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SOWING THE Seeds of Stability

Off the main road, on the eastern slope of an island in a Citrus County lake, strawberries ripen in rows that extend for 60 acres.

Hunched among the plants, migrant workers, most of them men, pick berries with quick twists of their wrists.

They push knee-high carts ahead of them, filling cardboard flats a handful at a time. When they are finished, they shoulder their loads, carrying them to an open trailer, where a woman waits with a hole-puncher, clipping holes into the worn paper cards that record a day's work.

Each click of the hole-puncher marks a flat of strawberries _ $1.35 in wages. With the season at its peak, the pickers average $60 to $80 a day. They know the berries can't wait. For weeks, they have worked every day, even Sundays.

"If we let one day pass, they would get too ripe ... like this," says Teresa Barrientos in Spanish, lifting a mushy strawberry between her fingers.

In April, the season will be over. Workers will pull sheets of black plastic from the rows, uprooting the plants. Many will move on. Some to Mexico to see their wives and children. Some to the Carolinas to pick tobacco.

Others, like Teresa's husband Alberto, will go north to Starke, where he will pick blueberries for two months.

This year, for the first time, Teresa will stay behind in Floral City with their two children.

In the world where field workers come and go with the seasons, the Barrientos family has decided to settle down.

Their decision puts them among a small group of farmworkers who are able to break their nomadic cycle and put down roots.

The 1990 U.S. Census, taken after harvest time, recorded 22 Hispanics in Floral City, missing dozens of workers who had passed through during that year. This year, more than 60 pickers are on the strawberry farm's payroll.

Throughout Citrus County in the 1990s, the Hispanic population has grown from an estimated 1,700 to more than 2,500. Still, in a county with nearly 108,000 people, Spanish-speakers like Alberto and Teresa Barrientos find few people they can relate to.

Outside the Spanish-speaking pocket of Ferris Farms, they face constant reminders that they are different. In language and appearance, they remain foreigners.

In 1989, when Teresa was 18, her parents paid to have her brought across the Rio Grande illegally. They wanted her to help pick strawberries in Floral City.

In the fields, she met the man who would become her husband. By the end of the next season, she and Alberto were married. They set out on the migrant circuit after the strawberries were gone. It was a natural choice. Alberto already knew that life, having picked apples in Washington, strawberries in Oregon and grapes in California.

They traveled to Michigan to pick apples and to Georgia to harvest onions, sleeping in their car along roadsides. Each stop led to a new temporary home.

Then Teresa became pregnant. At the hospital in Inverness, Alberto did his best to translate the doctor's words for his wife as she labored to deliver their daughter Johana.

Alberto Jr. came a year later. Having the children changed everything. It made them want to stay put.

Johana is 5 now and attends pre-kindergarten at Floral City Elementary, in a special program for children considered "at-risk." Alberto Jr. is 4. Each morning one of his parents holds his hand as they walk to a bus that takes him to a federally funded Head Start program.

While Alberto and Teresa understand some English, they speak little. Often they rely on their daughter to interpret. Johana translates for her mother when Teresa visits Johana's teacher. Recently, Alberto recalls his daughter noticing that he sped up at an intersection's yellow light. "Slow down," she had told him in English.

It was for their children that the couple decided to make their home in Floral City. Nearly two years ago, they bought a used, baby-blue-and-white mobile home under a spreading oak on a quiet street. It cost $13,000, and they took out a $10,000 mortgage, hoping the house would bring stability to the lives of their son and daughter.

"I want my children to grow up here and be somebody so they don't have to work in the fields like we do," Alberto says. As his wife later puts it, "We didn't want our kids to suffer."

They don't want them to know the soreness that grips the hamstrings and buttocks at the beginning of the picking season. Or the ache that creeps into Alberto's lower back. Or the sudden pain that shoots down Teresa's hands when she picks too fast.

Alberto says he hopes that one day, his children will be able to work inside, in an air-conditioned building, away from the heat of the field.

Tough as their jobs are, though, Alberto and Teresa say they are satisfied to continue picking strawberries. The berries have been good to them.

"To be able to do what they did, really, is a tremendous victory," says Margarita Romo, who has met the couple and works as director of Farmworkers Self-Help Inc., a Dade City advocacy group. "They have to work awfully hard to save their money and make that happen. It is a feat, because if it were easy, more farmworkers would be able to do it."

She says only a fraction of the field workers the agency serves _ some coming from as far away as Floral City to receive food, legal services or medical attention _ have been able to buy a home.

The rest, she says, are caught in a cycle of endless travel, struggling to save what they can.

Many Mexican men who have come alone to Floral City wire money to their families regularly. Alberto and Teresa put some of their earnings toward a babysitter, who watches their children while they work through the weekends.

They feed Johana and Alberto Jr. with the help of food stamps and sometimes go out for dinner at Pizza Hut or the Golden Corral, as a reward for a day of work.

Alberto puts on a fresh T-shirt and jeans, while Teresa wears lipstick, makeup and a dainty necklace with a "MOM" pendant hanging from it.

"Here, one lives in comfort," she says.

The family has a telephone and running water in the house _ things Teresa never had in Mexico.

They also have made some good friends.

It was in a supermarket several years ago that the couple met Ernestina Simonson, a fiery housewife of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who grew up in Long Island and calls the family "my people."

Alberto introduces her by saying "this is my mother."

Simonson, 67, says it is important for Latinos to stand up for their rights _ and for each other. More bold than Alberto and Teresa, and fluent in English, she translates for them during visits to the doctor and stands in as grandmother at school events.

The cushioned chairs in the living room of the family's mobile home came courtesy of Simonson.

"I love them like they're my children," she says. "Who's going to help them if I don't?"

In the evening, amid images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging on the walls of their home, the family watches television. Alberto prefers the Spanish channel, but when the children get their turn, they like to flip to English cartoons.

At bedtime, Teresa says the family often prays, giving thanks for food and work and asking God to watch over them.

Outside their home, though, while shopping or running errands, the two sometimes get the feeling they are not accepted by white English-speakers.

At lunchtime, for instance, when pickers file into Floral City's convenience stores, their berry-stained hands and soiled clothes mark them as different from the leisure-dressed retirees and clerks in work uniforms, who are the norm.

"Ay Dios, how they give us ugly looks," Teresa says. "There are people who don't want us here, I think ... They look at us like we don't belong here."

Simonson says she has seen those same looks while chatting with other Mexican farmworkers in stores. From time to time, she says she has heard pointed comments like, "They're in America ... Why don't they speak English?"

"There's so much prejudice," Simonson says. Occasionally, she has spoken to white gawkers, saying in defense that English is her native language and that she chooses to speak Spanish with these people, who are her friends _ hard-working people, she tells them.

Facing periodic hostility, "the people are afraid to talk their language," Simonson says of the strawberry pickers.

Teresa carries this timidness and breaks into smiles and chatter only when she knows she is among others who speak Spanish.

The language barrier makes life a struggle.

Earlier this year, Teresa damaged the family's minivan beyond repair in an accident. An officer cited her $77 for making an illegal left turn and gave her a second citation ordering her to appear in court for using a learner's permit to drive alone.

She paid the $77 ticket, thinking it was because she had not carried her daughter in a car seat. (The child safety seat requirement did not apply to Johana, however, because she had passed her fourth birthday, the legal cut-off date.)

When Teresa appeared before the judge, she brought a friend who has a better command of English to translate. A bailiff tried to help, too. But Teresa understood little except the judge's request that she come back with a professional interpreter and his words about possible penalties. He told her that he had the power to put her in jail, fine her $500 or deport her if she were here illegally.

Teresa, like her husband, has legal permission to be here, but the judge's words haunted her for weeks. She couldn't sleep well, she had headaches, and she considered returning to Mexico. Her fear subsided only when she found a Spanish-speaking legal advocate who agreed to represent her for free. The woman explained that Teresa had little reason to worry. At a final hearing, the judge ordered her to pay $165.

Still, Teresa says she has come to believe that she will be treated differently in this country because of who is she is.

"As Mexicans," she says, "we are always put aside."

Change comes slowly in Floral City. Along Orange Avenue, the town's main street, 100-year-old oak trees stretch over the pavement, forming a tunnel. The trees were planted in the 1880s, when some of the town's first settlers began to grow oranges and vegetables in the surrounding areas. The man credited with planting the oaks also is thought to have named the town after the wildflowers he found growing here. Flowers still can be seen in Floral City, sprouting along roads just outside town.

The most visible change came to the town of 2,600 in 1991, when the flashing stop light became a standard traffic signal. To shop at a supermarket, people have to drive to Inverness, about seven miles north.

Downtown is formed around the intersection of Orange Avenue and U.S. 41, a T lined with about two dozen small businesses that cover the basics of daily life _ a drug store, a pawn shop, a bank, a bar.

Inside Floral City Foods, a small convenience store on the main thoroughfare, the first signs of change are emerging. The store's owners have begun to carry specialty Mexican foods in one section of an aisle and near the colas in the store's cooler _ masa for making tortillas, special enchilada cheese, chorizo, nopalitos (jarred cactus) and Mexican pastries.

"We find out what they like and what sells and keep it around," says owner Ann Sudheimer. "They love that mango juice."

Sudheimer, who has learned a few words in Spanish, says the strawberry pickers who come in are good customers who don't make trouble.

"I trust them; that's the main thing," she says.

At work on the farm, Anglo laborers do not pick in the fields. They stay on the sidelines, loading flats of strawberries onto trucks. This job pays little more than minimum wage, but it is easier than the constant stooping and squatting that picking demands.

Picking during the high season can pay $8 an hour or more, depending on a worker's speed, but the body pays dearly for the work.

Standing in the field as pickers' hands rustle through the plants below him, the farm's manager, Al Herndon says, "They do work the white man would never do."

Al, who is white, says he respects the Mexican workers. He says they are better "adapted" to the work than U.S.-born whites or blacks. He explains: "They're a lot faster and more agile with their hands."

"They're born into it," he says. "These people come from generations and generations of hard-working people."

In other parts of the state this winter, work was scarce for migrant farmworkers after a harsh January freeze that killed many vegetable crops, eliminating an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 jobs.

But strawberries survived in Floral City. Consequently, so did the workers.

Living in farm-owned houses where rent is $1 a day, most of the pickers have been able to save enough to scrape by during the cropless months.

Alberto and Teresa are one of two families working in the fields who own their own homes. They also own two vehicles. One is an 1984 Econoline van, a replacement for the minivan that Teresa wrecked.

"With the money of the strawberry," Teresa says proudly, opening the van's doors to reveal a dark red interior.

This van carries them in the morning to the edge of the field, where they pick up their carts and set out into the rows.

Teresa and Alberto move side-by-side pushing their small carts in a routine they have honed over years. Teresa wears surgical gloves to protect her hands from the berries' tiny espinas and pesticides that are regularly applied.

Alberto, quiet with concentration, advances from plant to plant, stripping them of fruit bare-handed with a polished motion that twists berries free while holding their green crowns intact.

"The good to the flat and the bad to the ground!" calls out a field leader in Spanish.

From a nearby tape player, traditional ranchera music blares out over the furrows, replacing the country and rap that the truck loaders had played earlier in the day.

The sweet smell of trampled strawberries fills the air, and a distant water pump grumbles, driving water drop-by-drop into the sandy soil.

By the end of day, Alberto and Teresa together have picked 120 flats. A good yield, they say. They have added a bit more to their savings, something to help them get by in the three summer months when there is no field work and Alberto turns to unemployment compensation.

This day has brought their family one more day of hope, one more day of sustenance, one more day toward their children's future.

Their empty strawberry carts slung over their shoulders, the two pause for a moment, looking out over the field.

"Tomorrow it all begins again," she says quietly.

"Tomorrow," he agrees. "Again."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.