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Dreams deferred for a migrant worker in Plant City's strawberry fields (w/ video)

Maria Zuñiga makes her way through a strawberry field with a full flat of strawberry containers ready to be brought back to the truck on March 4, 2015 in Plant City. Zuñiga started her day before the sun came up and was already working in the fields as the sun rose over the surrounding palm trees. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Maria Zuñiga makes her way through a strawberry field with a full flat of strawberry containers ready to be brought back to the truck on March 4, 2015 in Plant City. Zuñiga started her day before the sun came up and was already working in the fields as the sun rose over the surrounding palm trees. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Mar. 21, 2015

PLANT CITY — In a strawberry patch thirty minutes outside of Tampa, just past the exit for a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Maria Zuñiga pulls on her mud-covered rubber boots and ties a bandana under her dark, quiet eyes.

Now in her third season of strawberry picking, her latex-gloved hands know the most efficient choreography. Her body knows to stay bent at the waist, like a runner frozen mid-toe-touch. If you were to pass her from the road, you would see only the curve of her back silhouetted against the sun.

On this morning, she puts in earbuds to fill the silence of forty other workers picking fruit. There is no conversation, save for a polite exchange as the laborers near the ends of their rows and turn to see whose flats are nearly full. "Cuántos le falta?" they ask each other. How many are you missing?

Maria, 20, is the youngest worker in the field, a fact reflected in her uniform of skinny jeans and Hollister sweatshirt. Yet she exudes toughness.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Maria Zuñiga makes her way through a strawberry field with a full flat of strawberry containers ready to be brought back to the truck on March 4, 2015 in Plant City. Zuñiga started her day before the sun came up and was already working in the fields as the sun rose over the surrounding palm trees.

Above the music — her own mix of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Mexican cumbia — Maria lets her thoughts wander beyond this sandy field along a rural stretch of Interstate 4.

Always practical, she occupies half her mind with the math of a migrant worker: the time it takes to fill each eight-pound flat, the extra money she might earn if she runs instead of walks, the hours remaining until she can pick up her 1-year-old son from day care.

With the other half, she interrogates herself about the future. Nearly three years ago, Maria became the first in her family to graduate from high school, a feat that qualified her for a federal program that grants legal protections to young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. For the first time in her six years in the United States, she couldn't be deported.

No one expected Maria, who nurtured hopes of becoming a nurse, would graduate into the fields. But while President Obama's executive action temporarily shielded her, it excluded most of her family. She might be able to find steady, year-round work, but her family members would remain laborers of last resort, compelled to shuttle between Florida and Michigan, traveling with the seasons. Was an 18-year-old really supposed to stay behind alone?

Whatever the president had given her, it wasn't an out.

"I work in the fields because I got used to it here," she said. "And I don't have another choice. If I had it, I would take it."

Then, in November, Plant City's strawberry fields began buzzing with the news that America was suddenly interested in keeping immigrant families together. Under a new executive action, the parents of American citizens could apply in May 2015 for the same protections the Dreamers had. Maria's mother and father, and Jose, the father of her American-born son, would most likely qualify.

As November turns into December, she finds herself sustained by the hope that her family can be made legal.

She is tired of chasing Spring. She is tired of ricocheting across the country whenever crops bloom and farmers call. Above all, she is tired of asking herself every time she buys her son a toy: Will he have to leave this behind?

Maria wants to put down roots. But everything has to go as planned.

And it so rarely does for them.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga and other workers relax during their lunch break next to the strawberry field in Plant City on February 18, 2015.

• • •

It's estimated that there are fewer than 500,000 migrant farm workers nationwide, and their numbers are falling. Since the late 1990s, according to the U.S. Labor Department, the share of farm workers who migrate from state to state following crops has decreased by about 60 percent. The people working on American farms today are older than their predecessors and more likely to be women with families to support. They are less easily moved, and accordingly, are moving less.

The remaining migrants, now less than one-third of the total agricultural workforce, are more likely to be young men who immigrated from Mexico or Central America without authorization to work or live here. But as Mexico's agriculture industry booms, and the cost of making the dangerous border crossing continues to rise, more of the poorest laborers are migrating within Mexico to jobs on farms that supply American chain stores.

Workers like Maria are now considered "a relative rarity," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet in much of the United States, including Florida, farmers still depend on migrants like her to show up each year. In eastern Hills­borough County, where strawberries are a billion-dollar crop and the local newspaper still features pictures of each year's Strawberry Queen on its front page, there are 76 migrant camps permitted by the state Department of Health. These range in size from a few trailers dropped into the middle of a strawberry field to several dozen houses.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga holds her son, Angel, outside of their home in Plant City on February 5, 2015. She lives in one of the houses the farmer provides to his laborers during their time in Florida.

Although the county's camps have an official occupancy of about 5,600 field workers, that figure belies the actual size of the local migrant population at peak-season. Maria's home for half the year — a sagging, single-story wood-frame house, one of several owned by the farmer she works for — isn't included in the county's tally, and so neither is she.

"Workers in the sweatshops of the soil," is how Edward R. Murrow described migrants in his 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame.

Migrant advocates in Hillsborough say there is still some truth to that.

Every Tuesday night at St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City, Janice Putvin covers a dozen tables with donated food, clothing and furniture and watches as most of it disappears over the course of two hours. The mission she runs caters to migrants during their most desperate season, the winter months before strawberries are ripe for picking.

"Until they can start working, they don't have any income," she said. "With no income, there's no food. There's no nothing."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga makes dinner for her son, Angel, her husband, Jose, and Jose's uncles in their home in Plant City on January 22, 2015. While the members of the house rotate meal responsibilities, Maria often prepares lunch and dinner for the family.

Many laborers, like Maria, move into houses that farmers furnish and provide to their workers rent-free. But Putvin has opened trailer doors to find five families living inside, each of them paying a farmer or labor contractor for the privilege. Migrants sleeping on the floor regularly come to her for help finding bed frames and mattresses.

Considering how some of her peers live, Maria believes herself lucky. From the outside, her house appears exhausted and all too happy to hide behind a screen of trees. But among the several clustered homes the farmer provides his workers, it's the only one with central heat and air. With homemade insulation held together with duct tape, foil, and folded Luvs diaper boxes, it's almost comfortable.

This was the house a young strawberry picker brought Maria to two years ago, when he convinced her to leave her parents and move in with him. She looked around, taking in the shabby furniture, exposed light bulbs and mildewed bathroom. It was a house she would never have a key to — none of the workers did.

But she looked at Jose and saw a man shy and steady with dreams of his own. She said yes.

• • •

By late January, Maria and Jose are too broke to buy groceries.

The winter months have been ideal for growing strawberries, the cool temperatures allowing the fruit to ripen slowly, keeping supply well below demand and prices high. The farmers are pleased, but the field workers are miserably underemployed.

During planting season, Maria and Jose earn minimum wage, $8.05 an hour in Florida. But when the farmer tells them it's time to pick, they are at the mercy of the market. For each eight-pound berry flat that passes inspection, they receive a token stamped with the farm's name. In December, that was redeemable for about $3. But a month later, the same flat is worth only $1.75.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga plays with her son, Angel, while her husband, Jose sits at the kitchen table in their home on February 5, 2015 in Plant City.

Maria took home $175 last week, barely enough to justify putting her son in day care. This week's paycheck hasn't arrived yet, but already she fears it will be smaller.

By midday, the fields are picked clean of strawberries and Jose's three undershirt-clad uncles take up residence on the living room couch, where they stare at their phones for hours. Having four bored, homesick men in the house has its downside. Outside, a line of crushed Bud Light cans leads from the driveway to the overflowing garbage bin, like a trap set for a boozehound.

Typically, the couple could get by on Jose's earnings and food stamps, but this has been a month of celebration and excess.

Several weeks earlier, when her son, Angel, turned one, Maria raided her savings. With the nearly $2,000 she had put away, she threw him a day-long baptism party in a covered patio with a view of I-4 and a sheep pasture. She knew that Angel wouldn't remember this day — not the white and blue balloons the men hung from the ceiling, not the lacy tortilla baskets she ordered special. But it felt good to have something to celebrate. It felt good to wear a floor-length dress in church surrounded by other mothers, their hair straightened, sprayed, braided and curled until it was as still as Jesus on the cross above them.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga cradles Angel's head during his baptism in Plant City on January 17, 2015. Maria and Jose threw Angel a large Baptism party using all of their savings account.

Not having money doesn't scare her. She has seen times of greater scarcity, like the winter her parents picked oranges in LaBelle for little pay, or the year she was pregnant with Angel and stopped working to protect him from the pesticides sprayed on the crops. Weeks like this one, when the plumbing is broken and they buy diapers instead of food, only prove to her that if she and Jose are to settle down, they will have to leave the fields.

• • •

Maria was born in a small, impoverished town in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. She was 3 years old when her father waded into the Rio Grande, holding her over his head with one hand like an offering to the other side. With his other hand, he held tightly to her mother.

In those first few years in America, her parents established the migratory pattern they follow to this day, their route taking them from the orange groves of Winter Haven to the apple and cherry orchards of Ludington, Mich.

When Maria's grandfather died suddenly, the family returned to Mexico for the funeral with the understanding that the decision to go back was irrevocable. Her father continued crossing the border as a guest worker, a seasonal American subject to the promise that he leave the country when his contract with a farmer ended. But after several years of barely seeing each other, her parents decided to reunite their growing family. By then, there were three Zuñiga girls, each one born at a different point in the family's travels — two with Mexican birth certificates and one an American. When Maria was 11, she crossed again.

She remembers the papers with another girl's name and birth date. She remembers the smuggler, a light-skinned woman with dyed blonde hair who told her, "Don't call me señora. You're going to call me mom." They drove through a checkpoint into Arizona, no questions asked.

Two weeks later, when a weary, sunburned woman appeared at their door, Maria and her sisters didn't immediately recognize their mother, who had cut her waist-length hair past her chin. She had scaled a border fence to reach them.

In September, when school began, Maria enrolled in Michigan, only to leave after a few months for a school in Florida, beginning a cycle typical of migrant children. Each time they moved, she shared a room with her sisters, the three of them sleeping in one bed.

Her senior year of high school, Maria asked her father to help her pay for college. It had taken her three years to learn English, and multiple attempts to pass the standardized tests required for a diploma, but she had done it.

"I loved to go to school. It was good, I was learning," she said. "I asked my dad, 'Will you help me go to college?' He said, 'I can't help you. You don't have papers.'"

The discussion ended there. Although the local community college would have accepted her without legal papers, as an undocumented immigrant, she didn't qualify for in-state tuition. There was no getting around the fact that her parents couldn't afford the full fare and she couldn't get a loan.

"Oh my gosh, she was so determined," remembers Diana Acevedo, Maria's migrant counselor at Lake Region High School in Polk County. She never thought the girl who worked endlessly to pass the ACT would follow her parents into the fields, but she isn't entirely surprised.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Jose passes Maria in another row while working in the fields in Plant City on March 4, 2015.

"I do have quite a few students who get their diploma and they're out in the fields," she said. "And I'm like what are YOU doing out in the fields?"

The day after she received her high school diploma, Maria and her family piled their belongings into their car and drove to North Carolina. Weekdays, she cleaned houses. On weekends, she picked sweet potatoes with her parents, earning 40 cents for every bucket she filled. On her first day, she filled 87 buckets, earning $34.80. On her last day, her 261 buckets netted her $104.40.

"My dad was proud," she said.

Only two years later, in the middle of his re-election campaign, Gov. Rick Scott would sign House Bill 851, making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities. By then, Maria was a mother and a strawberry picker.

• • •

"This is just one federal judge."

President Obama was speaking at Florida International University in Miami, attempting to reassure the roughly five million undocumented immigrants whom he had promised a measure of security under his executive action last November. All of those longed-for freedoms — the work permits, the drivers' licenses, the protection from deportation — were in jeopardy now that a federal judge in Texas had issued a last-minute order halting the programs.

Although Obama's words were broadcast on the Spanish-language network Telemundo, they didn't reach Maria, who learned of the news via Facebook and initially refused to accept it.

On the farm the next day, it was all the other workers talked about, though no one could explain to her how a judge had more power than a president, or why Dreamers like her were still protected, but her husband and parents wouldn't be. The specifics weren't so important now. What mattered was that nothing was going to change.

The habits they had cultivated to allow them to pass unnoticed would persist. They would drive slowly, one eye always on the speedometer. They would think twice before asking for help from anyone in government, or anyone who looked like they might be.

It made no difference that the president said he was interested only in deporting criminals; Maria believed that all it took was a broken taillight to be sent back to Mexico. Earlier in the season, when a police officer pulled over a strawberry picker driving a truck with an expired tag, it sent waves of fear through the community. That the truck belonged to the farmer, who had asked the worker to run an errand, heightened their anxiety.

"This was supposed to be the beginning of something different for everyone," Maria said remembering her initial excitement last November. "A day we were never going to forget because we were going to have a stronger, more legal permit."

To Jose, who seemed most interested in the possibility of obtaining a driver's license, the judge's decision was disappointing, but not immeasurably so.

Seated at their dining room table, he passed around his phone to show visitors photos of the house his family had built in Mexico with the money he sent. He swiped left, and there was a picture of the fig and pomegranate farm his father was planting. He swiped again, and there was another house, similar to the first, but still under construction.

"That's mine," he said, grinning.

Jose was 14 years old when he walked out of Mexico with the goal of earning as much money as possible and improving his family's chances of living a tolerable life. Eight years later, he had fulfilled both ambitions, but he hadn't kept his promise to return. He was never supposed to stay in America this long, and he never intended to find a wife here. The idea has such a hold on him that he says he can't marry Maria without the presence of his family. Although they call each other husband and wife, their union is only Facebook official.

"It would be hard to go to Mexico," she says later, when he is out of earshot. Except for one season, she has never lived more than half an hour's drive from her mother. But Jose can't legally stay in the United States, and she can't easily leave.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga takes empty flats from the truck to fill with strawberries while working in the fields in Plant City on March 4, 2015.

• • •

The final day of strawberry picking falls on a Sunday in March when the sun is shining furiously and Maria, who has been feeling stressed out lately, stays home with chest pain. It's not worth it, Jose assures her, to work for $1.50 a flat when the farmer can only guarantee them two or three hours in the fields.

Somewhere between the first strawberry of the season and the last, Maria has lost her confidence in America.

"People don't understand why we need those programs," she says. "They only see the bad things about us, that we are illegal. They don't see that we work hard — they just don't see it."

She no longer fears they will have to leave. Rather, she talks openly, enthusiastically, about the life waiting for her and Jose in Mexico where, he has told her, she won't have to work on weekends and can walk to the market. She is done hoping that Obama's program will come to fruition, or that Jose will find a better-paying job here in a restaurant or at a construction site.

Perhaps they will go to Mexico for a few years and then return to this country to raise their son, she says, testing an idea that rings of false bravado, but is not so different from her parents' own journey.

"We still have to think about it," she says, sounding exhausted. For so long, the only certainties in her life have been the seasons — the promise that squash will follow strawberries, that cantaloupe will follow squash, and that then they will have to move on.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Zuñiga is reflected in a large puddle as she picks strawberries after a rainstorm in Plant City on March 4, 2015. The weather plays a huge role in how much money Maria earns week to week. "...In February it's a little harder to earn money because the work doesn't pay as well. It's cold, and there aren't many berries," Zuñiga said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.