Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworker Self-Help Inc. in Dade City, sits at a table in the Norma Godinez Learning Center as residents line up to receive food and possibly a pair of donated shoes. The 83-year-old has been with the project since 1975. (JEAN GONZALEZ | FC)

Farmworkers Self-Help works from ground up

DADE CITY  |  A table in Norma Godinez Learning Center started to bow from excessive weight as three volunteers placed paper bag after paper bag of food upon it.

But that didn’t stop the volunteers of Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. in Dade City from their task. Along with setting out gallons of milk, they were filling the bags with breads and non-perishable items, such as rice, beans and canned goods. It was one particular item that Margarita Romo pointed out.

“I love macaroni and cheese,” said the 83-year-old director of the project. “But I never get any.”

The volunteers laughed at her joke. While the kitchen is stocked with the boxed item, it leaves the kitchen soon after it is delivered from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local churches. Soon, the volunteers opened the doors to the center where people were waiting patiently to sign in and receive food stocks. Those who entered were not just farmworkers, but working poor and elderly of the community. Some were Spanish-speaking, others English-speaking, and some spoke both. Recipients are white, black and Hispanic.

When Romo saw one man, José, had arrived, she gestured to one of the volunteers to retrieve something from another room. “Mijo, mira esa,” Romo said to José as she held a neon orange pair of shoes for him to try. 

“We get worried about José because he’s been having to ride his bike to get to his job at night,” Romo explained. “Mijo, le gusta?”

Smiling at the use of  “mijo,” a familiar term of endearment, José replied he did like the shoes. “They fit. These work good,” he said. “Drivers should be able see me. Gracias a Dios.”

The food bank is just one piece of Farmworkers Self-Help, and the learning center provides classes of English as a Second Language, dance, and mentoring Alcoholics Anonymous. Romo said learning English is a critical part of the project and ask members to take classes so they are able to navigate systems in the United States without a language barrier. 

Another building under the project turns into a health clinic, which, thanks to a partnership Romo has fostered with the University of South Florida in Tampa, will include mental health counseling. Nearby is a thrift store, a worship place, and an open area to gather for picnics and outdoor activities. 

The project has been in Dade City since 1975, when Romo, the daughter of Mexican parents from Texas, founded the project along with undocumented farmworkers in the area. In the 1970s, a pastor of an evangelist church came up to her and asked if she would accompany her to a migrant camp and translate. For the next several years, Romo helped farmworkers, which led her to form the project.

“The convent taught me a lot,” said Romo, who quit the convent and later raised a family. “It was my basic training where I learned to sacrifice and taught to give God the glory.”

The history of the project worked to transform the dirt roads just outside the center into paved roads. The group made sure there was sewage and adequate lighting in the area. And Romo made important connections, both with governmental officials — she is the only Mexican serving on the local school board — to leaders of other working-class communities in Dade City, such as Tommytown and Moore-Mickens. 

Romo is thankful for the partnership with Moore-Mickens, which is named after two black teachers who worked against segregation in the community. Along with using each other’s facilities for certain purposes, she talked about the importance of “championing causes” for each other.

“Our future in order for us to make real changes in our community is to bring together all our impoverished communities,” Romo said of the projects empowerment. “We can’t just take care of our own turf. That philosophy needs to change otherwise nobody grows.” 

The crux of the vesting is advocation and empowerment. Those who work with the project have personal histories with farmwork and migration. Because Farmworkers Self-Help owns its buildings and land it is able to offer space for local business ventures. Angel Morales is a former farmworker who works as a barber in space provided by the project. Just in front of the area where people gather for worship is a stand run by Rosalva. Along with fresh fruits and vegetables, she sells large discs of homemade cheese.  

José Amateco has been a volunteer at the center for 12 years. He came to the United States when he was 15, and is a DACA recipient. Thanks to the project, he received scholarships to attend St. Leo University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and recently finished an associate’s degree in nursing at Pasco-Hernando College.

“I feel like I’ve grown up here. I’ve learned so much,” Amateco said of the center, where he has served as translator and traveled to Tallahassee to advocate causes. “This is a safe place for people to ask for help for all kinds of (issues) — healthcare, immigration, school resources,” the 28-year-old continued. “I believe people trust us.” 

During the food bank distribution, Ana Limas sits at the intake table writing down the names of recipients. For the past 17 years, she has served as Romos right-hand person, learning the ins and outs of the project and the community. While humble, her story reveals a strong woman who worked hard to change her circumstances and the future of her children. Now a citizen, she came to Mexico with her family when she was 4. At 12, she began working in the fields in Texas, Idaho, Mexico and Minnesota. By 2003, she arrived in Dade City with four children, the youngest age 3. She picked strawberries, oranges, green beans, eggplants. And she hated it.

“I remember knocking on the door to this center, and Margarita opened the door. I told her I had been looking up and down for a job,” Limas recalled. “She told me to come back at 2:30.”

She was tasked with tutoring 16 teens. Limas laughed at the memory, stating, “I needed tutoring myself.” But she persevered and loved the work. Romo gave her different jobs — copying, faxing and using the computer, which evolved to working outreach in the medical clinic and the front office for intake, evaluating immigration, citizenship, housing, family separation, and sometimes abuse concerns. She has heard her share of heartbreaking stories and knows listening can be the first step in helping change a life.

“When I see someone coming in who are undocumented and afraid, I see me,” said Limas, who easily recalled her fragile mindset from 17 years ago — depressed, angry, overwhelmed and hurting. “I tell them my story of working in the fields and let them know we are working and fighting for people in the fields.”

Limas is proud of her work. She, Romo and the other full-time staffer wear several hats. This once farmworker with a limited education now helps navigate immigration, has networked with lawyers and knows both community leaders and impoverished members by name.
“Margarita (Romo) helped me feel like I’m somebody,” Limas said. “Now I feel like I can do a lot for other people. I love it here.”

Romo is most grateful for community support, especially during the annual Christmas toy drive, which churches including Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunnellon help fund, and the Easter egg celebration made in cooperation with the local police department. Yet, she added she would like to see more financial donations from outside entities, and money to fund a staff grant writer. 

But she most proud of the ownership farmworkers invest in the project, and how the project’s mission is firmly grounded in farmworker advocacy. The annual budget includes travel money so Romo and other members can stand on the Capitol steps in Tallahassee and advocate for important community causes. 

In mid-March, Romo made such a trip when she publicly displayed disdain for Senate Bill 168, which deals with prohibiting sanctuary policies, a.k.a. prohibiting “sanctuary cities.” Romo was disappointed with the outcome, and said she isn’t sure how bad it will be for the undocumented.

But the loss will not stop Romo and it will not stop the work and service of Farmworkers Self-Help.

“People see we are vested in the community and we care a lot about all our people here,” Romo said. “We can’t afford to give up.”