Food, fun at fair's Fiesta Day

By S.I. Rosenbaum
Published July 13, 2007

When the Hillsborough County Fair opens in October, it will offer all the traditional pleasures: livestock and fried dough, art shows and gospel music.

But this year's fair will also set aside a day to salute the mostly Mexican crop pickers upon whom, fair organizers say, Hillsborough County agriculture depends.

"We chose to honor the Hispanic heritage so prevalent in Tampa Bay ... especially the Mexican community, without which farmers would not be able to harvest the crops critical to this multimillion-dollar industry," said Betty Jo Tompkins, the fair association president.

The fair's "Fiesta Day" will feature a Mexican-style rodeo, costume contest, food and Latin music at its new site near Dover.

Guadalupe "Lupe" Lamas, who works at a mission for farmworkers in Dover, said she was excited about the idea.

It's a change from the traditional agricultural fair, she said, where typically farmers were honored while Latino farmworkers were invisible.

"They just pretend we don't exist," she said.

"If you go to the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, it is the glorification of the farmer - and that's okay," she said. "But they totally forget that strawberries are picked by farmworkers."

Tompkins said she wouldn't criticize the Plant City event, which split from the County Fair years ago.

But she agreed that migrant workers are an aspect of agriculture that "has not been showcased as it should be in a positive way."

Tompkins, with her fair complexion and trademark beehive of braids, looks as Anglo as apple pie. But her maiden name is Padron, and her family emigrated from the Canary Islands. She jokes that that makes her African-American.

As a young woman working on a degree in agriculture, she spent time picking crops alongside newly immigrated Mexicans and Guatemalans.

She said she has long wanted to incorporate that aspect of farming into the county fair.

"I've always thought it was important for us to reflect on all the different groups that make up the fair," Tompkins said. "Our fair is going to be unique."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.