Cocking her head with an impish grin, 6-year-old Francisca Ajtum gives her holiday voice a spin at home in Florida City.
“I want to wish you a Merry Christmas!” she sings, belting out José Feliciano’s bilingual classic Felíz Navidad in equally proficient English and Spanish. Her showmanship elicits giggles and shrieks from her three siblings: Her 8-year-old sister Margarita, brother Leonardo, 7, and her kinetic little sister, Bani Luz, 4.
They’re the children of migrant farm workers, and like any kids, they’re eager for Christmas. But the excitement in their faces is notably tempered this year. Something enormous is missing, and no amount of carols, decorations or gifts can replace it.
In July, their mother Veronica was killed not far from their house when she lost control of the car she was driving and it flipped over. She was 30 — and she was a lighthouse to her four hijos.
“She was so special for us,” says Margarita, a third-grader whose maturity is a tribute to her mother’s mentoring. “She took us places like the fair, places far away.”
“She played soccer, too,” says Leonardo. And, he adds, she was a pretty tough goalkeeper.
“I consider her an incredible person, the best my children could ever have,” says their father, Lucas Ajtum, 29, who is Guatemalan. His Spanish sentences trail off emotionally when he talks about his late, Mexican-born wife, whom he met a decade ago while picking vegetables in the fields of southern Miami-Dade County.
Lucas says what he and the kids miss most are the sight of Veronica’s elegant cheekbones, her Mexican cooking and especially her cariño — her hugs and affection. “We remember her as a woman with a fighting spirit,” he says, “and that helps us move forward.”
But moving ahead without Veronica has been anything but easy for the Ajtum family.
Migrant farm work is back-breaking, low-wage and irregular in the best of times. Since they wed in 2006, Lucas and Veronica had labored long hours, from before dawn to after dark in some seasons, to make a home in Everglades Village, a low-income housing development for farmworkers, where they rented a small, three-bedroom apartment.
Now, with Veronica’s parental presence and second income gone, Lucas struggles to be both mother and father but also to provide his children with necessities like clothing, shoes and school supplies.
Compounding the problem is that Lucas was injured in the accident that took Veronica’s life. (None of the children were in the car.) He’s only now recovering enough to work his usual fall-winter shifts planting and harvesting tomatoes.
“A lot of these families work paycheck-to-paycheck,” says Beatriz Coronado, a Florida City area coordinator for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. RCMA provides child care and early education services for migrant workers like the Ajtums at more than 70 centers throughout Florida. It was the first agency to reach out to the Ajtums last summer.
“They needed to send Veronica’s body back to her country,” Coronado says. “It was also during the time when school was going to start and they needed help with uniforms. It’s very difficult.”
Veronica, however, had made one thing clear before her death: She wanted Margarita, Leonardo, Francisca and Bani Luz to have new bunk beds and twin mattresses to replace the frameless second-hand mattresses they sleep on now.
Lucas is hoping the community can help him realize Veronica’s wish this Christmas — if only, he says, for the reassuring effect it would have on four traumatized kids, that inexplicable sensation that their mother is somehow still with them.
“It’s a surprise that I think will lift their hearts, give them encouragement” when they find out it was Veronica’s idea, he says.
Coronado agrees: “They can really say, ‘OK, this is what my mom wanted for us.’”
Veronica wanted much more for her children than what she had growing up dirt-poor in Tapachula, Mexico, near Guatemala. It’s why, as a teenager, she trekked north across the deadly border desert and into the United States. Lucas did the same as a teen, leaving his hometown of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala’s Maya highlands. (Ajtum — akh-TOOM — is a Maya surname.)
Margarita says one of her and her siblings’ fondest memories of Veronica is the songs she often sang from her native Mexican state, Chiapas.
Although Veronica and Lucas weren’t able to legalize their immigration status before she died, Lucas hopes to apply for worker legalization under President Barack Obama’s executive order halting deportations of law-abiding undocumented migrants. Their U.S.-born children are citizens.
And they already have ambitions. Margarita, who Lucas says has been hardest hit by her mother’s death, wants to be a teacher; Leonardo, a policeman; Francisca, a painter.
For now, little Bani Luz’s biggest aspiration is a doll playhouse set for Christmas. Margarita has asked for a computer; Leonardo a remote-control car; Francisca a Rapunzel doll.
“Things are certainly more difficult now,” Lucas says. “So we’re turning to anyone God can bring our way with help, whether it’s economic, spiritual, verbal.”
Fortunately they don’t need musical help. Francisca’s got that covered.
Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook