Oct 25, 2003
San Jose Mission Accomplished
GEORGE GRAHAM ggraham@tampatrib.com


DOVER - To Anselma Fernandez, who crossed the U.S. border from Mexico as a frightened

12-year-old and spent more than a decade as a migrant farmworker, being site manager

of the San Jose Mission's new housing project is a dream job.

Her duties include welcoming families to their new homes in the Dover development.

She gets to see the adults' wide-eyed wonder as they take in the spacious, air-conditioned apartments,

and hear the children's squeals of glee as they scamper room to room.

``I feel like a millionaire,'' she said.

So far, 15 families have moved into the pastel-hued complex. The project has room for 80 families,

and 42 more units are planned for the immediate future.

The apartments are unfurnished except for a refrigerator and stove, and migrant families

have little furniture to bring with them.

But members of Horizon Christian Church in Valrico have made a project of providing

furniture for the tenants, and a private individual in Tampa also donates items to help

make the migrants comfortable.

``They phoned and asked me what they could do to help,'' Fernandez said.

``Now, I tell them what we need and they bring it.''

The migrant families are greeted by unaccustomed comforts such as sofas and armchairs,

coffee tables and double-beds - complete with stylish headboards.

There are even framed prints on the walls.

As Fernandez watched dewy-eyed last week, 2-year-old Milagros Gonzalez climbed down

from her mother's arms and headed for a freshly made bed, where she was soon fast asleep.

It was a world away from the plastic air mattress Milagros had used for a bed in the 30-foot,

single-wide trailer her family called home.

She had slept on the kitchen floor there, next to the two bunk beds her father,

Eligio, had built for her brothers, Eligio Jr., 12; Herman, 9; Ivan, 6; and Rudy, 3.

In the lone bedroom, under a broken window shielded by a sheet of plastic,

her father and mother shared a cast-iron cot.

The only other room in the trailer was a closet-sized nook containing a toilet and sink.

An oversize fan whirled noisily but ineffectively in the rear of the trailer. There was

no air conditioning, and the door was open.

``Look,'' Fernandez said on a visit to the Gonzalez family's trailer prior to their move to the mission. `

`No screen. They can either bear the heat or let the mosquitoes in.''

A washing machine sat on the bare earth behind the trailer, near a creek that doubles

as a drain for the farmworkers camp where the family spent the past three months.

``You know what that's used for,'' Fernandez said, gesturing wryly toward the creek.

The Gonzalez family paid $450 a month rent - and $20 extra to hook up the washing machine.

Fernandez, who came to the United States with her family 25 years ago, recalled living in

similar conditions as she followed the harvest as a migrant laborer.

Despite having to skip from school to school, Fernandez managed to get a high school diploma

and later an associate in arts degree from Hillsborough Community College.

With her schooling and fluency in English, she was able to move out of the fields into an office job

in her mid-20s. Before going to work for the Everglades Community Association as site manager

of the housing project this past summer, she was the family support specialist at the

Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which runs a day care center at the San Jose mission.

Anselma Fernandez and her husband, Jose Luis, have twin 9-year-old sons, Luis and Julio.

Jose Luis Fernandez, now the immigration director at Catholic Charities,

also spent time as a migrant worker.

It isn't easy for a family with five children to find a home to rent for three months.

Until moving in at the mission, the Gonzalez family was renting their trailer from a crew leader.

Fernandez said many crew bosses rent trailers to migrant farm workers,

a situation that leaves the workers at their mercy. In focus groups organized by Catholic Charities, migrant families complained of price gouging and loan sharking.

The Gonzalez family is among a fortunate few being accepted

for the mission's controlled-rent housing project.

With more than 1,300 farmworker families living in squalid conditions throughout

east Hillsborough, the new villas aren't easy to obtain.

Families are given preference over single workers. And to qualify,

tenants can earn no more than half the median county income.

That means a ceiling of about $20,000 a year for a family of four.

Rents at the mission project are $445 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom villa,

$495 for three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and $545 for four bedrooms with two bathrooms.

Maria Gonzalez heard about the new apartments from officials

at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. Her youngsters were

in the association's day care program.

She works side-by-side with her husband in the strawberry fields,

and needs someone to mind the children.

``They have been setting the plants,'' Fernandez said. ``They have to stick the little plants

through a hole in the plastic and into the ground.''

The going rate is $7.50 for a box of 1,500 plants.

In their new home last week, the Gonzalez boys clustered around the kitchen table,

playing a board game.

Milagros dreamed the afternoon away in her new bed.

And Maria Gonzalez scrubbed and polished.

She had kept the cramped trailer squeaky clean and was intent on doing

the same in the new three-bedroom apartment.

``Look,'' said Fernandez. ``She washed the porch.''

The washing machine that sat under a tree at the camp was ensconced

in a special laundry room.

Maria Gonzalez looked at it and a rare smile lit up her face. She said something

in Spanish to Fernandez.

``She says, `Now that the washing machine is inside, I can do the laundry when I come home

late from work,' '' Fernandez translated.