MIDDLEBURY — Ask Cheryl Connor and her husband, Jerry, about their decision to hire farmworkers from Mexico, and the Connors will tell you a story that begins 20 years ago — with a dream.
It was an unexpected dream for Jerry, a Bridport dairyman and third-generation farmer. Though he had no ties at the time to Mexico, he’d dreamt clearly of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the celebrated Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary held dear by Mexican Catholics.
So Jerry bought a small plaque with the Virgin’s image, hung it in his farmhouse, and, as his wife said, put Our Lady of Guadalupe “on the backburner.” But then, in 2003, Connor’s mind wandered back to the Virgin. He said a quick prayer to the mother of Jesus, asking her help for farmers, and went back to his farm chores.
Just a few hours later, Connor’s right hand was brutally crushed in an accident on the farm — a devastating blow for a man who had farming in his blood, and desperately wanted to continue working on his land. The call went out: The Connors needed help. Within a week, Juanito, Maria and Nachos arrived on the farm and set about the work of learning to milk cows.
“They were a gift from God,” Cheryl Connor said on Saturday, addressing a packed auditorium at Middlebury College at the first-ever statewide conference on migrant farmworkers. American laborers didn’t respond to the Connors’ ads for employment, she said, which left the couple scrambling to find assistance.
“They are helping us, and we are helping them,” Connor said of the migrant laborers.
Connor was among the many Addison County advocates who took the lead Saturday in the Vermont State Conference on Migrant Farmworkers. Conference organizers are hoping that county leadership around migrant labor issues could translate into improved activism in other corners of the state.
The conference — organized by a number of groups, including the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition, the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury and Vergennes, the Vermont Farm Bureau and the Middlebury College volunteer group Juntos, among others — addressed wide-ranging topics. The 150 people who turned out for the at-capacity event talked about challenges ranging from transportation, health care and social concerns to legal issues, relationships with local law enforcement and immigration audits.
The event also included a keynote address from the consul general of the Mexican Consulate in Boston (see related story), a reading by Weybridge author Julia Alvarez, and the dedication of a new collection of art by Mexican farmworkers in Vermont called “Invisible Odysseys.”
Speaking through Middlebury College translators before a crowd that swelled to nearly 200 people, the farmworker-artists told Vermonters about their decision to leave behind families in Mexico and come to the United States. Middlebury College junior Kate Bass, who acted as one of the translators at the conference, said that one farmworker told her the event marked the first time he spent in a public place since making the harrowing trip over the border to the United States.
“I am a young, old woman,” one woman, going only by the initial “Z,” read in Spanish. She grew tearful as she continued to recite from a poem she’d written as part of her art project. “I am not a criminal. I am only a human being with the desire to work and achieve something better.”
In many ways, the story of this burgeoning farmworker awareness movement in Vermont has its roots on the Connor farm. Not long after the first Mexican laborers arrived on their farm, Cheryl Connor found herself wondering how she and other farmers in her shoes could help the isolated migrants.
At the time, she spoke not a word of Spanish — and the migrants on her farm no English.
Connor called up New Haven resident Cheryl Mitchell, and together the two set about forming a coalition to address migrant issues.
Vermont dairy farms employ as many as 2,000 foreign-born laborers — most from Mexico. Many Mexican dairy laborers have been prosecuted for entering the country without proper documentation or for overstaying their visas, and migrant worker advocates estimate as many as 500 migrant laborers work in Addison County.
In the six years since the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition began meeting, the group has made several strides. They set up English classes for workers, and Spanish lessons for dairy farmers, and organized playgroups, transportation to Spanish masses and doctors’ appointments, and meetings with the Mexican consulate.
Most recently, the group has had a hand in drafting a bilingual newsletter for farmworkers and dairy farmers, including articles written by migrant workers.
In several of Saturday’s workshops, it was Addison County residents, doctors and law enforcement officials who stepped to the front of the room to shed light on how an increased awareness of migrant workers issues has unfolded over the last few years in Addison County.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, who spoke on a panel about law enforcement issues facing migrant workers in the region, was one of those residents. The Middlebury Police Department’s “non-bias policing” policy has been in place for years, and more recently, in 2007, the department and the selectboard adopted a policy for dealing with migrant workers.
Under the policy, police investigate and report undocumented migrants if they have committed a crime, but don’t otherwise investigate a person’s legal immigration status otherwise. It’s a position many in the coalition hope other police departments will adopt, though Hanley said there is very little uniformity in how departments handle migrant laborers.
“For us to start asking people for their papers or their identification when they’ve not committed any kind of crime is contrary to the Constitution,” Hanley said after the event. “That’s our policy.”
Hanley said he thinks events like the Saturday conference are helpful for farmers, activists and farmworkers alike, in part because they offer a chance to clear up misconceptions, offer tips for dealing with police or other authorities, and answer legal questions.
“I think we cleared the air on a lot of things, particularly any misunderstandings,” he said.
According to Mitchell, who co-chaired the conference, Saturday’s event was a resounding success.
“Everybody was thrilled,” Mitchell said. “I think everybody got what they came here for, plus a lot more.”
It was just the beginning, though. Mitchell said conference participants are already clamoring for a more in-depth series of events focusing on legal rights, health care, and arts and culture.
Part of what participants came for was the chance to connect with others from their local community working on migrant issues. In other parts of the state — particularly Franklin County and the Northeast Kingdom — Mitchell has heard anecdotes about the need for local migrant workers coalitions, but no such organizations exist.
Though Addison County’s own coalition is, after six years, still young, Mitchell thinks it is making a difference in the community.
“There’s so much more public knowledge about what’s happening now. The word is getting out that this is an important issue, and I think people in our county don’t feel so threatened by it anymore,” she said.
There’s room to grow. Bass, the volunteer translator, said many of the migrant workers who attended the conference are excited about taking a more active role in the organizations that make decisions about their lives here in Vermont.
“I think the experience was really empowering for them,” Bass said. “They really want to have their own voices heard at the coalition meetings.”
Saturday’s conference came just a day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new immigration law, arguably the toughest in the United States. It requires Arizona police officers to determine whether people are in the United States legally if there is a reason to suspect they aren’t, a rule that would require immigrants to carry their documents at all times.
Mitchell said the contrast between that law, and the spirit of community on display on Saturday, was “heartbreaking.”
“It’s great to know that people are sticking together, at least in Vermont,” she said.
MIDDLEBURY — Addressing a crowd of 150 people at Middlebury College on Saturday, the consul general of the Mexican Consulate in Boston urged participants at a statewide conference on migrant labor to take a hard look at the confusion and hypocrisy “on both sides of the border” that color the debate about illegal immigration in the United States.
Fernando Estrada Sámano was the keynote speaker at the farmworkers conference, the first of its kind in Vermont to tackle the challenges facing undocumented farmworkers — most from Mexico — living and working on Vermont farms.
Speaking generally about global labor migration, Sámano pointed out that the attitudes toward immigration vary widely. Some countries, like Spain, have seen immigration spike amid reputations of being friendly to migrant labor. Meanwhile, Japan is home to only two million migrants, and China just one million — miniscule numbers in light of those countries’ total populations.
“The United States comparatively is a much more open society,” Sámano said. “Both historically, and today, it presents a different face to the world. One must not forget … that there is also a measure of illusion, or mythmaking, because yes, the United States is no doubt a country of migrants. But it is also a country where many tragic and painful things have taken place in its history.”
One example he mentioned was the Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration from China despite the extensive use in the 1860s and 70s of Chinese labor to build American railroads.
Sámano told his audience that current U.S. Census data suggests that foreign-born immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, and some demographers predict that by 2042 today’s minorities could make up a majority of the population.
Some of the fearful reactions to this shift are natural, and to be expected, Sámano said. Benjamin Franklin, he said, worried about the “menacing presence” of Germans in Pennsylvania. Today, there are around 50 million Americans of German descent.
Confronted with the reality of migration between Mexico and the United States, Sámano said Mexicans and Americans alike run into a great deal of confusion, contradictions, hypocrisies and a “stupid, primitive obsession with the color of skin.”
“‘We need your work … but we don’t want you,’” Sámano, voicing what he sees as the attitude of many Americans.
He added that Mexico is not without its own set of contradictions.
“We demand, justly, respect for the human rights of our people here in this country. We raise a flag when those rights are violated,” he said. “What is not said is that my countrymen have to come here in order to survive.”
That’s a journey that is often dangerous and always painful, Sámano said.
“They had to come here because my society, our economy and a succession of governments have not been able to offer them opportunities, a dignified and sufficient life, an existence of hope,” he added. That ends up being a net tragic loss for Mexico.
Sámano expressed sympathy for the conflicting feelings many Americans feel toward immigration, and said that he too would be worried if demographers told him that Mexico were going to be a radically different country in a few decades.
But Americans must ask themselves if migrants make the United States a stronger country, or if they see it in another light, Sámano said.
“Do we welcome, do we open our arms, or do we fear the ‘other?’” he asked.
Italians and the Irish in America have confronted this problem before, he said, and he believes migration is going to continue. Building a wall, he said, will not solve the problem.
“Our people are breaking the law in a country which prides itself on the rule of law,” Sámano said. “We have to find a way out. It’s a shared responsibility.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.