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Bringing food to the fields

Founder of local charity for farmworkers finds new purpose during the coronavirus.
Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, founder of Colectivo Arbol, an organization dedicated to helping Florida farmworkers.
Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, founder of Colectivo Arbol, an organization dedicated to helping Florida farmworkers. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published May 18, 2020
Updated May 18, 2020

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

An occasional series.

Unlike the women picking next to her in Plant City, Isaret Jeffers-Chávez does not need to work the fields to survive. But she feels at peace there, in the blistering sun, ranchera music sweeping over jalapeno plants, with a slow-filling bucket and sweat on her brow.

The 48-year-old founder of Colectivo Arbol remembers a fancy banquet last year in Kissimmee. She was about to receive a Women’s History Month award. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio asked who she was there representing.

She pointed to his plate and responded, “I only represent the community that put these vegetables on this table.”

She wants people to remember that farmworkers have been deemed essential. After all, they have kept working through the pandemic to bring you food.

Many of them are undocumented, like she once was. They risked their lives to travel north, some craving opportunity, some out of despair. They came because American farms offered jobs.

“I understand perfectly that crossing the Arizona desert is walking between life and death,” she said. “I know the hunger, the thirst, the fear of bandits and sexual predators. I know what it is like to be hidden in a trailer. I understand perfectly women who are silent victims of domestic violence. I know a life in the United States where you are ignored, discriminated against, bullied at work and afraid to speak out. I know about paying taxes for years and not being able to vote. I know perfectly well what it is like to fall asleep, wake up and have no idea what is going to happen to your children.”

In her journey, she was often afraid. “Fear paralyzes,” she explains, “so I tell myself, ‘You have fear? Go forward and do it with fear. You can’t just stop and stay in the same place.’” She wishes everyone understood what it was like to be a migrant.

In 2009, she married a U.S. citizen, and life changed. Out of the shadows, she found her voice.

“It gave me the security to be able to help all these women. That’s why I started Colectivo Arbol.” The charity — Collective Tree in English — organizes clinics, educational outreach, legal services and counseling, helps with food distribution and provides disaster relief.

Jeffers-Chávez spent the first two weeks of the quarantine at home, wondering how the disease might spread among tight groups of field workers. Would their cases even get counted?

She heard how the nearly $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, designed to aid families during the crisis, excluded many undocumented farmworkers, most of whom are taxpayers. And because of all the restaurant closings, many farmworker families in east Hillsborough County were down to two days of work a week.

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A local restaurant owner who was closing shop called Jeffers-Chávez and wanted to donate surplus food. Another charity, Boricuas de Corazón (Puerto Ricans with Heart), called, too. They had a warehouse of food, but needed her help to get it distributed.

“There was this panic, when I watched the news about all the people dying. I asked my husband, ‘How am I going to deliver all this food without getting COVID?’ Like I said, fear paralyzes.”

But that day, she got hold of gloves and wipes. She covered her face with a bandana and moved forward.

Do you know a Helper? Contact jpendygraft@tampabay.com.

Read other stories in this series:

Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition

SPC professor creates 3D-printed face shields for medical workers

Retired teacher turned mask maker finds herself busier and busier

Isolation, frustration inspired action for Gulfport woman

Community activist finds new role during the pandemic

Grandfather’s actions in 1929 inspired 2020 donation

A canceled party, an awful fire, a new purpose