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Hispanic community joins in the parade

For years as she watched the parades at the Florida Strawberry Festival, Gracie Cardenas remembered cold mornings stacking picked plump fruit with frozen fingers.

As her children waved to the passing floats, as they visited the carnival and petting zoos, Cardenas realized they saw little that paid tribute to strawberry workers like her who make the festival possible.

This year, she expects that to change.

Months after launching a Plant City branch of the Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Cardenas and the chamber succeeded in getting an Hispanic-themed float in the parade.

"I have respect for them, and we want to show we appreciate what they do," said Cardenas of the strawberry farm workers.

Cardenas, who picked strawberries as a child and is now a contract negotiator for Paragon Homes, said the float will consist of young women representing 22 countries from Latin America. She's also trying to organize Mexican dancers to be on a float behind the women.

"It's a tribute to the Latin community that works very hard to make the strawberry festival possible," she said. "I lived here all my life. The community needs to speak up."

The festival, which dates back to 1930, evokes Southern charm and rural living. This year, it includes poultry and rabbit shows, decorated diaper contests and concerts by Lonestar and Willie Nelson, not to mention endless appearances of the festival's star - strawberries.

The festival, which starts this year on March 2, is such a big deal for the community that all Plant City schools are off on the day of the grand parade, March 6.

But longtime residents say the area's large Mexican community needs to do more to make its presence felt.

"Sometimes Hispanics wait until the last minute to get stuff done," said Rogelio Villanueva, a Plant City resident who recruits migrant families into the school district's migrant education programs.

Last year, he and others tried to bring in a band from Mexico, but the festival committee already had the entertainment lined up.

"The festival needs to reach out, but we need to do more," he said. "Like everything else, we need to get involved in the schools and community activities so other people can understand we are part of the community. We are not strangers. We need to show them that we are here to stay."

Patsy Brooks, general manager for the Strawberry Festival, said that except for the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, groups with Hispanic heritage have not applied to be in the parade until now. The Ybor chamber said directors there cannot recall ever participating in the festival parade.

"The application process is not hard," Brooks said.

As for entertainment, the festival must think like a business and pay for acts that will draw lots of people, she said. This year, the festival spent $1-million on entertainment acts alone, which does not count equipment, insurance and other expenses.

"Country music lovers are a large segment of people," she said. "We could make a large group of people happy with country western music."

In 2003, the festival paid $10,000 to bring in Grupo Vida, a Tex-Mex band from Texas, she said. Despite it being free to festivalgoers, the concert attracted only about 50 people to the 1,000-seat tent, she said.

But she thinks the Tampa Bay Hispanic chamber's new Plant City branch will be the bridge to draw more of the town's Hispanic population to participate in the festival.

"That's their catalyst," she said.

Greg Burgos, a migrant advocate at Tomlin Middle School in Plant City, said he was happy to see the Tex-Mex band. But for the most part, the farm worker families don't identify with the festival, even though many attend the parade.

"This year, the (Hispanic) chamber making it in is going to be a really big deal," Burgos said. "It's going to let the families know someone is thinking of them."

Hispanic farm workers have not taken the time out of working to learn where to fill out the festival application and how to get a float together, he said. Others are intimidated by the language barrier.

That meant for years, the festivalgoers have overlooked the workers, he said.

"They think of the fruits of the labor. They don't think of the labor."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@spttmes.com.

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