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    Shock gives way to grief

    Migrant workers gather to pay their respects to three of six people killed in a collision last week.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    AVON PARK -- At her husband's funeral Monday morning, Adelina Martinez held her tears until just after communion when mourners sang the meditation, Dale El Descanso.

    Give him rest.

    It was then that her 6-year-old son, Diego, reached in front of his sister, 9-year-old Poulet, and made a gesture too big for someone so little. He took his weeping mother's hand and held on.

    Moments later, the middle child, 7-year-old Janet, sobbed as she and her family followed the oak casket to the back of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, then outside to the silver hearse that would carry her father, Dario Martinez, to the cemetery.

    The quiet procession included the caskets of two other men who died with Martinez, 32, in a horrific crash last week near Wauchula that killed six Mexican farm workers on their way to pick oranges in a grove near Parrish.

    Andres Benitez Tolentino, 34, had nine children back in Mexico and is survived by his parents, Evaristo and Consepcion. Neftali Oliver Lopez, 21, had three brothers and two sisters, and is survived by his parents Orlando and Rosario.

    Both men, along with three others killed in the crash, will be flown back to Mexico later this week, where their families are planning additional services.

    The other three men -- Melquiades Flores, Inez Romero-Marin and Bernabe Serrano, all in their early 20s -- will be eulogized Wednesday evening at a visitation in Bartow.

    The cost for the funerals and transportation of the bodies is being picked up by Florida Harvesters Inc. of Lakeland, said Jesus Contreras, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in Miami, which has sent representatives to Avon Park and arranged for the families of the dead and injured to get legal advice.

    Florida Harvesters owns the converted school bus that was carrying the six men and 17 others last Wednesday when it apparently crossed over the centerline along a fog-draped stretch of State Road 62 and was struck by a semitrailer truck. Representatives of the company could not be reached for comment.

    Dario Martinez was driving the bus, but authorities don't know why it crossed over the line.

    Monday's funeral was a simple farewell from Central Florida's migrant community, and a reminder of the dangers that await the workers each day as they occupy the lowest rung in a chain of jobs that must be performed before the nation can have orange juice.

    The crash was the latest in a string of accidents involving migrant farm workers in west-central Florida, including five in the past six weeks. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the day is getting to and from work in buses that rumble along two-lane country roads, sharing the narrow pavement with much larger trucks.

    But many can't afford to pass up the work. According to some workers interviewed last week, one day's wages of up to $50 is many times what they could expect to earn in Mexico. Most workers send their earnings home to Mexico to support relatives or save money to build homes for their families.

    Father Jose Gonzales, who runs the migrant ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Venice, celebrated the Mass for Martinez, Lopez and Tolentino in Spanish and English.

    From the Gospel according to John, he read the story of Lazarus, who died and was brought back to life in the presence of Jesus. Like the sisters of Lazarus, Gonzales said, the relatives of the lost farm workers are shocked and hurt. But "it is not the end of everything," he said. "God's ways are not our ways. They sometimes shatter our expectations."

    He urged the gathering of about 200 people to "wait for what God will do in his own way and in his own time. We wait in confusion and in grief, but with hope."

    A small parish choir sang to the strains of a softly strummed guitar and the mournful groan of an accordion.

    About 40 Mexican farm workers, many of them in black jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirts, crowded in the pews to pay their respects. They listened quietly, made the sign of the cross and left. Some were expected back in the fields later Monday.

    - Times photographer John Pendygraft contributed to this report.

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