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Hit hard by coronavirus, Plant City farmworkers turn to charity for help

Colectivo Árbol, based in Tarpon Springs, enlists farmworkers as volunteers to provide groceries, fresh produce and advice.

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PLANT CITY — Many people are hurting from the coronavirus pandemic, either sickened or losing income from its economic ripples, but few feel the pain as keenly as farmworkers.

Martiana Cruz, 22, came down with the virus, had to quit working and found only part-time employment when she was able to get back on the job. Like many farmworkers, the Plant City woman has come to rely on charities to pay for rent and groceries.

Cruz joined some 300 farmworker families this month at a community fair in Plant City where they were offered groceries, fresh produce, flu vaccines and legal advice. The event was arranged by Colectivo Árbol, a nonprofit based in Tarpon Springs that enlists farmworkers as volunteers.

“They have been a helping hand all this time,” said Cruz, speaking in Spanish. She is the main breadwinner in a household made up of her two children, her two younger brothers and her mother Antonia Cruz, 43.

Martiana Cruz, 22, waves at a friend with daughter Ana, 6 months, after getting a free flu shot during a community fair in Plant City.
Martiana Cruz, 22, waves at a friend with daughter Ana, 6 months, after getting a free flu shot during a community fair in Plant City. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“They need us,” Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, founder of Colectivo Árbol, said in Spanish. “We owe them for all the fruits and vegetables that we consume. They are the strength of our country.”

More than 151,000 people who work in fields and groves across the country have fallen ill with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a recent study by Microsoft and Purdue University. The three hardest-hit states: Texas, with 18,530 infected farmworkers; California, with 11,880; and Florida, with 7,070.

The daughter of Mexican farmworkers, Jeffers-Chávez started Colectivo Árbol in Kissimmee during 2017 as Puerto Ricans fled for Central Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

The group has stepped up its efforts since early March and the devastation wrought by the pandemic, organizing weekly community fairs. A year ago, Colectivo Árbol — the “tree collective” in English — typically prepared 120 bags of food every 15 days. Now, the number is 300 per week.

“It’s an increase of more than 100 percent in our community aid,” Jeffers-Chávez said. “I’ve never seen a situation like this.”

Colectivo Árbol gets support from individuals, government agencies such as the Mexican Consulate in Orlando, the nonprofit Boricuas de Corazón of Tampa, and small businesses including dozens of Greek-owned stores and restaurants in Tarpon Springs.

The volunteer farmworkers who staff the nonprofit know what people like them need.

Isaret Jeffers-Chavez, right, of Colectivo Árbol, shares her delight over a free snack during a community fair that the nonprofit organized to help farmworker families Oct. 16 in Plant City.
Isaret Jeffers-Chavez, right, of Colectivo Árbol, shares her delight over a free snack during a community fair that the nonprofit organized to help farmworker families Oct. 16 in Plant City. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Karime Pecina, 32, has worked in the fields of Plant City since she was 20. At the Colectivo Árbol community fair, Pecina got a box of fresh meat, canned goods, a gallon of milk, vegetables and facemasks for her two kids, Alma, 6, and Victoria, 2.

In mid-June, Pecina learned that coronavirus cases were increasing in the fields of Wimauma and Plant City. She feared contracting COVID-19 and quit her job. She plans to return in November to pick strawberries.

“It was difficult because it is a job that I know very well,” Pecina, a Mexican native, said in Spanish. “For now, it’s the best I can do.”

Her husband Timoteo Molina, 32, works in construction so she knew the family could count on an income when she decided to stay home.

Most farmworkers never stopped.

Six months ago, Flor Morales, 39, of Mulberry, left her job picking blueberries because her diabetes makes her vulnerable to COVID-19. But her husband Miguel Cedilla, 33, kept picking — until Morales asked him to look for a job where the risk of catching the virus is less. She reminded him that the family has no health insurance.

Cedilla got a new job as a construction worker but he had already caught the virus and began showing symptoms — a cough, fever and body aches. Less than two weeks later, Morales and their two children, Jasmine, 9, and Pedro, 7, came down with it, too.

“My husband was the one who contaminated us because he got it from work, but he told me, 'If I don’t work, we don’t eat’,” Morales said in Spanish.

Cedilla and the children soon recovered but Morales had to be hospitalized for three days. Five months later, she still feels sharp pains under her ribs, dizziness and some fatigue.

Miguel Cedilla, 33, of Mulberry, left his blueberry-picking job for fear that he, like many farmworkers, would come down with coronavirus. But it was too late, and Cedilla infected his family: wife Flor Morales, 39, and children Jasmine Cedilla, 9, and Pedro Wilson Cedilla, 7.
Miguel Cedilla, 33, of Mulberry, left his blueberry-picking job for fear that he, like many farmworkers, would come down with coronavirus. But it was too late, and Cedilla infected his family: wife Flor Morales, 39, and children Jasmine Cedilla, 9, and Pedro Wilson Cedilla, 7. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

She said this won’t keep her from returning to the fields, though, as she picked up a bag of food and personal care products from the Colectivo Árbol event.

She plans to start working again in December to help pay the bills, including more than $2,200 for medical expenses such as blood oxygen tests, an X-ray of her lungs and medicines.

Said Morales, “We are still suffering the consequences.”

• • •

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