Rutland has a sister city in Japan and another in the UK. Bennington has a sister city in Nicaragua, and Montpelier has one in France. Burlington has partnerships with seven other cities around the globe.
To date, no Vermont municipality has forged an official relationship with the tiny town of San Isidro, Mexico. Yet this remote farming village in southeastern Chiapas has probably given more to the Green Mountain State, in terms of sweat equity, than any other community in the world. Last December, it gave the life of one of its own.
On December 22, 2009, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a 20-year-old worker on a Fairfield dairy farm, got caught in a piece of farming equipment and was strangled to death by his own clothing. Santiz Cruz was one of an estimated 1500 to 2000 undocumented foreign workers laboring in Vermont’s dairy industry, including about 80 from San Isidro alone.
On January 9, Santiz Cruz’s body was flown home to his family in Mexico for burial. Accompanying his remains were Vermont filmmakers Sam Mayfield, Brendan O’Neill and Gustavo Terán, who recorded the somber homecoming in a documentary called “Silenced Voices.” It premieres this week in Burlington.
“Silenced Voices,” produced by the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, begins abruptly where Santiz Cruz’s story ends, as his coffin is lowered gently into the ground. Attending his funeral are scores of local villagers, many of whom wear baseball caps and shirts bearing American sports logos. It’s a silent yet powerful reminder of the enormous economic pull the United States exerts on this indigenous community at the edge of the Lacandon rain forest. The community pays a steep price for that connection.
The film introduces Santiz Cruz’s mother, Zoyla Santiz Cruz, who had already said goodbye to three northern-migrating sons when José Obeth, her eldest, died. According to the filmmakers, most of the villagers they encountered in San Isidro had at least one family member working in Vermont.
As Seven Days first documented in a 2003 cover story, “Green Mountain Campesinos,” the Mexican laborers’ hardships don’t end once they find work. Many put in 70- to 80-hour workweeks, surviving on little sleep and only one meal per day. Most rarely leave their farms for fear of arrest and deportment. And they do all this for low, often infrequent pay, most of which they send back to Mexico.
As the film jumps between Vermont and Chiapas, it reveals the Faustian bargain the people of San Isidro have made. On the one hand, many of the housing, transportation and agricultural projects in this subsistence community have been paid for with money wired home from family members in Vermont.
On the other hand, a San Isidro schoolteacher explains how difficult it is to educate the local teens, most of whom dream of little else but the day they’ll go north in search of better economic opportunities. Those who do return, either by choice or by deportment, often find it difficult to reacclimate to village life. As one resident puts it in the film, “What they were before, they aren’t now.”
The 24-minute documentary is raw and unpolished, much like San Isidro itself. Inevitably, it leaves a few questions unanswered — such as why so many of San Isidro’s residents come to Vermont, how they get here and why they stay. Terán, who spent two weeks in San Isidro and narrates the film, offers some of those details in an interview.
He says most of the workers spend at least $3000 getting into the United States and work for months to pay off their debts to the coyotes, or human traffickers, who brought them. The Vermont connection, established about a decade ago, was fueled by word of mouth. Typically, one person would hear about available jobs, then tell friends or other family members once he or she arrived.
The film touches only briefly on the larger economic forces that have driven the villagers northward, including the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that lowered the market value of the beans, corn and coffee they grow.
“Silenced Voices” is an eye-opening reminder of the human price of maintaining Vermont’s working landscape. As one dairy worker puts it in the film, “We are all the same people, only separated by borders.”
”Silenced Voices” screens Thursday, July 1, 7 p.m. at the Black Box at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington; Tuesday, July 6, 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Montpelier; Wednesday, July 14, 7 p.m. at Hardwick Town Hall with Meredith Holch’s animated short “Neighbors,” also about Vermont’s migrant farmworkers. Info, 825-1609 or vtmfsp.org.
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I am a historian and have been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972.