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Candlelight vigil honors the victims of the Marion County bus crash

Attendees at a vigil Wednesday, May 15, 2024, hold white crosses with the names of those who died in the bus accident on Tuesday.
(Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Attendees at a vigil Wednesday, May 15, 2024, hold white crosses with the names of those who died in the bus accident on Tuesday.

Gasps could be heard as Juan José Sabines Guerrero, the consul of Mexico in Orlando, announced the news: The bus carrying the farmworkers that crashed near Ocala did not have seatbelts.

The consul of Mexico in Orlando and the Farmworkers Association of Florida hosted the candlelight vigil in Apopka. About 30 local community members, including pastors, nuns, and consulate volunteers attended.

Brown metal chairs were arranged in a semi-circle surrounding a podium. Pink and white flowers and posters decorated the designated speaking area.

Attendees closest to the podium were given white crosses with the victims' names written in black capital letters. Midway through the vigil, the men and women stood up with their crosses and proclaimed the victims' names.

The woman holding a cross for one of the deceased, Manuel Pérez Ríos, wiped tears from her face with a crumpled tissue. She raised her eyes toward the sky. Then, she closed her eyes and continued to sing. In her hands, a lit candle flickered.

Antonio Ramirez, 67, held the cross for another of the victims. Ramirez stared at the pavement, adjusting his glasses every so often. He took off his hat, exhaling heavily.

Candle wax dripped onto the ground and fell in drops onto the concrete.

Candles were passed out during the vigil organized by Farmworker Association of Florida volunteers.
(Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Candles were passed out during the vigil organized by Farmworker Association of Florida volunteers.

The bilingual event was translated in part by Ernesto Ruiz, the research coordinator at the Farmworker Association of Florida. He said the vigil was a way to mourn as a community.

“We don’t know these people, and we’re grieving,” he said. “We feel it’s important to offer a space for people to come and share their thoughts, their pain, their hurt, their hopes.”

He said that the crash was indicative of a systemic issue with how H-2A visa workers who perform seasonal agricultural jobs are treated by companies and contractors in the United States.

“Systemically, we let them slide with all kinds of abuses,” Ruiz said. “These people are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re hard workers.”

He also said there was a crisis of a lack of empathy in the U.S.

“It’s a crisis of scapegoating oppressed marginalized communities,” Ruiz said. “The tricky part is most people are kind. Most people are empathetic. But, there are loud voices that appeal to people’s lowest common denominator that are effective. I don’t know how to address that.”

Sabines Guerrero said all the known crash victims were Mexican nationals with H-2A visas. All except one were men. Two of the men had daughters.

Of the eight people killed, six have been identified: Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30, Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24, Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20, Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21, José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27, and Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46.

He said that the bodies were still with investigators, but they hoped to return the deceased to their families in Mexico by next week. He added the consulate did not know how many were on the bus nor the names of all those involved in the crash.

Sister Ann Kendrick, 80, a Catholic nun and the founder of Hope Community Center in Apopka, talked about the impact on her life from the presence of farm workers in the community. Karen Patricio, the community organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida, stands behind her.
(Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Sister Ann Kendrick, 80, a Catholic nun and the founder of Hope Community Center in Apopka, talked about the impact on her life from the presence of farmworkers in the community. Karen Patricio, the community organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida, stands behind her.

As the vigil continued, volunteers from the Farmworker Association of Florida dressed in blue shirts handed out matchboxes and water.

“This was one of the worst tragedies that we’ve seen because of the loss of life,” said Karen Patricio, the community organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida. “It was a negligent accident that could have been easily avoided.”

Patricio said the workers were staying in Gainesville and were on their way to the farm. However, the association has not been able to do a lot of work on the ground.

The organization is putting out a national call-to-action for labor organizations, said Patricio, who considers this issue to be a workers’ rights issue.

“Given the conditions that they live in, it's something that we shouldn't be focusing on just because of the accident,” she said. “Without them, we have no source of food.”

Though attendees at the vigil cried and exchanged hugs, there were also moments of happiness. Sister Ann Kendrick, 80, and Angela Eisenmann, 61, laughed quietly as they messed up the words to one of the church songs.

Kendrick has worked in the community since the 1970s. She explained the respect for the land that farmworkers she’s encountered have.

“The way that people treat the land and feel land and hold the dirt is a beautiful sacrament,” she said. “It’s holy. It’s sacred. When I’m with them, it’s a gift that I get, which I easily forget because I get so damn mad about the situation that we have here.”

The night concluded with a communal chant that has existed for farmworkers since César Chávez’s 25-day fast in 1972: “Sí, se puede.”

In other words, “it can be done.”

Liana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.