The younger girls squirmed in their assigned spots, giggling as two older girls stood facing them, one wringing her hands, the other adjusting the floor-length, pink skirt draped over her jeans.
“Hi, I’m Daniela,” one of the older girls said, a nervous tinge in her voice. “This is Sarah,” she added, pointing to her friend. “Can I have everyone stand up for me, please?”
Sarah Cruz smiled as they responded.
“We’ve been dancing since we were very little,” Sarah said after clearing her throat, “and now we’re really, really old, so we’re here to teach you.”
They asked the students to list off their names. They asked them to breathe and settle down. They showed the girls how to get into first position. And with that, Sarah and Daniela Figueroa, both 17, launched into their first ballet folklorico lesson in the same place where they learned two-steps and twirls.
They’d grown up with these free morning classes at the chapel-turned-rec center. They bonded on trips for performances. They sewed some of the colorful skirts.
And recently, when the previous instructor grew too busy to keep going, they stepped up.
After a few minutes of leading the students through sashays and spins with imaginary skirts, Daniela and Sarah called for a quick break.
“You guys are getting this faster than we did,” Sarah said, looking over to Daniela, both beaming with pride.
They weren’t getting paid. Or earning credit for community service. They could have chosen to spend their Saturday morning sleeping in or hanging out. They could have spent time earlier in the week on homework instead of cleaning dresses and mapping out logistics for permission slips.
But if they don’t do this, who will?
It’s how things work here in Tommytown. You make do with what you’ve got, you give back what you can, and you hope for a better future.
Tommytown lies in an unincorporated area of east Pasco County, just north of Dade City.
Lock Street cuts through the heart of town, with houses and churches on either side. At the busiest intersection, there are taquerias, a thrift shop and a corner gas station, where an American flag waves besides a Mexican one.
The neighborhood encompasses 72 blocks. There are about 350 residences, mostly made up of multi-generational, immigrant families. It is a place in slow transition. Some homes are newer and well-maintained. One sold recently for $112,000. A few doors away, another property — with run-down shacks — went for $100.
Some people still rely on septic tanks.
The community, like neighboring Dade City, struggles with stagnant wages, said Dade City commissioner Scott Black. Locals have traded work in fields and factories for construction jobs that pay better.
Outsiders think the town is dangerous, but crime is worse in places like Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, said Maj. Tait Sanborn with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. Those areas are close to the interstate and major stores.
Just over a decade ago, the streets of Tommytown were so unkempt that children playing outside got caught up in dust storms whenever a car drove by.
Federal funding eventually provided a needed facelift. But the area’s character has remained the same.
It’s the place where an activist became the unofficial mayor, inspired to make a change after the death of a migrant toddler. It’s where Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts the occasional raid. It’s where Sarah and Daniela have seen some friends get tied up in drug dealing and teen pregnancies, and where they’ve seen others go off to college.
It’s the place where the fruit stand lady gives out candy, where neighbors pitch in for a community food pantry and where you meet your best friend.
Daniela texted Sarah while scoping out a pew with her 11-year-old sister, Jocelyn. Sunday Mass was running late, giving Sarah a chance to check her phone and make it on time to help out in the sound booth.
The regular pastors were absent, but neighbors made do with a volunteer leader inside the Resurrection House Mission church that was once a pool hall.
At the start of the service, children were invited to the altar to lead the parishioners in a song.
Seeing the little ones hesitate, and failing to convince Jocelyn to budge, Daniela shuffled out of her pew to join them. She towered over the children and shook her head at Jocelyn’s muffled giggles. Then, she led the group through a song about how Jesus Christ was their friend.
The Gospel reading from the book of Luke later told the story of a bleeding woman healed after touching Christ’s cloak. The reading affirmed that it wasn’t Christ who saved the woman, but rather her faith in him.
As the small congregation dispersed, Daniela, Jocelyn and a still-sleepy Sarah cut through traffic on Lock Street to reach Resurrection Park, a grassy field with an old swing set, a basketball hoop, a small house under repairs, the girls’ rec center and a covered patio for gatherings.
There, Narsedalea Benitez, 35, waited with a large pot of homemade caldo de pollo con arroz. It was her turn to offer neighbors a free meal under the shade, a Sunday tradition. Families and wandering kids set up tables and chairs. Bags of donated food for those most in need took up their own table.
Some of the guests had lived in Tommytown for years. Others recently arrived.
Tommytown began as a subdivision called Lake George Park in the 1920s.
It was renamed to honor Tommy Barfield, who in the 1940s built out housing for white families working at the nearby citrus processing plant, according to local historian William Dayton.
In the 1960s and 1970s, migrant workers, largely from Mexico, began to move in, following seasonal field work, with spouses and children often staying in Tommytown on a more permanent basis.
For years, absentee landlords allowed homes to become dilapidated. Residents lived without basic utilities, including streetlights and water and sewer connections.
The neighborhood didn’t get its first fire hydrants until 1991.
Margarita Romo, founder of the nonprofit Farmworkers Self-Help Inc., took it upon herself to partner with outside organizations to improve the neighborhood, piece by piece. A former field worker who saw firsthand the dangerous working and living conditions migrants faced, Romo became an advocate. She lobbied for immigrants’ rights at the state capital.
Many initiatives, however, proved to be small in scale and without lasting impact.
By the early 2000s, Tommytown was one of the largest areas of blight in Pasco County, according to former county housing director George Romagnoli.
“It was kind of a forgotten neighborhood,” he said.
Romo and Romagnoli worked together to apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They landed a loan for about $13 million.
Ultimately, it would pay for paved roads, water and sewer connections and home repairs, but the project dragged on, with repeated delays, for years. Most of it was completed a decade ago.
Entrepreneurial residents have worked to launch small businesses, including Angel Molina. The 23-year-old owns a barbershop.
Molina has gotten job offers in Tampa and Lutz, but he can’t see himself leaving Tommytown, where he grew up.
“This is where all my people are at,” Molina said.
His shop is along Lock Street, which now also bears an honorary name, one that Romo succeeded in adding.
It’s called Calle de Milagros, the street of miracles.
While Daniela and Sarah go to different schools, they meet up for community events, hang out at each other’s homes and attend color guard practice at Pasco High School, about 2 miles from Tommytown.
At a recent Thursday practice, Daniela and Sarah helped one another memorize new choreography, twirling their striped red and black flags.
During a break, Sarah walked up to Daniela as she drank from her water jug.
“I want a sip,” Sarah said.
Daniela gave her a skeptical look.
“Just a sip,” Sarah said, pressing her hands together.
Daniela handed over the jug. Her smile faded as Sarah guzzled, some of the water dripping off her chin.
“Oops, I almost spilled it all,” Sarah said, wiping her face and handing back the jug. “What would you do if I spilled it all?”
“Uh, I’d send you to the cafeteria to refill it,” Daniela said, laughing along with Sarah as the two drew close to nudge each other with their arms.
Their friendship started in 2016 at a community party. Daniela, whose family is Mexican, and Sarah, whose family is Puerto Rican, had seen each other at dance practice and around town, but they hadn’t really gotten to know each other well until that October day.
Two girls approached Daniela, mad at her for a misunderstanding. Sarah didn’t like their aggression.
So she called the girls out.
Unlike Daniela, who was born in Tommytown, Sarah moved into the area, around third grade. In middle school, Sarah started hanging out with the older kids from the neighborhood to scare off her own bullies. She would get teased for living in town and for being Hispanic.
For awhile, it worked, until one day a kid called her mother a slur.
“I was just so angry,” Sarah said.
She lashed out.
The incident brought Sarah closer to Romo, who encouraged her to stay away from the older crowd, to veer from their influence. And she did keep her distance, but it was also the older kids who told her she had a chance at a future that they didn’t. Some of them sold drugs to supplement their parents’ income.
Growing up, Daniela tried to help those who were on drugs recover.
These days, Sarah and Daniela try to tune out the judgment of outsiders, who tend to see Tommytown through the lens of class and race.
White classmates ask Sarah if she’s ever held a gun. Once, a classmate’s mother asked if Sarah was a chola, or a gang member.
The younger kids come home dejected by racist things they are called at school or by strangers.
It’s why Sarah and Daniela help at community events and now teach the dance classes. They want to set an example. They want to help the next generation feel like they have options.
“I see the future,” Sarah said. “I see the big things they can be.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen people gathered inside a conference room at Trilby United Methodist Church, 7 miles from Tommytown.
They were leaders from rural parts of Pasco, like Lacoochee and the area around the Moore-Mikens Education and Vocational Center. They had recently formed a coalition to present a united front with county officials. They want more focus on affordable housing, education and food deserts.
Pastor Bruce Edwards, Romo’s son, shared his latest challenges to opening Tommytown’s first pre-kindergarten.
The school, to be set inside the Norma Godinez Learning Center, would focus on developing English language skills with a curriculum chosen by the nonprofit Evolution Institute, roughly 12 miles from Tommytown.
The school is part of Romo’s legacy. She launched into her advocacy for Tommytown around 1981. It ramped up after Norma Godinez, a migrant toddler, succumbed to internal wounds from an accident. Hospitals had delayed care because her family was undocumented. The learning center named in her honor has been used for youth-oriented activities over the years but had not become a full-fledged school.
Romo’s son hopes to change that. The school, in his eyes, would offer a running start for the kids, who can fall behind academically due to language barriers.
At the coalition meeting, Edwards told members how contradictory advice from multiple fire inspectors created one of many bureaucratic setbacks. He had hoped to open this fall.
“You can still do everything that you think is right and still come up short on the back end,” he said.
The opening will be delayed until at least next summer.
For now, Tommytown parents waiting on the school continue to hope for something that will last, and kids around town continue to make the best of things, including Sarah and Daniela.
At home, tired from color guard, her hair still wet from a shower, Daniela finished her anatomy homework on her bunk bed.
She shares it with her 14-year-old sister, Jaqueline, at least when her parents are home. They travel across the country with a construction contractor, supervising projects and running administrative tasks. It offers better pay than local jobs. Her brother, a college graduate, now works with her parents.
He was a popular kid in town. He actively participated in community service, setting an example for his sisters. Daniela wouldn’t be surprised if he returned to stay. After all, friends and family are here.
Daniela and her two sisters live primarily with their grandparents, aunt and two young cousins, all under one roof.
It means entertaining her cousins when she gets home because grandpa is at dialysis, grandma is cooking, and her aunt is resting since she gets up for work at 4 a.m. It means sharing popcorn as her sisters weave in and out of the room looking for phone chargers.
She doesn’t mind the crowd. In fact, she loves it. It’s part of why she also loves her neighborhood. She knows everyone. She feels safe.
Last year, her parents took her with them to Seattle for what was supposed to be a year away from home. The new environment unsettled her. It was a whole other climate, and she didn’t know anyone.
She went to get distance from a boy she broke up with. She came back a few months later.
“I really missed it here, especially my friends,” Daniela said. “I shouldn’t have left.”
Now a junior and senior in high school respectively, Daniela and Sarah face the prospect of college, and with it, the possibility of leaving Tommytown.
Daniela wants to be a forensic pathologist. Sarah wants to be a psychologist or guidance counselor, to help kids who feel left out because of where they’re from.
“I know how it feels to be judged by the outside world,” she said.
Both Sarah and Daniela are excited about starting a new chapter in their lives. Both are nervous about all the changes that would bring.
Neither are in a rush to leave just yet. This is home.