Isaret Jeffers, also known as Paisanita, is the founder of Colectivo ARBOL, an organization that serves migrant communities in the state of Florida. Paisanita is originally from León, Guanajuato. She arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 22 when she was invited to work in a leather goods store. In the U.S. she survived domestic and economic violence.
Paisanita Isaret Jeffers had two daughters with a partner that abandoned the home with the household’s finances. “When I came to the United States, life became difficult, sometimes we ate and sometimes we didn’t,” recalls Jeffers. The adversities she faced motivated Paisanita, to help other women who suffered similar struggles in silence.
Jeffers worked as a construction worker and later married Ken Jeffers, after which she dedicated herself completely to serving the field worker community in Florida. Paisanita founded Colectivo Arbol in 2017 to support the lives and well-being of field-workers in Florida.
The organization meets migrant workers in the fields, bringing them food, clothes, school supplies, legal and medical aid, educators and a family reunification program. In 2018 Colectivo Arbol participated in the reunification process of 54 parents who had not seen their children in over a decade.
The success of this program has been a collaboration among Colectivo Arbol, the government of Guanajuato and the U.S. government.
Colectivo Arbol, partners with Florida’s local government, health and legal organizations, and with the Consulate of Mexico in Orlando. Through Jeffers’ leadership, field-workers have access to clothes, face masks, milk, water, and food, English lessons, legal services and mobile health care.
Colectivo Arbol has delivered food to 400 field worker families on a weekly basis since the start of the pandemic.
Paisanita Jeffers is the daughter of a field-worker. Her mother worked on Texas farms and her grandmother was the first to serve the field-worker community, cooking and feeding them for free. The migrant activist brings outreach services to the most vulnerable migrant communities. “We never put culture aside. We tell parents to show their children where they come from,” shares Jeffers.
In recognition of her heroic work with the field worker community, the Mayor of Orlando recently awarded Isaret Jeffers with the “Hispanic Heritage Unsung Heroes Award.”
Latina Republic had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Isaret Jeffers. Paisanita spoke about her life story, the work of Colectivo Arbol, the challenges facing field workers in Florida, and the accomplishments the community is making as a whole.
Latina Republic: Paisanita, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Where are you from? Can you tell us about your work?
I am originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. Currently, I live in a town north of Tampa, Florida. My job is to work with the rural people, the peasants of Florida’s fields.
Latina Republic: When did you come to Florida?
I came here in 1997.
Latina Republic: What inspired you to support the migrant community?
My grandfather came to Texas when he was very young. He returned to Mexico and married my grandmother there. My mom and some of her brothers were born in Texas. My grandfather was a foreman on a ranch and my grandmother made food for all the peasants who lived on that ranch. My mother and my brothers were peasant children. My mother picked cotton for many years.
My grandparents never stopped going to Mexico. During one of his trips to Mexico, my grandfather died, leaving my grandmother to care for all the children in Mexico; children who did not speak Spanish.
My mom and her siblings spoke English. They had gone to a school here in the United States.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother stayed in Mexico as a widow with 7 children. She could not return to the U.S..
My mother stayed in Mexico and that’s where I was born.
I always felt strongly in my heart that I would come to the U.S.
My dad was from León, Guanajuato. In León, they work with hides and make shoes. One day, the owners of a shoe store in Georgia invited me to to manage one of their stores. The offer brought me here to the U.S.
I lived in Georgia for almost 12 years. I had 2 daughters with a Mexican-descent man, but we did not marry.
I didn’t have a good relationship with him. Those were very difficult times for both of us.
In the end, he left us without any money, completely out on the street. It was a terrible time.
Latina Republic: How did you fight back? How did you survive?
Back then we were in Georgia. I had been working in construction since 2000. Before we separated, all the money I earned I gave to him, because he asked me for it.
I know it sounds illogical, but that was the way it was. Before he left, I didn’t understand why I was staying.
You know that we, Mexican women, have that aspect of our culture. We stay, even when things are going very badly. It is a tradition.
At the time, it made me sad to tell my mother that I was going through a difficult time. I thought, what could be done about it?
I thought I had no options, and that no one was going to love me. These thoughts kept me there, even when things were very, very bad. I’m talking, beatings, lawsuits, offenses.
But there I was. And this happens with many Mexican women, and also with men.
Latina Republic: We must break this pattern, don’t we?
Of course. Because afterwards, we can be so happy.
Latina Republic: How did you feel when he left? How did your life change?
I continued in that construction company and when he left, I felt very sad because he left me with nothing, but at the same time, I felt liberated. I said, wow. I no longer have problems. The problems are gone. A big weight had lifted off me.
I felt heartbreak. I had financial problems. I had abandonment issues, but at the same time, I felt liberated.
In 2007, I met the man who is now my husband, Ken Jeffers. He also worked in construction for the same company. We got married in 2009 and moved to different areas, like Tennessee, due to his job as a superintendent.
When I married Ken Jeffers, my life changed completely. I realized that I was not the only woman who had faced problems like mine. Countless women are in the same situation.
I saw myself in all of them.
By talking to them I noticed that we were all going through the same thing, and we were all responding in the same way.
I started studying a little English. I started to inform myself of the problems surrounding field workers. I had more time for myself, and I was able to dedicate myself more fully to the community.
When I moved to Florida, my life changed completely. I realized the same problems appeared everywhere in America, in Tennessee, in Georgia, in Florida, field workers suffered from domestic violence, inter-family violence, financial violence, from homelessness, from problems with their children, workplace abuse, workplace harassment, immigration status problems, partners refusing to sign papers to allow a mother to leave with her child, deportation problems, all these problems were present in field workers’ lives.
We were all suffering collectively and no one was saying anything.
I realized that this was happening here in Florida and that it is very difficult for migrant workers to know where to turn, who to talk to to solve the problems in their lives.
Colectivo ARBOL en Alianza con una Organización Hermana entregaremos Alimentos semanalmente 407 307 6090 llamé a la Paisanita Viva México ??COMPARTA ESTE VIDEO
Posted by Paisanita Isaret Jeffers on Wednesday, September 16, 2020
When I moved to Florida I started collecting donations and getting very involved in the community. I think the community was the one that adopted me.
As I grew closer to the community, I could see the problems very clearly. We, Mexicans, have been victims of domestic violence, financial violence, lack of education, literacy problems, because Mexicans come to work and sometimes we forget to study. We forget ourselves. We work, work and work and we don’t see that there is much help around us that could help improve our lives.
When I realized how these problems affected peasant women, I noticed that no one was talking about them. We knew they existed but nobody mentioned them. This was a community that was very quiet until I began to meet with them and ask for help on their behalf.
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Posted by Paisanita Isaret Jeffers on Thursday, August 27, 2020
Donations for the farmers began to arrive. I brought lawyers with me to the fields. I invited the health clinics into the fields. We come to them because they cannot come to us.
Latina Republic: When they ask you for advice, what do you say to them?
First, I see what the situation is. I tell them that, first of all they have to protect their children through dual citizenship. This is very important. I tell them to visit their local consulates to process that as soon as they can.
I usually ask them, “Have you made your children, Mexican citizens? No? It must be done! We don’t know what can happen. Your life is not so stable and neither is your husband’s. Make your children Mexican citizens first, so that whatever happens your children will be yours and your children will go with you, wherever you go.”
Second, I ask them what is happening. I talk to them to understand the problem: Is it infidelity? Is it work?
There is one very important thing I tell them: “What is yours, is yours. You earn it. Save it. You work to help your children.”
I learned this valuable lesson because of what happened to me.
I try to always talk to women and give them information. If they are victims of domestic violence, there is help. There is a U-Visa they can apply for.
Latina Republic: How do you help them?
We start with legal advice. We go out with immigration and family lawyers to give advice to the women and to the peasant community.
Sometimes I focus a lot on women because I have always said that when us women are good, everything around us is good: the community, the children, the family.
We also bring out a mobile health clinic, operated through a friend of mine, and we also have trained teachers so that farmers can study English, although with the pandemic we are readapting our programs. Colectivo Arbol also distributes food throughout different areas of Florida.
Latina Republic: How are the field workers’ children doing?
Our children need a lot of love and a lot of dedication. Because all our children, and I stress the word, “our” children, because I include my daughters, many are abandoned children, many are children of parents separated by migration.
They are children who grow up with that feeling of abandonment, of separation from their parents. In migrant communities, there are many children who live with one parent only, their father or their mother, or with their grandparents.
Latina Republic: Is the community stable or do they travel for the harvest season?
60% of the families are stable in the community and, 40% of them travel. Some come directly from Mexico, including men and women. Last week, I was with a group of women who traveled here to work for a season They leave their children with their grandparents and when the work is done, they return.
Migrant children can feel a lack of love and grow up with this feeling of abandonment. And even a grudge towards one for this life that one is giving them.
Latina Republic: What happens to the education of children when migrant families have to migrate?
The children go with them. When the Florida harvest is over, they move to Michigan, Ohio, the Carolinas and then return to Florida.
Latina Republic: What can we do to support migrant children and let them know they matter and that they are loved?
I think we have to hug them a lot. We have to talk to them. Also, I don’t think the parents are much to blame. In my case, my daughters grew up without their father and I tried to work hard so that they would have all they needed.
I think it would be good to talk to migrant children about their future and about miracles. Because in my case, I am living a dream and a miracle. Mayors call me, different organizations call me. You called me, newspapers call me. If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would be leading an organization that helps field workers and receive an award for it, I might not have believed it. If I could do it, the children can, too.
I have experienced such great changes in my life. 20 years ago I could never have imagined that the mayor of Orlando was going to give me recognition. That is why it is important to talk to migrant children about who they can become and what they can achieve.
In my work I focus on supporting women because when one is well and we have peace, the children are well, too.
Latina Republic: Have you seen changes in your community since you have been involved?
Peasant women have taken a very big step with me. They are no longer missing in photos about migrant life. They didn’t use to be photographed. They used to shy away from the camera.
Now, they come out to interviews with me. We used to be shy, even me. I didn’t take photos before. Now I have a professional photographer.
Latina Republic: What are Colectivo Arbol’s most urgent needs today?
We would like to have a stable place where people can visit us. We have a place where we store food, but we have no place to meet beyond the field. Sometimes the rain pours on us while we are delivering services. It gets muddy out there. We also do not have bathrooms. We would love to have a place that is ours where we can meet the field workers to address their various needs.
We would also love to have a truck so we can transport all the food and resources in one vehicle. Now, we move in our personal cars, taking food and resources back and forth.
A large truck would be ideal, or an old school bus would be great.
We take the meals to the fields where migrants are raising the harvest for our tables.
Colectivo Arbol comes to them. Our name means, “the tree collective.” Anyone who comes near it will have some fruit. The branches represent the many ways we help people. Our roots are more stable now, but we have much growing to do. We work every day to make Colectivo Arbol rooted and stable and its branches strong so that more fruit can grow from us to the community.
Colectivo Arbol needs support to continue providing fresh food to migrant families during the pandemic. On their big wish list is a truck to transport food, clothes and resources to the fields. Also on a big wish list, is a facility, a place where field workers can seek Colectivo Arbol’s various services in Florida. Please consider making a donation. You can reach Colectivo Arbol at: (407) 307-6090. They will gladly accept donations through Cashapp, Zelle, Venmo and paypal. Any donation, helps .
Soledad Quartucci | Executive Director
Soledad is the founder of Latina Republic and is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soledad lived the immigrant experience in the US, which shaped her as an advocate for immigrant rights. Her passion for the immigrant experience in the U.S. led her to pursue a PhD in US immigration history. She enjoyed over a decade of her professional career in academia, but was pulled in a new direction when she learned about Friends of OC Detainees through a student. She was immediately inspired to volunteer and visit women held in detention in Orange County. By learning about their struggles and the motives for leaving their home countries in Central and South America, Soledad saw a need to understand and communicate the regional causes that pushed migrants outside their homes. By staying in touch with women who were deported to Central America, Soledad gained insight into local problems and encountered leaders and organizations in Central America that were dedicated to making their communities stronger, safer, and self-reliant. What started as a forum for storytelling in an effort to destroy stereotypes that depict migrants in an inaccurate light, turned into a nonprofit formed to help support courageous leaders and organizations that work hard every day to improve their countries. The study of migrants fleeing to the US, led Soledad to develop an equal passion for advancing the rights of Latinx families in Southern California where the stigma of public charge and a pattern of immigrant single-headed households necessitates action steps, information and local partnership. Soledad is an oral historian with a passion for human rights.