Green Mountain Campesinos | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Green Mountain Campesinos 

Published June 18, 2003 at 3:42 p.m.

It's a gorgeous June morning, ideal for cruising Vermont farm country, as I pull off the road into the dirt driveway of a picture-perfect dairy farm. The air smells of freshly cut hay and cow manure. I park beside a red barn where a farmer is elbow-deep in the greasy innards of a stalled combine. He eyes me warily as I explain the reason for my visit -- a story on the lives of Vermont's dairy farm workers.

After I've reassured him that I'm not there to stir up trouble, he points me in the direction of a long outbuilding. Inside, dozens of Holsteins stare at me with brown, doleful eyes, their udders bloated and ready for milking. A second door leads into a milking room, where I'm jarred out of this Vermont idyll by the brassy strains of mariachi music.

A chocolate-skinned laborer in a red flannel shirt is cleaning the valves and tubes of a milking machine. Pedro, who is reluctant to give his last name, is not much taller than a jockey. He looks up from his work and stares wide-eyed when my translator, Luis Lazaro Tijerina, greets him in Spanish. At the sound of his native tongue, Pedro flashes a big, toothy grin and shakes our hands eagerly. Luis explains why we're here, and we follow Pedro down into a recessed pit at the center of a horseshoe-shaped milking pen.

Pedro is one of three Spanish speakers on this medium-sized family farm, but there are many more Mexicans working in the surrounding area. Pinched by low milk prices and a shortage of workers willing to put in long, grueling hours for low pay, Vermont dairy farmers are increasingly looking south of the border for hands to keep their operations running. As is the case in every sector of American agriculture, Vermont's los sinpapeles -- or "those without papers" -- have become an essential link between our farms and our food tables.

Despite their growing presence in the state, these workers remain virtually invisible to most Vermonters. Even if you lived nearby, you might never notice Pedro and his compatriots; the men tend to stay out of sight. Although their basic needs are met, their day-to-day existence is marked by constant fatigue, loneliness, boredom, physical and psychological isolation, and the ever-present fear of arrest and deportation. No official "advocates" look out for their welfare.

Pedro tells his story in bits and pieces. Like rests in a musical score, his silences speak as loudly as his words. Luis interprets the rhythm of our conversation. "You have to understand, these are campesinos," he explains, using the Latino vernacular for farm laborers. "They're very quiet. Mexican culture is a very silent culture. They say a lot with their eyes."

But once Pedro sheds some of his initial shyness, his narrative begins to sound a lot like those of the other campesinos in the area. All are married men, supporting families in Mexico. Most haven't seen their wives or children for months, or years. They speak little or no English. Except for one man who went through two years of high school, none has an education beyond grade school. None has ever been to a doctor, dentist or social worker in the United States. And contrary to the assurances of their bosses, none says he has a work visa for this country.

Over the din of the milking machine and the lowing of cows, Pedro talks about his family in Oaxaca, Mexico. The last time he saw his wife and two children was two years ago. The day before our visit, he mailed them a check for $1000. Pedro's tired, weathered face belies his 27 years. It's the visage of a man who has toiled in the fields since he was 6. At 17, he entered the United States as a migrant worker. Over the past decade, he's labored on farms and orchards from coast to coast. He walked from Baja California, across the desert to Phoenix, Arizona, with only a two-gallon canteen.

Pedro says he doesn't mind the job so much in Vermont, though he admits the hours are very long -- six days a week, 67 hours per week. But it's consistent, year-round work, he says, unlike what he found in places like California and Oregon, where he picked onions and tomatoes for a few months at a stretch before moving on.

What do you do when you're not working here? I ask. Do you go into town or visit Burlington? "No, I stay here," Pedro says. "There are lots of police in Burlington. The people in Vermont are good, but the police are racists."

When asked about his employers, Pedro has nothing negative to say. Whether he is being honest or just diplomatic is difficult to tell. But when the farmer's son -- the only Anglo on the farm who speaks Spanish -- enters the milking room, Pedro lowers his voice and says little else until his employer is gone. Although he appears eager to tell his story, it's apparent he doesn't want his boss to think he's slacking off.

Luis and I drive to another dairy farm about 15 miles away in Addison County, where we meet Rodolfo. At 41, he's older than most of the other campesinos here and speaks some English. But Rodolfo is shyer, and Luis has to coax conversation from him. Like Pedro, Rodolfo did seasonal migrant work for years in Texas, Florida, North Carolina and New York before getting "permanent" work in Vermont. A man on the road told him about this job.

"I like the work here. It's more tranquil," Rodolfo says in truncated, almost whispered Spanish. "Quieter, less people." In his previous jobs, the work was sporadic and the conditions overcrowded; sometimes three or four men shared a single room with one mattress on the floor. Here, the bosses provide one trailer for four men and the beds are off the floor, which is important to them.

I ask Rodolfo if he has any friends in Vermont besides the other Mexicans on the farm. "No," he says. "It's very hard being here because all my family and friends are in Mexico. They're there and we're here. We cannot be content." He tells me he has four children but has trouble remembering their ages.

The winter was hard, says Rodolfo. "Everything's full of ice and snow and it's difficult to work. And we have to work with the cows always."

While Luis and Rodolfo chat in Spanish, I return to the car and run into Rodolfo's boss -- who, like other farmers interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous. He speaks highly of his hard-working employee of three years and is sympathetic to his situation. "Rodolfo's 6-year-old son says to him the other day, 'Daddy, are you coming home tomorrow?'" the farmer says. "The sacrifices they make to come here to better the plight of their families down there... I don't know. I couldn't do it."

When I return, Luis and Rodolfo are discussing soccer. I ask Rodolfo how he passes the time when he's not working. Mostly he watches TV and cooks meals, he says; the bosses buy them beans, tortillas and what few Mexican foods are found in the local stores. And he sleeps a lot. His goal here? To make enough money to buy a small plot of land in Mexico. When Luis asks if we can do anything to help, Rodolfo replies, "We'd like teachers to teach us English. It's important, so we can talk to Americans and become their friends. We want to know what you know."

As we drive away, Luis looks pained. For days he's been suffering from a stomach flu, but it's clear something else is bothering him. A 57-year-old writer, artist and soccer coach living in Burlington, he is a Mexican-American who grew up among the braceros of Kansas and Texas. Luis confesses that meeting the campesinos was painful and has unearthed some ghosts from his past.

The braceros -- literally, "a pair of arms" -- were Mexican peasants brought to the United States by the U.S. Depart-ment of Labor during World War II to work in the fields while American men were overseas. The braceros program continued well after the war but was terminated in 1964 as part of Cesar Chavez's fight to improve the pay and working conditions of Mexican-Americans. But for decades this sector of the Mexican peasantry helped feed Americans. Luis suspects that many of the workers we have met are descendants of these braceros.

Luis was not a braceros himself. His father, Luis Garcia Tijerina, and his uncles were patrones -- labor contractors who managed the braceros. As the son of a patron, Luis was privileged. His parents sent him to school and his father encouraged him to pursue sports. Eventually he attended college and graduate school at Norwich University, where he earned a Master's degree in military history and diplomacy.

Though Luis escaped life in the fields, his father was not as lucky. On October 17, 1956, when Luis was only 10, his father was killed by lightning out in a field in the company of 10 braceros. His funeral in Hereford, Texas, was attended by hundreds of people, including many braceros -- a testament to his reputation among his workers. "I've always been close to the braceros. I think about them every day of my life," Luis says. "Seeing these men now, I pick up on their loneliness, the hurt in their eyes, the alienation."

Luis' background proved to be invaluable for interpreting not only a foreign language but a foreign culture as well. Though I knew what questions to ask, Luis knew how to ask them -- or elicit the answer without asking for it. At times, I worried that his sympathies might compromise his objectivity. Without my prompting, for example, he asked the men if they supported a union like Chavez' United Farm Workers. But how could an undocumented worker, afraid to even show his face in the local grocery store, form a union?

Though the campesinos know immediately from his speech and dress that Luis is not of their social class, they seem to trust him anyway -- certainly more than they would have an Anglo Spanish speaker. They snicker at his Spanish but eventually warm to him and ask when he plans to return.

Down the road, we stop at a trailer where four campesinos live. Inside, we find a Spartan abode, with three-year-old calendars on the walls and tablecloths for window shades. The kitchen table is piled with Entenmann's cake boxes, cookies and other junk food. A stack of Coke bottles clutters a corner. In the living room, a TV plays a Spanish-language channel from a satellite dish. There's a phone on a table and a washing machine rumbling in the hallway. A tiny American flag hangs from one window. Though far from luxurious, these accommodations are no worse than those of many Vermonters.

Luis introduces me to Juan, 49, and Hugo, 24. One is on his lunch break, the other has the morning off. Juan has been in Vermont for two years. He says the work is good but the hours are long. "I go to work at 5 in the afternoon and get off at 3:30 in the morning," he says. Then he returns to work at 11 a.m. and works until 7 p.m. After a two-hour break, he is back at it until midnight. Except for his one day off a week, the cycle begins all over again. In all, Juan puts in more than 60 hours a week and is paid $447 before taxes.

When he's not working, he's sleeping, Juan explains with a bitter laugh. "Sleep, work, sleep, work." Neither he nor Hugo ever leaves the farm. They have no car or even bicycles "to go fishing." Asked if there is anything they need but can't get here, Juan says, "our papers," and both men laugh. Luis is stunned by this unsolicited admission. When he mentions the Latino festival in Burlington, the Mexicans seem shocked. "No, it can't be," Juan says. "We didn't know there are other Latinos here."

Hugo, the younger of the two, has a wife and children back in Tiaxcala, Mexico. He works more than Juan -- 67 hours per week for only $449. "I haven't seen my wife in two years," Hugo laments. "I don't know what's going to happen."

No one knows for sure how many undocumented workers are living in Vermont. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets won't offer an estimate, nor will the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Vermont Refugee Assistance, a small nonprofit organization that tackles the problems of foreign-born visitors and residents, declines to hazard a guess.

"This is a very vulnerable population, filling what is a dire need in Vermont, to staff these dairy farms," says Michele Jenness of Vermont Refugee Assistance. "They wouldn't be here if there wasn't such a great need." As she points out, a standard nonimmigrant visa issued to migrant workers is only good for work on a temporary or seasonal basis. Since dairy farming is a year-round endeavor, these men don't qualify.

About 75 percent of all agricultural laborers in the region are in this country illegally, according to Rick LeVitre, a Rutland-based dairy expert with the University of Vermont Extension who specializes in labor issues. Though LeVitre has no hard data to back it up, he does say the number of undocumented Mexican laborers in Vermont is on the rise -- which creates headaches for farmers and workers alike.

"The farmer thinks he's got a workforce to milk several hundred or a thousand cows and then all of a sudden he doesn't," LeVitre says. "When it's determined their Mexican workers are illegal and taken off the farm, farmers have resorted to hiring people they would not normally hire, like convicted felons, child molesters or whatever. But they're between a rock and hard place because they've got to get those animals milked."

While most farmers probably don't break the law deliberately, most of them don't have the time, expertise or resources to verify their employees' immigration status. One farmer explained how he was paying hundreds of dollars to a fly-by-night agency that promised him "documented" workers from Mexico, only to be left high and dry when their papers turned out to be bogus and the INS deported his entire crew.

Some farmers make a good-faith effort at obeying the law, but others clearly know they're breaking it. Nancy Sabin of Charlotte is a fourth-generation Vermonter who describes herself as "an old radical and advocate for the most abused of the abused." Known among campesinos in the area as "Mama Nancy," Sabin says the conditions I have seen are plush compared to what she's witnessed. At one nearby farm, she says, "They treat the workers like animals." For several years, Mexican laborers lived in a trailer where the toilet was ready to fall through the floor. When they turned on their porch light, flames shot out of an electrical outlet in the kitchen.

"I told the owner, 'I have pictures inside your trailer,'" Sabin says. "'When it burns down, I have the address of their families in Mexico and those families will be very wealthy because I'll hire a lawyer to get your farm.'" She says the workers were eventually moved into better housing. "Ever since, they spread the word not to let me talk to the Mexicans anymore because I'm trouble," Sabin says. "Damn right, I'm trouble."

Sabin is a native Spanish speaker and a retired job counselor with the U.S. Department of Labor. She knows she may be the only sympathetic ear for campesinos whose bosses take advantage of them. "Who does Manuel go to when he gets a paycheck with $400 missing? Who do Jose and Pedro talk to when they haven't gotten a paycheck since the first of the month and it's the 23rd? Who cares about that?"

Sabin says that until Governor Jim Douglas, the secretary of agriculture and the Vermont Farm Bureau acknowledge this problem, the situation will only get worse. "I don't know how many times I've cried myself to sleep, talking to the mothers of these guys..." Sabin says, suddenly choking back tears. "Telling them their sons are in jail and they're imagining the jails like they are in Mexico. 'Will my son live tonight or get knifed?' People don't care. They just don't care."

A week later Luis and I come back to see Pedro, who seems even more fatigued than last time. He's had only two hours of sleep. As we leave, I promise to bring him copies of the article and some pictures we have taken. He says something in Spanish to Luis, whose eyes grow wide. "He wants us to come back on his day off. He wants to tell us 'Where we came from, how we got here and why we die,'" Luis says. Why we die? I ask. "In the desert," Pedro says. "We die because we need the work."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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