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    Messenger of protection

    Tarcila Pimentel works to save women in the migrant farm worker community from abuse. "These are my people,'' she says.

    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    Tarcila Pimentel of the Spring, a Tampa shelter, talks with a domestic violence victim she has been helping for several years. The woman is getting a divorce.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 9, 2002

    WIMAUMA -- A dozen Mexican farm workers have left fields of luscious red tomatoes on a drizzling morning for a trailer at the Beth-El Mission. In discount jeans, they sit with notebooks open, ready to learn English prepositions.

    But standing before them is a petite woman in blouse, skirt and heels who has been granted a half hour of their time. She will say nothing about grammar.

    "Buenos dias. Mi nombre es Tarcila Pimentel," she says, introducing herself in their native language. I'm from the Spring of Tampa Bay, she tells them, here to talk about domestic violence.

    A few women lock eyes and chuckle.

    A husband can sexually abuse his wife, Pimentel says, eyes moving briskly from face to face, to keep from suggesting anyone might have a secret. A delicate business, this talk of abuse.

    Then she asks a question that stops them cold: How many of you have children? No one is smiling now. Seven women raise their hands. Children are the ones who suffer, Pimentel tells them, and children are welcome at the Spring. She writes her cell phone number on the chalkboard. "Llamenme." Call me.

    Pimentel leaves and tucks her petite frame behind the wheel of a green Cavalier. She uses the car to crisscross Wimauma, sometimes logging 150 miles a day, stopping in churches, clinics and stores. Today, her soft hands will press dozens of cards with emergency numbers into the calloused palms of laborers. It's the timid ones who need her help most.

    But first, she has to find them.

    * * *

    In early September, thousands of migrant farm workers roll back down Interstate 75 now that Georgia is picked clean of green peppers.

    That means Pimentel's support groups are starting again, she says, sitting in an office at the Beth-El Mission after her presentation. The Rev. Ramiro Ros stops by and says the mission is lucky to have her, but domestic violence isn't going away.

    "It's an endemic problem in this community," he says.

    Migrant victims fear more than their abuser, says Pimentel. Sometimes batterers threaten to report victims to immigration officials. Undocumented workers aren't usually aware that battered women can be protected from deportation. Few law enforcement officers speak Spanish.

    The Spring, Tampa's domestic violence shelter, is 25 miles northwest of Wimauma and a world away from everything familiar. The Spring opened an outreach center in Plant City this year, but it's still far for Wimauma residents.

    "They are afraid," Pimentel says. "Of a hundred (battered women), maybe one will go to the shelter."

    According to one recent study, 25,000 migrants or seasonal farm workers passed through Hillsborough County in 2000. Many are concentrated in the Wimauma area.

    In Wimauma so far this year, there have been 32 reported domestic violence incidents.

    Three years ago, Pimentel, 35, and her husband left Guatemala so he could run his family's Mexican restaurant in Tampa. With a degree in psychology, she landed the position at the Spring, which meant longer hours and, initially, less pay than her government job back home.

    At night she works toward her master's degree at the University of South Florida, takes a Bible studies class and helps raise the couple's three children.

    She gets tired, but doesn't consider quitting.

    "I'm Hispanic," she says. "These are my people."

    * * *

    By noon, Pimentel rolls along a two-lane road and past a small grocery store, where she quickly makes a U-turn.

    Inside, a cloudy jar of pickled pigs feet sits on the counter. Two men in work boots buy packaged pastries and leave.

    The cashier steps out from behind the counter. Pimentel has gotten a tip the woman is being abused. Pimentel says nothing about possible trouble. She gives only a brief introduction, an emergency card and her phone number. "Gracias," says the woman with a smile.

    A week later, she still hasn't called.

    * * *

    It is nearing 2 p.m. when Pimentel pulls up to a strip mall on State Road 674. The Wimauma Family Health Clinic is empty.

    "I usually talk to anyone waiting," she says.

    Over iced tea and chicken quesadillas at Castillo's, a small Mexican restaurant next door, she says her clients complain that La Policia don't always document abuse.

    "The police are not filing reports," she says.

    Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Vinny Millan, who works with refugees, says that would be surprising, given that filing reports on domestic violence is state law.

    Pimentel sees a lot here that needs fixing. Clients need clothing, transportation.

    "But that's not my job," she says, regret in her voice. Her job is to answer her cellular phone at night, keep her clients' identities secret and withhold judgment of women who return to abusive men.

    "He loves me," women tell her, "he's just jealous."

    Her reply: "Love doesn't hurt."

    She has heard that a Hispanic woman will be separated from her abuser an average of 17 times before she will will end the relationship. The machismo culture, she says, contributes to the problem, which she knows about from personal experience.

    "That's why I understand the women," she says. She won't say any more.

    Her most haunting decisions are whether to call child welfare authorities. At risk is the confidence she's worked to build.

    "If I lose the trust of these people," she says, "they won't let me in, they won't talk to me."

    -- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at or (813) 226-3383.

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