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Families reunited in Tampa Bay area after decades of separation

A visiting program brings some solace for immigrants and their families
Maria Jacinta Leon hugs her mother Virginia Centeno Pallares for the first time in person in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover.
Maria Jacinta Leon hugs her mother Virginia Centeno Pallares for the first time in person in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 28

DOVER — Antioco Gonzalez came to the United States from the Mexican state of Guanajuato at 25 to work as a construction worker.

But the price of life in the shadows rose over the years. The 46-year-old husband and father never had a chance to see his mother during that time.

This week, however, Gonzalez finally saw and hugged Maria Placida, 77, after 21 years of separation.

Antioco Gonzalez, 46 hugs his mother Maria Placida for the first time in 21 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover.
Antioco Gonzalez, 46 hugs his mother Maria Placida for the first time in 21 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It’s a dream come true,” Gonzalez said Thursday. “I had prayed a lot for this day to come.”

Mother and son cried together while a group of Mariachis performed songs in honor of reunification and love. The air was filled with the aroma of traditional food.

“My dear son,” said the mother. “We wait so long.”

The event was held Thursday at the farm Los Potrillos in Dover. The farm opened a huge space under a metal roof where dozens of families gathered in front of a stage decorated with Mexican and American flags. Each parent was introduced to the audience before they were reunited with their sons and daughters.

The reunification was part of a humanitarian initiative of nonprofit Colectivo Arbol, the state of Guanajuato and The Guanajuatenses Federation.

Organizers arranged visas and airplane tickets for Maria Placida and 29 other senior parents from Guanajuato to visit their children in Tampa and other Florida cities for four weeks.

77 year old Virginia Centeno Pallares reacts after seeing her daughter in person for the first time in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover.
77 year old Virginia Centeno Pallares reacts after seeing her daughter in person for the first time in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The program started in Florida five years ago to reunite Mexican immigrants and their parents, said Isaret Jeffers, founder of Colectivo Arbol, a group based in Tarpon Springs that helps Florida farmworkers.

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

The group has stepped up its efforts, organizing weekly community fairs and preparing 300 bags of food every month for families in need. Since the start of the pandemic, Colectivo Arbol has also been organizing clinics and vaccinations for farmworkers across Central Florida.

Jeffers said she understands the difficulties and isolation many immigrants suffer.

“This is a special moment for these families who work very hard,” said Jeffers. “It is a day of celebration and joy for all of us.”

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Like many immigrants unable to return to their native countries, Mexican Carolina Marquez, 39, made a promise to invite her parents, Antonio Marquez, 65, and Hortencia Castillo, 70, to visit in the U.S.

Maria Jacinta Leon reacts after seeing her mother Virginia for the first time in person in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover.
Maria Jacinta Leon reacts after seeing her mother Virginia for the first time in person in more than 22 years during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But Marquez got married and had four kids to take care of. The result: She hadn’t seen her parents for almost two decades. A year ago she heard about the Colectivo Arbol initiative and got in contact with Jeffers. Finally, her parents made the trip to Tampa on Thursday.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to me after so many difficulties that we have experienced,” said Marquez, who now lives in Lehigh Acres.

Her family wants to visit Disney and Busch Gardens.

“We are going to enjoy ourselves as a family and do as much as we can,” said her mother, Hortencia Castillo.

Another reunification brought joy to a large Mexican family after 27 years apart.

Mariela Candelario, 49, and her three siblings grew up in Guanajuato but each moved to the U.S. to seek better options.

Parents arrive at Rancho Los Potrillos during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover.
Parents arrive at Rancho Los Potrillos during a family reunification event organized by the Colectivo Arbol, a local organization that reunited parents from the Mexican state of Guanajuato with their sons and daughters for the first time in decades on Thursday in Dover. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Without close relatives in the U.S. the siblings started from scratch. They settled in Tampa and then Ohio. Candelario credits her parents, Carmelo, 72, and Alicia, 68, for helping them achieve their dreams and encouraging them to always be proud of their roots.

“My parents are our pillars,” she said.

The siblings and their parents plan to take a trip to a state park and have a special dinner night with live music, a show and a champagne toast

“We want to celebrate like never before,” said Candelario. “It’s a gift from God to be able to be together.”

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