Israel Lopez remembers the day he drove away from the home that was almost his.
Friends waved goodbye in the street. Behind them sat the mobile home where Lopez and his wife had painted the ceilings sky blue, the walls white.
Lopez hoped to set down roots in that small home near Charleston, S.C., a safe place where their son could grow up with lots of friends and huge soccer fields. He had a high-paying construction job that gave Lopez, an undocumented immigrant, the leverage he needed to climb from Mexico's strawberry fields toward the American middle class.
But last year Lopez was laid off as the construction industry collapsed, along with his dreams of home ownership. Lopez drove away that November day with what remained of the home's down payment in his pocket. They headed south, toward Florida, returning to the strawberry fields.
He was not alone. Lopez, 26, became one of thousands of immigrants — both legal and illegal — to flood farm fields this year, slipping back into the shadows of the migratory lifestyle they'd fought for years to leave behind.
"I was very sad leaving the house that day," Lopez said. "I was as sad as the day I left Mexico."
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The children started to disappear in early April.
Migrating families usually leave for field work in northern states in late May or June when school lets out, said Roy Moral, the principal at Cypress Creek Elementary in Ruskin, where 13 percent of students are from migrant families.
But this year, they were gone early. Locally, there weren't enough strawberry jobs to go around. At Cypress Creek, 30 percent of the students' families labor in the fields, Moral said. With field and construction jobs in short supply, some fathers who stopped migrating years ago began moving alone around Florida in search of work.
Legal immigrants — who held the advantage with proper work documents — competed with illegal immigrants for even the toughest of field jobs, planting and picking strawberries.
Just a few years ago, during the construction boom, farmers worried about getting enough workers to move the strawberries out of the fields, said Carl Grooms, owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City.
But this year, he filled his 300 daily slots without a problem. Usually 15 to 20 extra workers showed up to fill in for no-shows. But one day at the start of the season, Grooms drove into the fields and saw about 150 workers standing around. Some had come from as far as Orlando.
Epifanio Hernandez, 39, returned to the strawberry fields for three months this year after he lost his roofing job.
A legal immigrant, he picked strawberries and oranges in Florida in the late 1980s before working up through cable, manufacturing and plumbing jobs.
"I was looking around for anything," said Hernandez, who has an $800 monthly mortgage and five children to support.
Alvaro Pascual, 33, of Dover said the added competition cost him about a week's worth of work during the strawberry season, which ended around late March. He plans to work through the spring squash season and then head to Michigan with his wife and three children.
The traveling wears on Pascual's family. But at least with agriculture work, his family can get help with day care, he said.
Barbara Mainster is the director of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a nonprofit that provides day care and Head Start programs for migrant families across Florida.
Swamped with families returning to farm work, her agency applied for federal dollars to open six new centers statewide.
"We need another center in Plant City and Dover, desperately," she said. "Everywhere, there is a need."
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Those first days in Plant City's strawberry fields this winter, Israel Lopez's back ached. He worked so slowly he barely cleared $100 a week. "It's hard to get used to this again," said Lopez, who had been away from the fields for seven years.
In South Carolina, Lopez was a machine operator on a construction crew, making between $750 and $1,400 a week. He had saved enough to send for his wife and son.
Over time, Lopez bought three used vehicles. He and his wife fixed up a mobile home. He saved $12,000 for a down payment. They decorated it with bamboo plants and landscape photos and filled it with toys for their 4-year-old son, Albert.
When Lopez lost his job last year, he sold his vehicles and paid $500 for a ride to Plant City, where he'd heard there was work in the fields. Those first difficult weeks, they lived off savings, paying $50 a week for a room in a trailer they share with another family. They missed their large network of friends in South Carolina.
Eventually, Lopez relearned the knack of cupping the strawberry, breaking it at the stem without bruising the fruit. Soon he was making $600 a week. His wife earned $400.
Lopez and his wife will work through the squash and vegetable season this spring and summer in Plant City and then head north, probably to Michigan. He hopes to stop migrating by the time Albert starts elementary school.
"The most important thing is to have a stable job and make a good salary," he said.
Lopez has not forgotten about his home. Whether back in South Carolina or here in Florida, he still plans to buy one.
"One day not too far away," he said, "I'm going to accomplish my dream."
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.