Comic books illustrate migrant worker's lives
MIDDLEBURY — Imagine that your family is living in poverty. However hard you work, there just isn’t enough money to make a difference. The only way to make enough money is to leave. You have to leave behind everything you have ever known — your family, your language, your country, even your favorite foods. You don’t know exactly where you’re headed or how long it is until you can return, only that your leaving means money and a better future for your family.
This is the reality for migrant workers residing in Vermont.
They come to Vermont largely from Mexico and Guatemala because of, among other reasons, immense poverty, extortion and gang violence. They make the arduous journey here often by foot, across the desert and the border where robberies, kidnappings and sexual violence pose threats.
They carry the baggage and the trauma of these experiences with them into a foreign land. They don’t speak the language, they have never dealt with snow, and they are separated from their families and their culture.
Now Open Door Clinic outreach nurse Julia Doucet and other staff members at the Middlebury clinic — which provides healthcare for uninsured or under-insured patients and works with many migrant workers — believe comic books that address migrant workers’ issues can help them adjust more easily to life in Vermont.
Doucet said comic books are an ideal format for sharing stories that are based on the workers’ lives and struggles.
“My goal for this project is to make someone feel slightly better and less alone,” she said, “to make them feel like there is a supportive community of people who can understand and hold their experience for them, to share their burden.”
The comic book project team, from the Open Door Clinic and other local nonprofits, collects stories from migrant workers in Addison County that address themes common to the migrant workers’ experiences. The team also enlists interested local artists — and others from as far away as New Hampshire — to illustrate these stories to create a comic book series dubbed El viaje mas caro/The Mostly Costly Journey.
The project has raised enough funds through local grants and organizations such as the Vermont Farm Health Task Force, the Humanities Council at UVM and the Vermont Community Foundation's "Innovations and Collaborations" grant to see the series through 15 stories. Five stories are currently available in both English and Spanish, and the other stories are in various stages of comic book creation.
The project grew out of something Doucet was noticing at the clinic.Many migrant worker patients were coming there with stomachaches and headaches, but when the clinic conducted tests based on these symptoms, they came back negative.
“After seeing this over and over again, we began to think that there’s something else going on here, a component we’re not addressing,” Doucet said. “And what it is is the stress and anxiety, the loneliness, the depression.”
Doucet wanted to address the mental health impacts of those feelings. The workers live thousands of miles away from their families and traditional social settings. And those who are here without legal documentation face the extra stress of possible arrest and deportation. They are wary of the government system and are reluctant to come forward and seek help.
“(Undocumented workers) don’t have the means to navigate their safety and sense of security,” said Ximena Mejia, an Open Door Clinic board member and advocate for mental health support. “There is a valid paranoia about any behavior that you might bring attention to yourself and the sense that because you don’t have documents, you don’t have the ability to bring forward much to employers and other people.”
Doucet and Mejia wanted to create a project that centered on shared storytelling that would give a voice to the migrant worker community. Due to low literacy levels and a desire to make the stories as engaging and relatable as possible, they chose the comic book approach, and the clinic partnered with the University of Vermont Extension Service, the Vermont Folklife Center, Comics Workshop, and the UVM Department of Anthropology.
In order to start the story collection, Doucet met with fellow clinic employees and members of partner organizations to identify recurring themes in migrant workers’ lives.
Naturally cropping up were themes such as separation from family and cultural differences that affect communicating with employers. Others included coping mechanisms — both negative, such as alcoholism and prostitution, and positive, such as trying to make friends in new surroundings.
To collect these stories, Doucet started by approaching migrant workers whom she knew had compelling stories to share. Since then, word has spread about the project and workers have approached her to share their stories.
“Some people you don’t really know, but they just want to talk,” said Doucet. “Some stories are more compelling than others to turn into comic books, and I want to keep collecting, because you never know when you’re going to hit one that speaks to a lot of people.”
TALES TO TELL
Sometimes the compelling nature of the stories isn’t only in the narratives themselves. “La Historia de ‘E’” is one of the stories now in the works. The storyteller, who prefers to be identified as “El Emigrante de Hidalgo,” the immigrant from Hidalgo, is an avid artist whose paintings have been on display at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.
Cartoon artist Marek Bennett has been working with El Emigrante to integrate his paintings into the comic book. In the first story Bennett drew for the series, he used a more typical cartoon style to draw readers into the pace of the story. In “La Historia de ‘E’” Bennett is working with the El Emigrante to combine the storyteller’s artwork with his own to open another window on the storyteller’s life to the reader.
El Emigrante de Hidalgo started painting four years ago, and he said it has helped him cope as he navigated the isolation of his work here in Vermont. “I’ve discovered a passion in art,” he said. “It has kept me from going down the wrong path (of alcohol).”
Bennett described the comic book.
“(‘La Historia de ‘E’’) is an artistic collaboration between the storyteller and myself,” he said. “It’s a personal story with art as the connection between the past and the present, and I wanted to bring that into the comic. Artistic style is partly the voice of the artist and the artist’s understanding of how the storyteller tells his story. It’s exciting to use the storyteller’s art as a connection between the artist and story as well.” THE MIGRANT WORKERS comic book series is available in both Spanish, above, and English language versions.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Doucet said by providing an outlet to share stories and artwork, El viaje mas caro/The Mostly Costly Journey honors and validates the experiences of Vermont’s migrant workers and helps them cope. This outlet is the only opportunity many have to talk about their experiences. They work long hours every day of the week and often don’t have access to cars, so chances to have these conversations are few and far in between.
“(The comic book project) serves as a space to tell one’s story, a space that is usually not given,” said Mejia. “There is a cathartic and insightful process that happens when people are allowed to voice their stories, which we can certainly call therapeutic.”
Providing a space for storytelling is the first step in their effort to relieve the migrant community’s issues. Doucet’s main goal now is to start distributing the stories to migrant workers in the area to provide an opportunity for reflection and start a dialogue.
“A woman may not be experiencing domestic violence now, but she might experience it later and it might resonate with her later,” she said. “Someone might not have reflected on their actual crossing and they might be ready one day to read this booklet and reflect on their own border crossing.”
To maintain a safe and comfortable space for the migrant workers, the Spanish versions of the comic books do not include any English. While there have been discussions among project team members about creating a bilingual version instead to serve additionally as an English or Spanish language learning tool, Doucet believes that it would detract from the project’s primary goal.
“English is a good goal, but it’s not our primary focus. We’re committed to the immediate mental health needs of the community,” she said.
Even without the bilingual component, the comic book team believes the series can be a powerful educational tool. Doucet hopes that the English comic books will help the larger Addison County and Vermont communities understand the migrant farmworker experience. Migrant education programs in the Northeast have also reached out for copies of the comic books.
“People in the larger community are often shocked at these stories,” Mejia said. “They have no idea of the tearing apart of the families and of the difficulties faced by this community.”
In addition to community outreach, the English versions of the comics have been useful in securing grants and funding for the project. The El viaje mas caro/The Mostly Costly Journey team has distributed the comics at ArtsRiot, Comic-Con and a recent Northeast Organic Farming Association conference to raise awareness for their cause. The comics are free of charge to the public and can be requested from the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury.
As the project continues to move forward, Doucet said that the cartoon booklets will at some point probably come to an end. However, she wants to provide a space where the migrant worker community can come together and continue to build a community through storytelling.
“I don’t want (this project) to end because so many people have so many stories to tell,” Doucet said. “I don’t feel like this is a project that ever has an end nor deserves to end, because new people are always coming into the population with fresh experiences and stories to tell.”