From NaplesNews.com, “Immokalee’s La Fiesta No. 3 a hub for food, coffee and, hopefully, jobs” by Katy Torralbas, 18 Mar 2011.
The workers huddle inside hooded sweatshirts and over large plastic foam cups of hot coffee. It’s 5:30 a.m., and Immokalee is cold and dark.
Street lights cast streams of light in the parking lot and school bus engines rumble.
But step inside La Fiesta Supermarket, where the men are gathered, and you enter another world: Bright lights, warmth and smells of flour, coffee, onions, tacos. People file in, wait in line, order and check out, replacing hoods and hats and bracing themselves to step back outside.
Then, when it’s time, they pack into the buses that take them to the fields.
It’s a scene that repeats itself every morning like clockwork. But you could buy tomatoes and oranges and watermelons your entire life without even knowing it exists.
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Open the glass doors of La Fiesta Supermarket and it takes a second for your senses to adjust. It’s packed, with long lines snaking around on the right side of the store at different counters — especially at the taco area and the coffee stand.
Four cashiers in red shirts work the registers. At one, customer Jesus Victoria smiles and chats with the cashier he buys two small loaves of bread for his lunch.
“I’m here every morning,” says Victoria, 50, in Spanish a moment later. “Usually buying bread or lunch. They have everything in this store.”
He surveys the scene in the store for a second. Today, a weekday morning in February, there are about 300 to 400 people outside in the supermarket parking lot, Victoria estimates. That’s fewer workers than usual, says Victoria, who is a driver and has lived and worked in Immokalee for 18 years. There’s less work these days because the freeze decimated many of the crops.
Soon, the growers will start planting again and then the numbers of people waiting for work outside the supermarket will swell to 2,000 to 3,000, he says. Then, he’s out the door with his plastic grocery bag, into the cold, dark morning.
“It’s a decently profitable store,” said Denise Hicks, who works for the store’s owner Rasem Okab. Okab’s company owns 17 grocery stores. “We have a lot of repeat customers. We cash checks. They cook all of the Mexican food. They make the tortillas.”
The company just bought another grocery in Immokalee on North 15th Street. In a business where large chains — the Publixes and Sweetbays — usually dominate, these small grocery stores have found a niche market, Hicks said.
“We cater to Spanish people and buses and harvesters,” she says. “That’s the secret.”
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Outside, a blue-painted school bus pulls up, squeaking as it slows, and before it even stops, a line has formed. 12 men and a woman.
Two other men approach, “Are we going to go in this one?” one man asks the other in Spanish.
“We have to ask him,” the other replies, pointing to the man who is stepping off the bus.
They go over to ask, and then walk away. Not today.
Azucena Salas Roblero stands nearby with a lunch bag in one hand and a plastic grocery bag with Gatorade in the other.
She arrived at 7 a.m. and will be harvesting tomatoes today, though there aren’t many left to pick after the freeze, she says. Roblero, 48, has been working the fields for 15 years. She’s wearing a Coalition of Immokalee Workers baseball cap with a pink bandana underneath, covering her ponytail.
A red-painted school bus pulls up. She walks over quickly, boarding with dozens of others. Faces look out every window, and with 14 windows and about four seats per row, that makes for about 56 people.
Juan Lopez stands in a group of men. He’s already got his place on a bus today, and his bus is full as well, he says.
Lopez, 65, has been working in the fields for about 10 years, he says. Originally from Guatemala, he lives in Immokalee part of the year and follows the crops north in the summer months. His wife works in the fields as well, along with his two older sons. His youngest, 12 years old, is still in school.
These days, he’s working about two days a week, sometimes three, Lopez says. That’s not normal for this time of year. When there is work every day, he takes it.
“It’s very hard to find work now,” he says. “It makes it hard to buy food for the family.”
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During the early-morning rush at La Fiesta, most of the activity in the 10,000-square-foot store is concentrated in the front right corner — the taco-making, tortilla-baking, coffee-brewing section.
At any given time, a dozen or so people stand in line waiting to order tacos from Mauricio Martinez, who stands behind a sizzling pile of savory beef roasting on a grill. Beside him, Cecilia Martin chops lemons, wraps lunches and scoops spicy green salsa she made earlier from chiles and avocado into to-go containers.
They call this part of the store the “taquería.” The air is filled with smells of roasting onions and steak, lemons and spicy chilis.
Martinez and Martin arrive at 4 a.m. to get things started, and they’ll serve hundreds of people before 8 a.m. Bouncy, upbeat music in Spanish plays from a stereo behind the grill, and each time the line seems to be getting shorter, another dozen or so people walk in the door and head for the tacos.
The customers are about 90 percent men, but there are women mixed in, dressed in the same kind of clothes the men are: Hoodies, jeans, boots or sneakers. Some of the women work in packing houses, but there are also those who work in the fields.
On the wall opposite the taquería, two women serve already-made food in the area they call the “cocina,” or kitchen: Tamales, vegetables, rice, beans, rotisserie chickens.
Nearby, two large, 1.5-by-3-foot Igloo coolers stand. You wouldn’t even notice them, except for the fact that every few minutes or so, someone opens one, lifts out a round, circular package wrapped in foil and heads to the register: Homemade tortillas, made in the bakery just hours before.
There’s no sign, no price. Everybody just knows they’re there.