Margarita Romo will be the first to tell you that she is a flawed woman and that some people simply do not like her.
But the path she’s traveled led her to advocating for farm workers, immigrants and the poor. Her work has been recognized by Gov. Rick Scott, who selected her to be inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
The honor goes to people who have made significant contributions to improving the lives of minorities and all Florida citizens.
Romo, 76, founded Farmworkers Self-Help in Dade City, a nonprofit organization that has focused on education, advocacy and addressing the needs of migrant farmworkers and immigrants for more than three decades.
The organization helps with immigration issues, gives bread to the poor, advocates for legislative changes and seeks to improve conditions for the impoverished. It has been particularly active in seeking improvements for Tommytown, a community northwest of downtown Dade City.
“It wasn’t anything that I purposely went out to do,” Romo said. Her involvement began when she was asked to translate church services at migrant camps.
Her commitment grew from there.
Romo said she didn’t have a strategic or systematic method for helping people. She said they came to her with a need and she explored ways to help them.
As time went on, Romo became more knowledgeable and established more relationships — making it possible for her to help more people.
“In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be doing this, especially with the history that I had. It seemed like there was just disaster after disaster,” Romo said.
Romo was born in Texas, and at age 3, her mother died. Her father placed her in an orphanage and sent her three brothers to another orphanage. They stayed there a couple of years until he remarried.
“I went in as Margarita and I came out as Margaret,” Romo said, and she was no longer speaking Spanish.
She joined the convent when she was 15 and left two years later with the hopes of mending a strained relationship with her stepmother, which never happened.
Romo has been divorced three times, and along the way she had six children.
She believes her personal failings and the challenges she’s faced have helped her become more compassionate.
“We all have issues, and we’ll always have issues. There’s no one who is ever going to be perfect, but I think knowing your own imperfections causes you to be more understanding about others,” Romo said.
She also understands despair.
She was so despondent after her first divorce that she attempted to take her own life, she said. She’d taken some pills and someone found her — otherwise, her life would have ended then, she said.
“I’m a real miracle, walking,” Romo said.
That experience made her realize how important it is for people to seek counseling when they need it, Romo said. “I’m a real champion about mental health.”
She also understands poverty.
Romo needed help after one of her divorces, and a woman from a migrant camp understood that need.
“I’ll never forget — she gave me some of her food stamps,” Romo said.
While she is being honored for her work, Romo is quick to give credit to those who have helped her to help others.
“It’s not about me,” Romo said. “If it hadn’t been for those undocumented farmworkers, we wouldn’t be here. They’re the ones who walked with me. They went to Washington, D.C. They went to Tallahassee.”
She also said mentors she’s met have helped her to be more effective.
Romo views herself as an activist, but uses a different approach than many young organizers whom she sees as being more aggressive and eager to take on the world.
When she goes to Tallahassee to advocate for changes, she said she reads scripture to lawmakers and prays for God to guide them.
“We need God to go in front of us,” Romo said. “We need to do battle with the Bible in our hand. I really believe that God has to be called in, and I believe God hasn’t been called into the middle of all of the crises. God has got to be in the middle of everything we do.”
Sometimes, she feels conflicted.
“Being a pastor and being an activist organizer is just a real difficult place. You have to constantly forgive, and at the same time you’re in the middle of a battle,” said Romo, who became an ordained minister 10 years ago.
She was reaching out spiritually to children in her community even before she was ordained: “I started telling parents, if you want to bring me your children, we’re going to have children’s church on Sunday morning. You can go wash. You can go to the flea market. We’ll take care of the children.”
Romo is being inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame on April 24 alongside Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore and Judge James B. Sanderlin.
They were among the nominees the Florida Commission on Human Relations recommended to Scott.
“As Florida marks its 500 year anniversary, we want to honor individuals who have stood for equality in our state’s history even in the face of adversity. These champions of freedom have paved the way for equal rights among all Floridians,” Scott said, in a Feb. 27 release.
Romo said she’s not really sure what the induction means.
“If they really want to do something, then give us (Florida) KidCare (low-cost or free health insurance) for legal immigrant children,” she said.
She’d also like to have a conversation with lawmakers about the negative impacts she believes zero tolerance has on kids. She also thinks the state should allow immigrants who arrived here before age 16 and who have no criminal record to attend Florida colleges at in-state tuition rates.
“You can pick enough oranges to pay in-state tuition, but you cannot pick enough oranges to pay out-of-state tuition,” Romo said. “That’s just the bottom line.”
Romo could go on and on about injustices that need to be addressed and opportunities that need to be offered.
She tackles what she can in Tallahassee, in the community and her office, a humble white house on Lock Street.
Photographs on the walls of her office serve as constant reminders of the work that remains.
One photo shows a smiling girl who died before she reached age 5 because she could not get the medical care she needed quickly enough.
Another photo shows an old man standing in a dumpster. He’d rummage around wherever he could to find cans he could sell, Romo said. When he died, it cost $800 to buy his ashes so his life could be honored.
There’s also a photo of a young man who died from AIDS and another of a man who died from prostate cancer.
Romo said she remembers those people when she thinks about the work she needs to do.
She also thinks about tragic things that have happened because of dangerous working conditions. She thinks of workers who have “lost their eyesight because of pesticide” or “fallen off ladders and broke their back and got no compensation.”
Romo aims to help people help themselves.
“We need to think for ourselves,” Romo said. “If we’re really about teaching people to be free, then you’ve got to give them the tools to do that. … To help us learn to think for ourselves is where the real work comes in and the real love,” said Romo, whose organization encourages students to attain their GED, enroll in college and seek job training.
She said she feels blessed to do the work she does.
“When you’re a community organizer and you help organize your community, then that community grows and it becomes a whole different place and everybody who received the benefit of that growth takes it with them and plants it somewhere else, and it never stops growing.”
No matter how dark things can get at times, Romo hangs on.
“Thirty-three years and we’re still here.”
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