Enterprising Latinas envisions Wimauma as food destination

For generations, a largely Hispanic labor force in Wimauma has filled the food basket of Tampa Bay and beyond with tomatoes, watermelons, strawberries, onions and peppers.

But Hillsborough County’s sprawling growth is evident in the new subdivisions, fast-food restaurants, medical offices and congested traffic moving down State Road 674.

Wimauma is getting noticed like never before.

As the area changes, the nonprofit Enterprising Latinas is making its voice heard in support of Wimauma's residents. It is an advocate for a community that is an essential partner in the county’s agricultural power but is too often known only for high poverty rates and migrant farm labor.

However, Wimauma’s very essence as an agricultural hub is what Enterprising Latinas believes will move the rural community toward a prosperous economic future. The skills learned from decades of farm labor can translate into opportunities across the spectrum of the agricultural industry from food production to marketing to restaurants.

In August, Enterprising Latinas has organized trolley tours that highlight the rich Hispanic and African American history and cultures of Wimauma, including the authentic food flavors served at local restaurants. The first tours on August 19th and 20th sold out and there is a waiting list for the tours on August 26th and 27th.

“The tours serve the purpose of changing the narrative about Wimauma from a place that has high rates of poverty to a food destination,” says Ileana Cintron, deputy director of Enterprising Latinas, Inc.

Wimauma’s potential as a “food innovation district” can lead the way for residents to diversify their economic opportunities, she says.

Among the restaurants on the tours are Los Angeles La Casa del Huarache, El Sol and Garcia’s Bakery. Other highlights include a local vendors market at the Wimauma Opportunity Center, a visit to the 5-acre lagoon at Southshore Bay subdivision and the Boys & Girls Club at Bethune Park, named for African American educator Mary McCleod Bethune.

Another stop is the First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church and the Wimauma Heritage Cemetery where enslaved African Americans were buried. Cintron says the African American history in Wimauma is not widely known. Until the 1960s, much of the farm labor in and around Wimauma was done by African Americans. Racism and racist violence drove many to move to Northern cities, as part of the Great Northward Migration. Hispanics, mostly from Mexico, became the next wave of farm laborers. 

“They were recruited to come here,” Cintron says.

Often, they would work through a growing season that would take them as far north as Ohio. But Cintron says many made Wimauma their permanent home.
Low wages, for farming or service jobs, meant households worked several jobs. The legacy is a wage and wealth gap that keeps Wimauma’s families from breaking out of poverty.

“They work all the time,” says Cintron. “That’s all they know.”

The lack of job and career diversity was a motivator for Liz Gutierrez, who founded Enterprising Latinas in 2009. She serves as the nonprofit's chief executive director.  
Its mission is to empower all women, regardless of race or ethnicity, by giving them the skills and confidence to find a path toward economic equity for themselves and their families. 

Or as the nonprofit’s mission states, “When women do better, their families do better.” About 90 percent of Enterprising Latinas’ members are Hispanic women who come from low-income households that support families through low-paying farm work or service jobs.

“Our concern has been what do you do for equity for people who lived here for so long but got so little,” says Cintron. "We’ve been asking, making a lot of noise. And now they are coming down here. Wimauma and South Shore are on the map. People can’t ignore us.”

The nonprofit recently celebrated the expansion of its Wimauma Opportunity Center, at 5128 State Road 674. About 200 people attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony, including Hillsborough County commissioners and representatives of the many philanthropic organizations that support Enterprising Latinas.

The main building – formerly Rachel’s Country Kitchen – received major upgrades to the roof, floors and utilities. Modular buildings, with colorful murals, were installed. They will serve as additional classroom and meeting space and offices for the Wimauma Community Development Corp. In the fall, the Hillsborough Community College of South Shore will open a satellite classroom at the nonprofit’s headquarters.

“(HCC) will be a gateway for other academic programs they have,” says Cintron. “People can explore other opportunities.”

Hillsborough County and the Allegany Franciscan Ministries provided grants and the HCC gave in-kind aid. The Community Foundation Tampa Bay presented a $50,000 check to Enterprising Latinas. The foundation is a long-time partner that shares a mission vision to support women and girls and promote economic prosperity that can break the cycle of poverty.

“As a foundation, we look for a return on our investment,” says Katie Shultz, senior director of community investment for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. “It’s not about money. It’s about impact. (Enterprising Latinas) show their impact and it’s huge.”

Annually, Enterprising Latinas serves about 2,000 people, including about 300 members who attend classes on business entrepreneurship or learn skills that lead to higher-wage jobs and careers. Shultz says Enterprising Latinas understands the importance of engaging their community and finding resources. Their name directly relates to their community connections, and why they are successful, she says.

“They are the epitome of a social service art with a business mind bent,” Shultz says. “They are addressing the needs in the community, but they have outcomes to prove it's effective.”

Enterprising Latinas offers a friendly welcome at the center to everyone, Cintron says. 

“We may not be the answer,” she says. 

But staff will always find how to connect people with the right resources, she adds.

About 150 people have gone through the center’s small business incubator, learning what it takes to open and grow a small business. Many focus on food management skills that require certification and licenses, but Cintron says they need help to navigate an unfamiliar bureaucratic process.

The nonprofit recently started its first classes in food production management.
For women, it can be especially difficult to step forward from their more traditional roles as caregivers for their families.

 “Women have been socialized to think of themselves as last,” says Cintron. “How do you figure out your sense of agency? How do you start?”

Enterprising Latinas allows women to explore their skills, talents and dreams.

“If you don’t invest in women and their families with economic opportunity then individual women you try to help are going to see fewer opportunities,” says Cintron. “We have always suffered because of the history of low income. Wimauma has had a lot of public disinvestments where other towns have gotten more.”

But taking advantage of the attention and services that can come with new development also brings challenges to preserving the rural character of Wimauma. 

“You have huge opportunities for displacement,” Cintron says. “Where do they go? They have roots with their families here.”

Over the years, the nonprofit has found many partners ready to support its missions.
Nationally, Raza Development Fund is a partner with Enterprising Latinas, providing commercial loans to business owners and entrepreneurs who need capital. Too often traditional commercial lenders will not provide these resources, Cintron says.

Two women who completed the center’s small business classes were referred and will get aid from Raza, with expectations that additional referrals will be accepted, she adds. Enterprising Latinas also plans to start its own program for small micro-loans. 

“They are starting to grow their businesses,” Cintron says.

The rapid growth in the Wimauma and South Shore areas recently spurred county officials to take a fresh look at how to guide new development.

Last October, Hillsborough County commissioners adopted a new comprehensive plan for the county and folded in a neighborhood plan targeted at Wimauma Village. Cintron says the plan marks a first for Wimauma.

The community rarely saw taxpayer dollars pay for major projects targeted at roads, sidewalks, schools, lighting and utilities. A neighborhood plan completed in 2007 received scant attention. Community leaders say it also had scant public input from Wimauma residents.

“It remained dormant,” Cintron says. “Nobody did anything with the recommendations. It was a missed opportunity.”

The newly crafted Wimauma Village Neighborhood Plan is a chance for a fresh start. Its goal is to revitalize Wimauma Village, the residential and commercial center of the community. This time residents participated in developing the plan.

Among the goals is a mix of housing options and affordable housing, with no gated communities. Sewer and water connections will be expanded, a major change for residents where well water and septic tanks are in use. A local woman who wants to open a laundromat will be able to open her business on State Road 674 because of this upgrade, says Cintron. Other businesses also will benefit, she adds.

A new school complex, with elementary, middle and high schools, will be built. Road widening, sidewalks, pedestrian and bicycle paths and conservation protections also are part of the plan. 

Enterprising Latinas’ challenge is to reimagine Wimauma while staying faithful to the community’s land resources and traditions. The food tours are a start.

“It’s very much necessary to raise the visibility of Wimauma to find some equity,” says Cintron. 

Additional tours, perhaps a farm tour, could be next on the schedule.

“It’s an interesting time,” she says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.