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Laboring in the field while

surviving the pandemic

Photo Essay by Ivy Ceballo

A farmworker’s parked truck seen with a decal of the phrase “God bless my journey,” in Spanish in Plant City on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. 

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Rujina Alargon, 53, returns to the field with empty flat boxes to fill with strawberries while she works on Friday, March 12, 2021. 

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Rujina Alargon, 53, plants peppers in Plant City on Thursday, March 11, 2021. 

Veronica Castizo, 30, pauses while working the field in Plant City on Thursday, March 11, 2021. . 

Community members rely on support from one another since many of the farmworkers are undocmented and cannot benefit from government funded programs providing financial assistance to American families in need. Isaret Jeffers-Chavez, founder of Colectivo Arbol, said the organization formed in 2017 because she saw their struggle. “Paisanita,” they call her whenever she shows up with her personal truck full of donations from a partnering food pantry. She answers their individual phone calls, messages and attends to their pleas for aid. This past year, a young mother called because she couldn’t make it to pick up the milk Jeffers-Chavez distributed since she was too sick to get out of bed after testing positive for COVID-19.

She made the delivery to their home. “The moment that we needed help the most she was there for me,” Morales said of Jeffers-Chavez and her church family. “I want to return the favor...I owe my life to God.”

By summer of 2020, Flor Morales, 39, stopped working the fields because her fear of catching the virus heightened when she learned the risk became greater as a diabetic. Morales’ husband Miguel Cedilla, 33, continued working the field while trying to pick up more construction jobs instead knowing his wife and children were staying home to lessen exposure to the virus. 

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Isaret Jeffers-Chavez talks with field workers and their relatives during a milk giveaway on Monday, June 22, 2020. 

"I feel powerless not being able to help more families because we don’t have the resources."

- Isaret Jeffers-Chavez, activist/founder of Colectivo Arbol
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Isaret Jeffers-Chavez delivers milk and other groceries to the Morales-Cedilla family in Mulberry on Monday, June 22, 2020. 

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"Even if Americans don't work, the government helps them, but not us,” Morales said. “I asked my husband 'what are we going to do' because I always had that fear, as a human, we go to a church, we believe in God, but the Bible also teaches us to respect the government's orders, and I was speaking with my husband and told him 'don't go to work because if you get infected there, I wasn't leaving home, I was protecting myself, but if you come and you get infected,' and that's what happened.”

One month in quarantine, including three days in the hospital for Morales and the bills continued to pile up for the family of four. When their family tested negative, they hesitantly visited their church again on Sunday knowing they only had so much gas left in their truck that required maintenance. Precautionary measures were taken at the small worship building by distant seating arrangements in between families, and requiring everyone inside to be masked. Seats were disinfected before guests arrived and as the Morales-Cedilla family exited to begin the new week to find work again.

Miguel Cedilla, 33, and Flor Morales, 39, pose for a portrait with their children Jasmine Cedilla, 9, and Pedro Wilson Cedilla, 7, outside their Mulberry home on Friday, July 10, 2020.

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Posters with Biblical depictions of the Virgin Mary seen inside the Alargon-Castizo home in Plant City on Saturday, April 24, 2021. 

Miguel Cedilla, far left, and Flor Morales, far right, kneel to pray before participating in a worship service with their children Jasmine Cedilla, 9, Pedro Wilson Cedilla, 7, at Iglesia Cristiana Del Nazareno in Winter Haven on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

 "He was the one who infected us when he got

     (COVID-19) from work, but he told me

              'if I don't work, we don't eat.'" 

- Flor Morales, former farmworker
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Farmworkers toss chili peppers into boxes while working in Plant City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. 

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A field worker, who did not give her name, receives a warm cup of coffee from Generosa Isidro, on “Día de la Candelaria,” a Mexican holiday, in Plant City on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. 

A field worker, who did not give her name, receives a warm cup of coffee from Generosa Isidro, on “Día de la Candelaria,” a Mexican holiday, in Plant City on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. 

The seasons change and the work continues. Holidays bring a longing for connection and food reminiscent of their home countries. They feel comfortable sharing tamales and coffee together for “El Dia de la Candelaria” in the shaded lot where they park next to the field they’ve been working since morning. Most workers have had the virus already or know someone who’s passed away from the disease. Sharing of sick loved ones and strengthening one another through their supportive words and actions. The tradition in Mexico is whoever had a figurine of The Christ Child has to make the tamales for everyone. The group of women made enough tamales to feed about a hundred workers that day.

To taste is a privilege in the age of COVID-19. One of the symptoms of the coronavirus that Morales remembers is losing her sense of taste, she completely lost her appetite.

Veronica Castizo, 31, downed two caps full of cough syrup to combat the cough from the previous day although her mother Alargon suggested she should stay home from work again. Castizo prepared their lunch for the day with her mother, changed quickly and headed out the door to help out. “I’m faster than them,” she said she fights through the pain in her knees and back.

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"I want my kids to learn English, get a good job, not work in the field like us... Under the sun, it’s very hot. 

We have to do it...in order to survive."

- Rujina Alargon, farmworker

Veronica Castizo, 31, and her mother Rujina Alargon, 53, prepare their family’s lunch before heading to work the fields in Plant City on Saturday, April 24, 2021. 

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Veronica Castizo, 31, leaves home to head to working blueberry fields with her family in Plant City on Saturday, April 24, 2021. 

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Veronica Castizo, 31, gets dropped off  in Plant City on Thursday, March 24, 2021. 

Veronica Castizo, 31, attends night school at Plant City High on Thursday, March 24, 2021. 

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Rujina Alargon, 53, removes dirt from her shoe while getting ready to return to start her workday at a field picking blueberries with her family in Plant City on Saturday, April 24, 2021. 

Castizo has worked in the field with her parents since she was 15 years-old. She has a successful strategy, sometimes she’ll start at the end of her mom’s row and meet her in the middle or wherever she’s able to catch up to her while picking produce. When she was in eighth grade her older siblings were close to finishing high school and she needed to help contribute to their family’s income so she stopped school, and attends night school to earn her GED.

Education opens the door to opportunities and she’s thought about the prospect of becoming a nurse or a teacher one day, but for now her mother’s back hurts more each day that passes and she just wants a job to help her make at least minimum wage.

After surviving COVID-19 in Alabama, where they spend few months of the year picking tomatoes, they remain cautious as the experience away from their family and friends in Florida made them aware of how bad the situation had gotten.

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Amara Ochoa, 65, receives a face shield and masks for her family from Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, of Colectivo Arbol, outside her home in Plant City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. The organization donated about 150 face shields and masks to farm working families in the community. 

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Amara Ochoa, 65, smiles after receiving a face shield and masks for her family from Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, of Colectivo Arbol, outside her home in Plant City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. 

People of color were being disproportionately impacted by the virus on top of their essential working demands and multi-generational living arrangements.

Although their own were impacted by the virus, the  community met vaccinations with skepticism. Jeffers-Chavez dropped off masks for the community on multiple visits and as soon as vaccines were made available she made urgent calls pleading that vaccines were provided to farmworkers and their families, especially their elders immediately.

When the wait was finally over, Colectivo Arbol partnered with Walgreens to distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Plant City close to the fields. They were not required to show insurance or ID in case some did not have any as to give the added measure of protection against the deadly disease for everyone who was willing to get the shot.

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A sign directs people towards the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine distribution at Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center in Plant City on Friday, March 26, 2021. Colectivo Arbol organized the event with Walgreens to make the vaccine accessible for Hispanic farm workers. 

People wait in line outside Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center to receive the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Plant City on Friday, March 26, 2021.

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Antelma Espinal de Cervantes, 78, is directed to receive the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by Matt Armstrong, store manager of a local Walgreens, at Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center in Plant City on Friday, March 26, 2021.

Antelma Espinal de Cervantes, 78, receives the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by Walgreens Pharmacist Ralph Montilone while her husband Frutuoso Cervantes Pioquinto, 80, back, waits following his vaccination.

 "If it wasn't for our church, our brothers and sisters, I don't know what would have become of us."'" 

- Flor Morales, former farmworker
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Farmworkers walk towards a food and clothing giveaway hosted by Colectivo Arbol where flu shots will be administered by Walgreens to farmworkers in Plant City on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Veronica Castizo, 30, works to plant peppers in a field in Plant City on Thursday, March 11, 2021.