Of Milk and Mexicans
By KEVIN O’CONNOR Staff Writer | March 09,2009
Photo by Björn Jackson
As many as 2,000 Mexicans work on Vermont’s 1,100 dairy farms — including this one in Addison County — even though few have proper immigration papers.
Dairy farming may seem as deliciously black and white as the Ben & Jerry’s Holsteins drawn by Vermont artist Woody Jackson. But the crowd at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater saw a more complicated picture at last fall’s premiere of a documentary by Jackson’s 23-year-old son, Björn.
The film’s title: “Under The Cloak of Darkness.” In vivid color, it showed Mexican farmhands milking, feeding and cleaning Green Mountain cows from well before dawn to long after dusk.
“It is beautiful here,” read the subtitled translation of one Spanish speaker. “But the hard part is you live in hiding. If you have legal papers, they won’t do anything to you. But it’s really expensive to get papers, and mostly they only give them out for eight months at a time.”
Surprised? Farmers and agriculture officials in the audience weren’t. They estimate as many as 2,000 Mexicans work on Vermont’s 1,100 dairy farms, helping to produce as much as half of the state’s $2 billion in annual milk sales.
Migrant workers who pick produce can apply for seasonal visas, but peers who care for cows aren’t eligible for a similar year-round pass. Because many such laborers — mostly single men in their 20s — lack proper papers, dairy farmers from Swanton to Springfield have stayed quiet about their hiring.
But in one valley of communities, that’s changing. Jackson’s documentary is just one of several ways Addison County residents are talking about the presence and plight of Mexican farmhands.
“Dairy would cease to exist in this state without migrant workers,” Bridport farmer Cheryl Connor says. “They’re desperate, we’re desperate, and both in need of each other.”
All know that disclosing their stories could spur arrests and deportations — a risk confirmed last month when a federal grand jury in search of information subpoenaed at least one farmer. But a growing number believe the state — the first to outlaw slavery and grant same-sex unions — must confront its latest human-rights challenge.
'Out of necessity’
Connor, 62, can tell you the entire history of her family’s farm, famous in the mid-1800s for breeding the Black Hawk horse whose blood runs in many of today’s Morgans. But the saga of Mexican workers? She didn’t know anything about that until 2003, when a 1-ton truck box fell on her husband’s right hand.
The family advertised for help, but no one applied. Then friends told them about the several hundred migrants who assist at up to 75 percent of Addison County’s 180 dairy farms.
“People say, ‘Why do you hire workers who come from another country?’” Connor says. “We have cows that need to be milked seven days a week. We started out of necessity.”
Mexicans who apply for jobs must sign a federal employment eligibility form under the line, “I am aware that federal law provides for imprisonment and/or fines for false statements or use of false documents.”
Farmers aren’t allowed to question a worker’s immigration or Social Security information (the form’s “anti-discrimination notice” advises, “Employers CANNOT specify which document(s) they will accept”) but nonetheless must attest they “appear to be genuine.”
Farmers, caught between solid candidates and suspect credentials, tend to give migrants the benefit of the doubt. They’d rather hire locals, but few want to serve and shovel after cows from sunrise to sunset.
“Migrant workers are helping to keep our small family farms,” Connor says, “the ones that buy from the local hardware and feed stores and make Vermont look like Vermont.”
Mexicans, for their part, would rather work back home, but Green Mountain farms promise more jobs and pay an average of $7 to $10 an hour, often with free housing. Migrants can earn as much in the United States in a week as they can south of the border in a month.
“I consider this foreign aid,” Connor says, “with very few strings attached.”
‘What can we do’
Mexicans who leave their homeland without proper papers often walk across the desert for days, dodging muggers and dead bodies before paying smugglers up to several thousand dollars for rides north.
“Imagine how much your feet hurt,” says Juan, a 22-year-old farmhand who appears in Jackson’s film.
Arriving in Vermont, they find cold comfort.
“In Mexico they grow cocoa, corn,” Juan says. “It’s different here.”
The snow is just the start. Most migrant workers don’t speak English, and most dairy farmers don’t speak Spanish. Young farmhands find housework just as foreign. Connor has replaced many a stovetop ruined by boys trying to fry tortillas.
“They’ve never cooked, they’ve never cleaned.”
Nor felt so alone. Many won’t go to a mall or a movie, let alone a doctor or a dentist, for fear their darker skin will tip off authorities. As a result, they often hole up in mobile homes, windows hidden by blinds and blankets, heaters cranked high (20 degrees Fahrenheit, Mexicans discover, isn’t the same as their accustomed 20 degrees Celsius), a television their only portal on the outside world.
Connor, a registered nurse for Addison County Home Health, quickly diagnosed their dilemma. In response, she and Cheryl Mitchell, a former deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, gathered friends and neighbors and formed the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition.
How can you explain chores without resorting to charades? Ask Middlebury College language students to translate. Give Mexicans a little freedom and faith? Arrange for Catholic churches in Bridport and Vergennes to offer biweekly Spanish-language Masses and meals.
Some 80 volunteers now provide a spectrum of health and human services. The county’s Open Door Clinic, for example, is aiding so many migrants — almost 100 received vaccinations this past year — they total about 20 percent of its caseload.
But gaps persist. The coalition covers two of three basic needs to a T: “translation” and “transportation.” But without dental care, they’re still working on “teeth.”
“We’re only meeting a small part of the need,” clinic chairman and Bristol lawyer James Dumont says.
‘Worth the pain’
Farmers and friends confined their work to coalition meetings for years. Then last fall, they went public by assisting with a convergence of art projects.
Jackson, a Cornwall native, created his 45-minute documentary as a senior thesis for Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. It went on to win honorable mention at last fall’s Vermont International Film Festival.
“I made this film to document and humanize a group of people taking the place of the farm boys of the past,” the aspiring cinematographer says in his opening title card.
Shortly after, the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury unveiled a photography show, “The Golden Cage: Mexican Migrant Workers and Vermont Dairy Farmers,” which just ended a five-month run and moves to the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library in Burlington this spring. Brandon photographer Caleb Kenna took pictures with the help of Chris Urban, a 26-year-old onetime language tutor for area migrant workers.
Farmhands addressed Kenna’s camera in Spanish: “Lo único que queremos es trabajar y tener un futuro mejor en México.” Urban then translated the resulting caption into English: “The only thing that we want is to work and to have a better future in Mexico.”
And so it goes, photo by photo.
“The desert has no path. You risk your life. You play with death. I saw two, two bodies, two dead people. They don’t finish, they don’t make their dream.”
“We’re just here looking out the window. You are trapped, from the house to work, unless you have your papers in order.”
“Every day working. It’s not easy, but, well, our thought is that it’s worth the pain to suffer a few years to have something.”
The film and exhibit don’t name their subjects. Then last November, Addison farmer Rob Hunt and two of his three Mexican hands agreed to identify themselves to WCAX-TV on the state’s most-watched news broadcast.
“There are a lot of Mexicans on the farms here,” one said on camera through a translator. “We’re here to work and send money to Mexico to our families.”
An hour after the broadcast, coalition members buzzed about possible repercussions while waiting for the start of a Vermont Folklife Center program on “Police Policy for Undocumented Foreign Nationals.”
Nancy Sabin, 69, of Charlotte — farmhands call her “Mama Nancy” — took a spectator seat front row center. Several years ago, the Spanish speaker was asked to translate at a migrant meeting. Today, she volunteers her time finding jobs, providing rides and running errands for workers who ask.
“I’m only doing what I hope somebody would do for my children if they were in a foreign country and couldn’t speak the language.”
Sabin’s part grandmother, part grizzly bear. She gruffly recalls when one newspaper reporter spoke two years ago to an Addison County relative of Gov. James Douglas’ wife, then wrote a front-page story headlined, “Farm run by governor’s in-laws employs undocumented workers.”
“We have to educate John Q. Public in the whitest state in the nation why we have to have migrant workers if we’re going to keep our farms open,” she pointedly tells the press.
Sabin’s not afraid to question police, too. What would happen, she asked officers at the program, if someone like her was to drive an undocumented farmhand to a store, doctor or dentist?
Middlebury Police Chief Thomas Hanley’s response: Stopping anyone just because they have a different skin color is racial profiling — as well as problematic in a town with a worldwide language college. And since local officers aren’t authorized to enforce federal immigration law, they only question suspects of other crimes.
Vermont State Police announced a similar policy last fall after learning that several migrant farmhands in Grand Isle County had been assaulted and robbed but feared arrest if they cooperated with authorities.
“We have an obligation to protect all crime victims,” Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Tom Tremblay says. “We’re just making sure they have equal protection under the law.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is less understanding. According to the Mexican Consulate in Boston, Vermont reports the highest number of migrants detained in all of northern New England. The 82 arrested in the Green Mountains in the first half of 2008 were more than triple Rhode Island’s total, even though the seaside state has nearly twice the Mexican population.
Then again, Vermont’s proximity to the U.S. border means it has more patrols. Adds Deputy Consul Amparo Anguiano: “Mexicans are not in urban centers where they can blend in — they work in isolated conditions where they are conspicuous and perhaps more vulnerable.”
In Addison, Hunt was relieved to receive only one angry call after his television appearance. Then last month, one of his farmhands was arrested at Burlington International Airport when he tried to fly home. Soon after, Hunt received a subpoena (later canceled without explanation) to testify before a federal grand jury.
Vermont’s U.S. attorney’s office won’t confirm or comment on any investigation. The possibility of one prompted Hunt, upon advice of his lawyer, to cancel a photo shoot with this newspaper. But it hasn’t stopped him from talking. He’s part of a growing chorus of farmers pushing Congress to change immigration law.
“If you figure out a way to make them legal,” Hunt says of migrant laborers, “you can track them, you can tax them.”
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has pushed for a year-round guest worker program similar to that for seasonal produce pickers, only to see his proposals wither during the Bush administration. With a new president, Leahy plans on reintroducing a bill and referring it to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he is chairman.
The proposal is backed by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch and, at the state level, Douglas and a host of agricultural leaders. But such immigration reform isn’t universally understood or embraced. Vermont’s public safety commissioner, speaking in Middlebury, said he fielded more angry calls about the state police’s new migrant policy than on any other issue.
As if on cue, an opponent then scolded him: “My grandparents were all processed through Ellis Island.”
That’s why Addison County farmers and their friends are calling for change. This January, Weybridge writer Julia Alvarez introduced her new novel, “Return to Sender,” in the same theater that showed Jackson’s documentary. The Spanish speaker decided to write the book when, translating for migrant workers and their families, she saw how neither Vermonters nor Mexicans understood each other.
“Everyone was befuddled,” Alvarez recalls. “That’s where a storyteller says, ‘We need a story.’”
Her resulting book, published by Knopf, just debuted nationwide. (“Getting at the heart of the country’s immigration debate,” the Los Angeles Times headlined its review.) In Middlebury, she welcomed nearly 100 neighbors to her reading. Not that she needed to sell them. One farmer, pointing to his European ancestry, noted past generations of immigrants who built Vermont’s railroads and mined its rock.
“The state needs to come forward and accept Mexicans like it did with us,” he said. “When we start talking about migrant workers, we better look in the mirror and ask, ‘Where did my people come from?’”