IMMOKALEE — Since freezes began decimating Florida crops, life has been a struggle for Maria Gabriela Chaires and her family.
Her 17-year-old son asked if he should drop out of high school and get a job, but she won’t let him.
Chaires, 37, and her 77-year-old mother, Juana Galvan, work in Immokalee’s packing houses and they, like many other farmworkers, have been dealing with drastically reduced hours since the cold weather hit this year, first in January and again in mid-December.
“I have three children and I am both mother and father at the same time,” Chaires said. “Right now, things are very hard. It’s especially sad because (of) Christmas ... but the little money we have we have to use for things other than gifts.”
All the money they have goes to rent, utilities and food, she said.
Chaires and her mom stood outside the Guadalupe Center’s soup kitchen on Thursday, attending a press conference organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida and waiting for the 11:30 a.m. lunch at the soup kitchen.
Her three children, ages 17, 14 and 2, were all in school. They’ve lived in Immokalee for nine years and this was the first year they really struggled, after freezes decimated crops in early 2010, she said.
Right now, she and her mom can find some work here and there, but only a day or two a week at best.
They worry that if the freezes continue, money will get tighter and tighter.
“Right now, things are very hard. It’s especially sad because (of) Christmas ... but the little money we have we have to use for things other than gifts,” Maria Gabriela Chaires said.
“Farmers always announce the damage they have, but not many people talk about the workers,” said Tirso Moreno, Farmworker Association of Florida general coordinator. “It’s important to take notice of what’s happening here in Immokalee.”
Like Chaires and her mother, many people are working, but no one is working full time, said Oscar Otzoy, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Normally they might work eight or 10 hours a day, but now many can only find work for five hours.
The Coalition estimates there are about 15,000 to 20,000 workers around the Immokalee area, and all of them have been affected by the freezes, Otzoy said. The group works closely with growers Pacific and 6-L’s, and according to them they’ve lost about 50 percent of their usual production.
After last growing season’s terrible freezes, many workers didn’t return to Immokalee because they were afraid it would happen again, Otzoy said.
Those that did return are working as much as they can and saving, because they’re concerned that more freezes might come.
About 25 percent to 50 percent of the residents at the Immokalee Friendship House, a homeless shelter, are farmworkers, said John Bianco, the shelter manager.
“We’ve seen less and less work over the last couple of weeks,” Bianco said.
The shelter filled up and went over capacity when the cold snap hit, but in recent weeks the numbers have been down, he said. Sometimes that means that people have given up looking for work and left town.
“(Work is) real sporadic,” he said. “There’s nothing reliable, consistent. It’s a couple of days here, a couple of days there.”
The shelter gives out blankets and warm clothing when cold hits, and serves food to the hungry during hours when the Guadalupe Center’s soup kitchen is not open — evenings and weekends.
“We’re just hoping that we don’t get hit again,” he said. “... We’re just hoping that it’s not going to be a pattern, because that would put the people in really bad shape. It would be terrible for the growers, for the migrant workers, the whole town.”
By the numbers
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers estimates there are about 15,000 to 20,000 workers around the Immokalee area, and all of them have been affected by the freezes.
At the Guadalupe Center’s soup kitchen there was an increase in the number of people who came in for food during the cold weather, but not nearly as much as last season’s freezes, said Terrie Aviles, client services director. This year, the most people came in during the second week of December, she said. They did five seatings one day, serving more than 200 people.
Eleazar Gallegos, 25, stood outside the soup kitchen’s glass door, peering in, as volunteers set the tables and got the food ready.
Gallegos has lived in Immokalee for about two years, migrating north at times when there is more work up there. On Thursday morning, he went looking for work and at about 6 a.m. someone told him a bus was coming to pick up workers. He waited an hour but the bus never showed.
He is four payments behind on his rent, which is $50 a week, Gallegos said. If he doesn’t pay back the $200 he owes soon, he will be homeless.
Nearby, Rigoberto Gomez, 25, also waited for the soup kitchen to open. He’s been working one or two days a week picking tomatoes, but making a fraction of what he usually does.
Normally, Gomez would make $150 to $180 per day, he said. These days, it’s more like $50 on a good day and $25 on a bad day.
Some people have left, he said, heading north. But he doesn’t know what they’re doing for work.
“I come here to eat, because when there is no work there’s nothing else I can do,” he said.
If he has no money, it’s the only meal he eats all day.
How to help
Agencies helping farmworkers in need
■ Guadalupe Center, 658-1999, www.guadalupecenter.net
■ Immokalee Friendship House, 657-4090, www.stmatthewshouse.org/ifh.html
■ Amigos Center, 657-4090, www.amigoscenter.org
■ Farmworker Association of Florida, 657-8263, www.floridafarmworkers.org
■ Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 657-8311, www.ciw-online.org