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Plant City church sees rapid change

Father Tom Anastasia looks out from the pulpit at St. Clement Catholic Church and sees a congregation shaped by agriculture.

One way or another, he says, most everyone in this close-knit community of believers knows someone who has worked the fields, picking strawberries, blueberries, melons or tomatoes — jobs held almost entirely by Hispanic migrant workers.

Drive along Alexander, Collins or Reynolds streets, or through the historic downtown, and one of Plant City's biggest stories of the past 10 years comes into view: restaurants, dress shops and bodegas that tell of the city's emergent Hispanic population.

But gauging that population is tricky. Government numbers tell only part of the story.

Officially, Plant City's Hispanic population stands at 9,984.

The number of Hispanics nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, accounting for nearly all of Plant City's population growth after 2000, Census figures show. Today, 28 percent of the city is Hispanic.

Unofficially, Anastasia suspects the numbers are higher.

Those who agreed to be counted probably had documented status, he said. But numerous other Hispanics, including some undocumented workers in the fields, were not counted for fear of being deported.

St. Clement's enrollment numbers hint at a truer picture: From 2000 to 2010, the parish, on Alexander Street near Interstate 4, saw Hispanic membership expand from 250 to 2,500.

Lourdes Villanueva, a volunteer at St. Clement, agrees the official assessment is woefully low. When the Census was taken, Villanueva was asked by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to bolster Hispanic participation. Many undocumented Hispanics refused to fill out the registration forms, she said.

How many? Thousands, she believes, though she isn't certain. Ironically, one reason for the inaccurate count is the government itself, which enacted tougher immigration measures to try to halt border crossings while at the same time pushing for a more thorough counting of Hispanic migrants.

"It used to be you could leave Mexico, go across the border to work as a migrant worker, then go back to your family," Villanueva said. "Now they can't go back. If they do go back, they'll never get back in."

Anastasia got a lesson in just how large the area's Hispanic population had become shortly after arriving at St. Clement in 2007.

Told of the burgeoning crowds at the annual feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Anastasia opted to move the festival — a mix of religion and culture — to Plant City Stadium.

The move had surprising results: The three-day event drew 3,000 people. Last year, it topped 5,000. Planning for it has become a chore unto itself.

"Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Super Bowl of feast days in Plant City," he said.

Times Staff Writer Rich Shopes. Researcher John Martin contributed to this article.

Plant City church sees rapid change 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 5:30am]
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