident changed more than just the lives of Norma's family. It transformed that gentle Sunday school teacher into a passionate advocate for the Hispanic migrant workers of Tommytown.

Shortly after Norma's death, Romo founded Farmworkers Self-Help, a group that provides immigration assistance, a free medical clinic, after-school programs for teens and even free loaves of bread.

Romo celebrates her 75th birthday this week in a community that bears her unmistakable imprint. She built its church, the Resurrection House. She turned a seedy lot, once populated by junkies and prostitutes, into a neighborhood park. She persuaded county commissioners to add a new name to Lock Street: Calle de Milagros, which means "Street of Miracles."

But this was only the work of the past 30 years of her life. Before that she endured a couple of failed marriages, battled depression and alcoholism and even found herself in a mental health hospital the 1960s, a recipient of electroshock therapy.

The tragedies that shaped her life were the death of little Norma and the loss of Romo's own mother when she was a little girl.

Lonely early life

Romo grew up in Dallas, the daughter of Mexican-American migrant workers. At 3, she lost her mother to cancer. Because her father could not afford day care, he placed her and her three brothers in an orphanage — a practice that was not uncommon at the time.

"My dad never just left us; he always visited," she said.

But boys and girls were separated in the orphanage. Her brothers lived together. Away from them, Romo grew up feeling alone.

"And I still feel like I am alone," Romo told the Times in a series of candid, emotional interviews about her life. "Even if I am in the middle of a crowd of people, I feel alone."

That sense of isolation has followed her throughout her life. By ninth grade, she had left school and become a teacher at a convent, where she lived until she was 17.

In the convent, she lost her Spanish name. The women there did not speak Spanish. Margarita became Margaret.

She briefly moved back with her father and his new wife, a stepmother who buried her in chores and insults. She found happiness in a pair of roller skates she bought with money she got from working for a wealthy family.

One day when she was out skating by the Cotton Bowl, she met Ralph Bearden, a young man who had fought in World War II. As the two began spending time together, her father asked to meet Bearden.

After one conversation, Bearden and her father agreed upon a marriage. Romo didn't have a say in the matter. By 18, she was a young wife who did not know about birth control. A daughter and two sons came in rapid succession.

"I didn't know how to stop babies from coming," Romo said.

In 1959, the young family moved to Lakeland, where Bearden's relatives lived. But her marriage was going down the drain. Bearden was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and he was an alcoholic, Romo said.

"I raised the kids by myself," she said. "He would get his little fishing pole, beers, and I wouldn't see him for the rest of the month. He would do this while I was pregnant, too."

Bearden pulled her out of the bathroom one night and raped her, she said. And one day he decided to move back to Texas and didn't come back. She filed for divorce. Bearden passed away years later.

Romo was riding the bus to work one day when a man named Bruce Edwards offered her a stick of gum. She was smitten.

They got married in 1961. She was 25. He was 19.

A few months later, she hit a severe depression. Within six months, she said, she tried committing suicide three times, committed herself for 21 days and went through electroshock treatments.

"I must have felt that there was nothing and nobody that could really love me and care about me just the way I am," Romo said. "Not even looking at my children's faces was enough to make me want to stay."

Romo had also taken up drinking.

"I would drink shots of whiskey and vodka straight," she said. "I didn't like the taste, but I liked what it did."

She and Edwards had three children together, plus the three from Romo's first marriage. The oldest, Evelyn Bearden, said Romo was a tough mom, but a good one.

"Despite what she was going through, she would cook for us," said Bearden, who now lives in Little Rock, Ark. "She did the best she could do under her circumstances."

But she continued to go downhill. Her second marriage ended in divorce in 1979.

Finding God and a purpose

During those difficult years, Romo found a group of women in Tampa who gathered once a week to talk about God. Romo describes this as the moment God became real to her.

Around 1970, Romo became an interpreter for some Evangelists at farmworker camps in northern Tampa. Several years later, the coordinator died. Romo found herself taking responsibility for the program, as well as registering people for Social Security and taking women to clinics, where she served as a translator.

"It was wonderful to get in touch with my culture again," Romo said. "These farmworkers became my family. I was just as much of a migratory person as anyone because I had no place to go and no way to identify."

Romo started seeing a psychologist, who Romo felt wasn't much help. Instead she followed a friend's suggestion and enrolled at Pasco-Hernando Community College. And she started a migrant farmworker support group in east Pasco, continuing what she had left behind in Tampa.

It was through the Sunday Bible studies she hosted for migrant women and children that she met little Norma.

Norma's tragic death in 1981 became Romo's first cause. She raised money to bury her, to erect a tombstone, to help her parents sue Pasco County and two doctors who didn't save Norma. The case ended in a partial settlement, attorney Mac Greco Jr. said.

Farmworkers Self-Help, an organization that started out on Romo's front porch, became incorporated in 1982. The organization is often the first stop for new migrants arriving from Mexico, although Romo says she welcomes anybody who needs help.

Wilton Simpson, who owns a construction company in Trilby, said he first met Romo on a Leadership Pasco tour bus in 2002. By the time the tour ended, she had persuaded him to help her build basketball courts at her park. Since then he has helped her on other projects. He describes Romo as passionate and sincere.

"She's the real deal," he said.

Romo also lobbies in Tallahassee on legislation that impacts immigrants. Last session she grabbed the hands of state Sen. J.D. Alexander and prayed for him in the hallway of the Capitol. Alexander was charged with handling an immigration bill that would have required employers to use the federal government's e-Verify system to check a prospective hire's work status.

Alexander, a wealthy citrus and cattle baron, opposed the e-Verify measure, and by the end of the session, the immigration bill was defeated altogether. "Alexander was a huge help to us this year," Romo said.

In recent years, as the county spent more than $20 million paving roads, adding sidewalks, improving drainage and building new homes in Tommytown, Romo played a major role explaining the improvements to the community. She has been influential in bringing attention to Tommytown's needs, said George Romagnoli, the county's Community Development director.

"She is the definition of an advocate, always telling power what the community needed and what they wanted," Romagnoli said. "And she was not just a talker. She has developed programs and facilities for her people to have better lives."

Her style rankles critics

After multiple divorces and suicide attempts, Romo felt like the Catholic Church would never forgive her. But her relationship with God only grew stronger.

Romo parted ways with the Catholic Church and was ordained in June 2003 by the Blessed Assurance Temple, a nondenominational church in Venice Beach.

She remembers jumping for joy after she was ordained. "That was the most important thing in my life," she said, "because it added validation."

People describe Romo as persistent and headstrong. Her determination gets things done. But her single-mindedness turns some people off.

Maricela Castillo, a program coordinator for Catholic Charities, said she has often tried to get Romo to cooperate with their events, but Romo never shows up.

"I don't know where her heart is," Castillo said. "She opened up a clinic, which we have a clinic here, and we don't know what kind of services they provide or it is never shared information. And it is not accessible to everyone."

The United Latino Council tried to start a local crime watch in 2008, but member Oscar Salas said the effort fell apart after a community meeting in which Romo became confrontational with then-Sheriff Bob White, known for his tough stance on illegal immigration.

"Bob White has never been nice to our people," Romo said. "And I don't think I was confrontational. I may have asked some questions about how much he really wanted to help, but I don't think that derailed the crime watch."

State Sen. Mike Fasano remembers butting heads with Romo in his early days as a legislator. In hindsight, he realized it was because she was blunt and assertive.

"I didn't appreciate her manner of getting the job done," Fasano said. "I have since come to realize the zeal she has for people she serves shows how truly committed she is to helping them."

Early on that fire became a wedge in her third marriage, to John Simmons, which lasted a few years in the 1980s. Romo said he never understood why she did what she did, including why she lived where she did — on the same street as the organization.

"I think we just married each other because we didn't want to be alone," she said.

After what has been her final divorce, she decided she wasn't Margaret Bearden, Edwards or Simmons. She went to a judge and reclaimed her birth name: Margarita Romo.

In 2001, Romo adopted 16-year-old Felicitas Morales, with the hope of helping her obtain status as a legal resident. The mother-daughter relationship soured, though Morales declined to elaborate on the reasons. She filed for emancipation and joined the Army.

Romo helped line up donations and scholarships to put a couple of kids through Saint Leo University. The two young men live with her, and they volunteer at the office.

"It's the least I can do, after getting a free education," said Jose Amateco, a junior who will complete his engineering degree in two years.

Funding for the organization mostly comes from private grants and community donations. It typically collects $200,000 to $400,000 a year.

A controversy about money broke out a decade ago. The tax records for Farmworkers Self-Help show the nonprofit took in nearly $900,000 in 2001. One of Romo's late friends, Angela Meslans, left the organization about $300,000. Meslans' son, Maurice, said the money was earmarked to pay a certain Farmworkers' employee's salary for the next decade, though he acknowledged an organization can use donations however it chooses.

Romo let that employee go and said she put the money toward a park. She said she thought the money was for whatever the organization needed.

Romo said she's heard the rumors about how she uses Farmworkers Self-Help for personal gain.

"People think I am getting rich off my organization," she said. "But I don't own anything. It all belongs to Farmworkers' Self-Help." Her home is in the agency's name. So is her car, she said.

Evelyn Bearden said her mother has been helping people for as long as she can remember.

"When I was kid, I got up one morning and our kitchen table was gone," she said. "My mom had given it away to some family she didn't know, but needed a table."

Devoted to the end

Romo doesn't know who will take on the mission she started.

"But I do think it's going to be someone who is just as passionate as I am about this community," she said. "This isn't a job that can be advertised in the newspaper."

It is also not a 40-hour-a-week gig. Romo spends her days taking phone calls, attending to people who walk in needing help and taking people where they need to go. On the weekends, she continues to host a Bible study for kids.

In 1995, Romo had a heart attack. Her second husband, Bruce Edwards, came back into her life as a friend. To this day they maintain a platonic relationship. Edwards is the organization's bookkeeper.

Romo has not slowed down. She often forgets to eat because she is so busy and doesn't want to leave the office.

Her priorities: making sure an Arizona- or Alabama-type of immigration law doesn't make it to Florida.

And teaching kids the word of God.

"This is what God planned for me," Romo said. "And I will be here until the day I die."

Times staff writer Lisa Buie and researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Life of farmworkers' advocate defined by passion, service 10/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 3:40pm]

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