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"Without them the food wouldn’t reach people’s homes": these immigrants haven’t stopped working despite their fears of the virus

We tour the farm fields of South Florida to meet some of the 13,000 workers that in spite of fears around contracting COVID-19 never stopped picking vegetables to make ends meet. Here are some of their struggles and stories. This is our special report.
2 Jul 2020 – 10:00 AM EDT
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Life in the Florida fields - In Homestead, a city in South Florida devoted largely to agriculture, production slowed in the midst of the pandemic. But workers continue supplying food to supermarkets and homes across the United States. In the okra groves, a worker is covered from head to toe in protective gear as they harvest. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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Vegetables heading north - This is one of Sifuentes Farms' okra fields. As the pandemic intensified in mid-March and buyers in New York closed their businesses, production at the farm fell nearly 60%. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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Dozens of boxes go to waste - Okra has a texture similar to nopal, consumed widely in Mexico. It must be harvested at three centimeters long. Otherwise it’s at risk of growing too large and being rejected by sellers. Many of these boxes were lost when the crisis dried up demand. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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The essential immigrant labor force - The workers in these okra fields are mostly undocumented immigrants who have continued to work throughout the pandemic. They weren’t eligible to receive assistance through the economic stimulus package approved by Congress at the end of March. They work covered with plastic bags and masks. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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From ‘picker’ to owner of hundreds of acres - Pedro Sifuentes came to the United States in 1999 from his native Mexico. "Like any immigrant who arrives, I remember that at that time I did not know anyone in the region,” he said. “I had to live in a park for a week until I got a job. I was a worker in the field. I always looked for that type of work because in Mexico from a very young age we are dedicated to working in the fields.” Sifuentes now runs a farm with 1,400 acres of okra and other crops. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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"We’re also heroes" - Blanca Rivas is an immigrant from Guatemala who has spent 14 years in the fields of Homestead. At Sifuentes Farms, she supervises about 55 workers every day, beginning very early in the morning. "We are also heroes. We’re heroes, because despite the fear and the pandemic, we’re here, picking vegetables, harvesting crops so that people can have a plate of food at home ... and we have no idea what tomorrow will bring," she told Univision News. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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"I’m afraid, but I have to work" - Teresita is an undocumented migrant from Mexico who has continued to work tirelessly in the okra fields. "I’m scared but I have to work because if I stay home no one will support us. We need money to pay the rent ... to pay for everything," she said. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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An unprecedented emergency - The crisis will lead Florida farms to lose about $522 million this year, the state government estimates. For some farmers like Pedro Sifuentes the goal is simply to survive the crisis until there is a vaccine or treatment against the disease. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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"The undocumented people are the ones crouched down" - During a tour of the Homestead farms, workers recount how they sacrifice at work. They harvest crops in the rain or under the scorching sun. ”The undocumented people are the ones crouched down like this, harvesting. Sometimes when you get home, you can't even go to the bathroom because of back pain. And the next day, it's the same thing all over again," says Sofía Santiago. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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Rain or shine - Okra bushes are harvested when they’re very close to the ground. As they grow, it becomes easier to "pick" the small vegetables that emerge from a bright yellow flower. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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In search of okra to harvest - A worker separates the leaves in search of the okra. Then he drops it in the bucket on his back. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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An early start - The day starts at approximately 3:00 in the morning. In order to see where the okra is, the workers wear lights on their foreheads. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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An area rich in crops - A worker picks eggplant in a field in Homestead. Because so many diverse crops — from okra and eggplant, to pumpkin and lychee — grow here, labor is usually available year-round. Crédito: Andrea Zárate/Univision Noticias
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The crisis hits an eggplant field - Francisco Maldonado, a Mexican who migrated in 1985, is in charge of this eggplant field. During the crisis, Francisco also temporarily lost clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, his main markets. "When that closed up there, the packing houses here had to close and they couldn't receive products. So we always had to keep a certain number of parcels to cut daily. And since we couldn't cut them, we had to cancel everything," he explained. Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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"You have to think about them" - But he sought to ensure his employees had at least some work during the worst days of the pandemic. "Every week, people never stopped working, they always received their check at least 80%," he said. "They are people who need to take their check home every week because they have expenses. Some of them do not have documents and have nowhere to ask for help. You have to try to think about them.” Crédito: Andrea Zárate/Univision Noticias
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"We’re all the same" - Melda Velázquez is a Guatemalan immigrant who lost her job picking guavas. She has 10 children and is under severe stress to get another job to help her pay for basic expenses, like electricity and rent. The government "helped all the people who are documented and they didn’t want to help us because we’re immigrants,” she says. “But we are all the same, it shouldn’t matter ... our children are from here. They were born here and they should be entitled to assistance.” Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
17/18
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"Just look around to see who the workers are" - Claudia González is an organizer with the Farm Workers Association of Florida, which has been delivering assistance to farmworkers. "They used to call us illegals and now we’re essential. Who are the people out here working? Just look around to see who the workers are.” Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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"We feel disappointed" - Blanca Marín also lost her job at a Homestead nursery. In spite of her frustration over the lack of federal aid — even though she pays taxes with a personal identification number known as ITIN — the Guatemalan, who has been in the U.S. for five years, switched gears and began to make masks. The small business has helped her pay her bills during the crisis. "I had a sewing machine that a friend gave me. It was sitting there, dusty. So I said 'I'm going to make masks.’ I found a pattern on the internet and started with fabric that I had sitting around.” Crédito: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/Univision Noticias
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