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Rejected by bank as migrant, Plant City woman now helps others at credit union

Rocio Smith, 50, picked fruit with her farmworker family before getting into banking. She knows the financial challenges low-income people face.
Rocio Smith, working this month at an Achieva Credit Union office in Land O' Lakes, spent time as a mental health counselor helping low-income Hispanic communities navigate financial challenges.
Rocio Smith, working this month at an Achieva Credit Union office in Land O' Lakes, spent time as a mental health counselor helping low-income Hispanic communities navigate financial challenges. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 27
Updated Oct. 28

LAND O’ LAKES — Rocio Smith remembers when she was 7 and her mother took her along to the bank so she could help the Spanish-speaking woman with translation as she tried to get coins for the laundromat.

The teller at the bank in Sun City Center refused, saying the money they brought along was too dirty.

“It was very sad to explain that to my mother because I knew it wasn’t right,” Smith said.

Part of a family of farmworkers, Smith made a promise to herself to get into the banking industry — and to use the opportunity to help others.

Now 50, Smith is the new market vice president in Hillsborough County for Dunedin-based Achieva Credit Union. The path that led her to the job included a psychology degree from the University of South Florida, mental health counseling for low-income and migrant families in Ruskin, and regional manager for 17 years with Wells Fargo, helping Hispanic communities connect with banking services.

It’s a path marked by service and inspiration to others, say those who know her — all in keeping with that promise she made as a girl.

“In our lives, we have many things that shape us and makes us different,” Smith said in an interview at the credit union’s Land O’ Lakes office.

As a teenager in 1988, Rocio Smith helped her farmworker family harvest crops in Florida and other states.
As a teenager in 1988, Rocio Smith helped her farmworker family harvest crops in Florida and other states. [ Courtesy of Rocio Smith ]

Carmen Galarza, 44, an entrepreneur in Wimauma, met Smith in the early 1980s, “when Wimauma had more cows and orange trees than people,” Galarza said.

“Her passion is unique and her love for the community is invaluable. I have never met a person as devoted as Rocio,” Galarza said. “She always wanted the best for everyone. And she never forgot her roots.”

Smith grew up in Brownsville, Texas, with her parents, Jose Guadalupe, 83, and the late Gloria Rocha, and five siblings — Ruben, Ricardo, Raul, Rosalba and Raquel.

Seasonal farm work presented her family with joys and challenges.

“I can remember my soft-spoken father, at 4 in the morning, whispering, ‘It’s time to help your mother,’ and I could smell the homemade flour tortillas.”

To survive, the family followed the crops to Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida.

“When I was little, my parents didn’t have enough food to feed us and I remember my mother crying because she couldn’t provide.”

Her mother would push the canned food to the front of the cupboard so her children wouldn’t see how little they had.

The family traveled in a small green van and her father set up boards and blankets as their beds. They collected water at rest stops to take showers at night in the woods.

From April to August in those days, children worked the fields and orchards alongside their parents. Those too small to reach the fruit were left in the car, Smith said.

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Some died of asphyxiation, others from lung diseases blamed on pesticides. Still others were victims of sexual abuse.

“I lost my best friend in an abandoned refrigerator,” Smith said. “She had gotten out of the car and was playing hide and seek with her brother.”

Smith’s family moved to Florida in the late 1970s and settled in Wimauma. Smith attended a local day care and still remembers it as a little piece of heaven. The center came under the supervision of the Immokalee-based Redlands Christian Migrant Association and Smith became known as an “RCMA baby.”

“That was like my second home because I stayed there when I couldn’t help my parents. They took good care of us.”

An early family photo shows Rocio Smith when she was attending the RCMA day care in south Hillsborough County, a place she called "a little piece of heaven."
An early family photo shows Rocio Smith when she was attending the RCMA day care in south Hillsborough County, a place she called "a little piece of heaven." [ Courtesy Rocio Smith ]

Her mother later went to work at the day care and stayed for more than 40 years, until she was almost 70.

Macrina Vega, 51, an RCMA area coordinator, remembers Smith and her mother as people who enjoyed helping others without expecting anything in return.

“Rocio’s mother was a role model to all, especially her daughter. You can see her influence in who Rocio has become,” Vega said.

Smith learned the value of work. She graduated from East Bay High School in Gibsonton with honors. She credits her father with helping her achieve her dreams.

“He always encouraged us to study, to be good students, to learn and to have big dreams. He didn’t want to see us working on the fields forever, like him. He liked to say, ‘No quiero verlos aquí después de los 16 años.”

Translation: “I don’t want to see you here after you turn 16.”

Rocio Smith was a brigade commander in 1989 with the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at East Bay High School in Gibsonton. She graduated with honors and went on to attend the University of South Florida.
Rocio Smith was a brigade commander in 1989 with the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at East Bay High School in Gibsonton. She graduated with honors and went on to attend the University of South Florida. [ Courtesy Rocio Smith ]

Smith received scholarships to USF and the University of Tampa and attended USF. After graduation, she worked at Martin Medical Center in Ruskin and the Wimauma Family Health Center.

She was able to help patients whose mental health issues arose from poverty because she had navigated poverty. This helped lead her to her career in banking.

In her new position, Smith encourages her customers to learn how to save money for the future.

“It’s a personal commitment,” she said.

In the process, she serves as an inspiration, said Luz Gaona, 45, a speech pathologist in Ruskin.

“She has motivated many of us to be someone in life, and to think that many things can be achieved when we show dedication and confidence in our abilities,” Gaona said. “She is a pillar as a professional and an example to follow as the daughter of farmers.”

Smith met her husband, Michael, in high school and they’ve been married for 30 years. They live in Plant City and have a son, Michael Smith, 27.

“We have a home surrounded by strawberry fields,” Smith said. “It reminds me of my childhood.”