Today we’d like to introduce you to Margarita Romo.
Hi Margarita, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
In 1971, in North Tampa living at 138th Ave. a lady knocks on my door, how she found me I don’t know, we lived in a very isolated neighborhood at the time, and she invited me to go translate for the ministers she brought to the migrant camps. It had been years since I had been a farmworker and having married a white man I did not use my language much and had somewhat forgotten that life.
At the time my friend Jeanette was there she was Puerto Rican/Cuban so we went back and forth you go, no you go, well finally I went… what a journey, I thank Jeannie every day now that I got to go, it started a career of service that is ongoing today… what did I discover? Nothing had changed, folks were still treated badly, underpaid, and overworked, except wait there was a difference.
We were all Mexican/Americans then, these folks were brought in from Mexico, some did not even know where they were, and this camp was fenced in with a high fence. A company store, and multiple families living in one house as we had lived that part was the same. The dining hall, for the single men, had no screens on the windows, fly’s everywhere, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and that was where I spent 7 years translating every Wednesday.
I would take my youngest three boys the littlest were in a cradle, and the other two were 6 and 3 years old… there they learned to eat hot food, and I learned more about my people than I had ever known before. As my mom had died when I was 4 or so… toward the end of those 7 years I became a single mom, then the women of those camps took care of me, sharing their food with me and my children.
One day, I was told by my dear friend Linda Hope, you have to go to school, and do something with your life, when I left the convent, though I became a teacher at 15, I had not graduated from high school, you see I had suffered from deep depression, and life was hard, but I listened, and I decided to go to Pasco Hernando Community College, at the time they did not require a high school diploma.
So I went, worked for the college on their special program, cleaned houses, and with my undocumented farmworkers that followed me, we began the farmworkers self-help club, right there at the college, the college was only 5 years old so they were very gracious to me, they allowed me to teach English (non-credit classes), and soon I had 45 students… we had a portable building, they allowed me another portable building for the children, and we had folks who came and babysat…. probably that would not happen today.
One of the students from our group is now an administrative assistant at the college and now it’s a state college, and a few years ago they made me an alumnus of the years a few years ago, and when they came and asked me, I said I can’t do that, and they said why not?
I said because I never graduated, I was only a few credits away 2 or 3, but my work with FSH finally got so I had to choose one or the other, and remember I still had the three children, so they said we will fix that, and now I am an alumnus… going forward, I was in middle 30’s when all this began, and my first three children were all older, so in1982 we became a 501-c-3 and immigration had raised its ugly head, and I say it that way because those officers were mean, I saw things happen that caused me to fight.
First of all most of the farm workers that were here, were brought here, the camps were hidden all over Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough counties and beyond, farmers and crew leaders knew where they were, and when push came to shove the farmworkers were the ones who suffered… we organized all over Florida, went to Washington, did all we could to face the worst kind of justice.
I saw folks die, children die, because of stupid accidents, no daycare back then… today let’s just talk about today… today we have raised a place that belongs to our farmworker community, and without government funds, we have a social service office, a free clinic building, a thrift store, a park, a church, and houses where folks live and share in the struggle, we have sent youth to college.
So now we have a lawyer who is still Daca, but he is a lawyer, we have Daca nurses, professionals, the community we live in has sidewalks, and paved streets and lights, we have gone to Washington and Tallahassee, and know we have made a difference… And yes, when that immigration bill passed in 1986, we were able to process many families.
But now we need that to happen again, some folks have been waiting for over 30 years… 51 years of service… It is a long time, and God has taken a woman who did not think much of herself, and he raised her up to be a servant to the undocumented.
The ones that are crossing the border today are not like what I remember and worked with, those folks struggled and made a way for those who are coming today, as on a holiday… They are not coming with the fears, and struggles of those who came back in 1971… Oh, there are so many stories.
Thousands of people have come through our doors, and we have seen many things, and today there are new faces, eager to learn some of them, and so we continue to do what we can… We are not experts; we are just folks that answered a call.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Smooth? This has been the hardest work I have ever done because I had never done anything like this before, I would cry every night when all this started hard and fast with immigration, people would be knocking on my door at all hours, afraid, of the husband had been taken, or a son, and I would have to go fight and bring them back.
Sometimes I was fortunate and got them back, sometimes not. I would cry, why me? What do I know? What can I do? Then Norma Godinez my little friend died of an accident, and the hospital did not care for her (another story) it was a great St. Pete times story (back in 1983 I think, and it fired me up).
When did I think I would be speaking to congress folks, shaking the hand of a president, marching in Washington, speaking before committees in Tallahassee, being interviewed on television, or getting wonderful awards, those were hard, because I am really a very quiet person, and to have to fight, speak loud, feel the oppression, have people say mean things that you had to respond to?
First of all the undocumented of 1971 were not cared for, yes they picked the oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, and no matter how good the market was it did not mean it was good in their pockets, we had to fight against pesticides to get them outlawed, we had to fight for no toilets in the fields, water to drink, fight, fight, fight… We are still fighting.
The folks that are coming across the border today, have no clue of the battles we have already fought… Entitled? Those folks of 1971 never felt entitled… It is a bit different in the past 50 years and today, but then I suppose there should be. For the better right?
But will it ever be easy for an undocumented person? I never recommend anyone to come here without papers.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I am a working person, I work alongside staff, as I see each one of us as a piece of a puzzle, and we must all work together, not one of us is higher or lower than the other, for we all have different gifts… I believe I am a good navigator and have great vision, I can see so many things we can still do, and I am known for my tenacity.
I think that is how you spell it, in other words like a dog on a bone, once I bite I don’t let go, I am not a cookie and milk grandma, but I want children to never suffer the way I did, and will work endlessly for children, Norma Godinez, died before she was 5… She is my hero… Another story…
What do I specialize in? Well… Whether I know how or not I just try… I don’t see myself as very smart, just someone God said let’s see what we can do with this broken girl, let’s fix her… and He has… I am so grateful to God for His mercy and grace. And for all the people God sent to help in this struggle, did I do it by myself? No!!!! There was Karen Woodall, Connie Gates, Tirso Moreno, and my undocumented friends, stood by me as I received an award.
One day, and whispered DON’T CRY!!! I will never forget them that stood and made me strong or the cries of the young man that was being bound by a border patrol officer yelling MARGARITA!!!!!! I will never forget putting a little girl in the ground before age 5… Or the twins that died because the doctor would not tend to the pregnant mom at the hospital because she was DIRTY!!!
Having started an early delivery in the fields as she picked tomatoes, the nurses told me what he did not do to help… anything… or the man who lost his eyesight to pesticides… so many stories… those were bad and hard days… or when the border patrol would be our looking for our people, and my husband I would fill our truck with food, and go through the streets and camps, and honk and the farmworkers would come out with tears in their eyes, and say HOW DID YOU KNOW WE WERE HUNGRY?
In 2003, I was ordained, and that is the most honor I could ever have received… that non-denominational pastor saw what I could not see, and I tried so hard to run away that day, because who was I? And what was I thinking, and then God sent a young boy to me that Sunday and asked me to baptize him, and I asked him why did he want to be baptized, and he said… I am going away Mrs. Margarita (that’s what they all call me) and I want to be in the family of God… That was June 2003.
I have not seen him since, I received one letter from him telling me he was OK… He was a little white boy with big blue eyes…that was the day I was ordained… God showed me I had lots to do… am I worthy? No! Am I smart? No! Do I deserve anything? No! I am thankful for His mercy and unending love… and you know what? There is nothing I need, I own nothing.
But I have everything… So… God is good, and I give Him all the honor and praise, and as they say on Facebook… will you scroll through this or will you read and say amen… What is a flower that grows, blooms, and dies? I pray that my life has been of some use to those God has sent my way, and I ask forgiveness of those I have in some way harmed.
At 86 one’s life is closing, and we must prepare… I pray God allows me a little more time for there are things I still want to finish…
There is a song… HE TOOK A HUNDRED POUNDS OF CLAY… well I think of God and me, back then I weighed a hundred pounds.
What do you think about happiness?
I am happy that I have had an opportunity to serve, not everyone can do what they love to do, so I am very happy.