|THE NEW BRACEROS:
MEXICAN DAIRY WORKERS IN VERMONT
BENJAMIN G. JASTRZEMBSKI
LATIN AMERICAN & CARIBBEAN STUDIES HONORS THESIS
PROFESSOR LOURDES GUTIÉRREZ NÁJERA, ADVISOR
PROFESSOR JOHN WATANABE, ADVISOR
Chapter One: Introduction 1
Chapter Two: Braceros, Historical and Contemporary Mexican
Migration to the United States 23
Chapter Three: Daily Chores, Daily Struggles, The Lives of the New
Braceros on a Vermont Dairy 48
Chapter Four: Translocal Coping Strategies for Mexican Dairy Workers
in Vermont 81
Chapter Five: Local Coping Strategies for Mexican Dairy Workers in
Addison County 97
Chapter Six: Superlocal Coping Strategies for Mexican Dairy Workers
On the O’Reilly Farm 116
Chapter Seven: Conclusion 130
Primero, gracias a ti, Juan, por toda tu ayuda, confianza, protección y paciencia. Ya sabes que no tengo las palabras para agradecerte todo lo que has hecho por mi y para mi proyecto. Siempre seremos cuates sin fronteras. Gracias a Dora por compartir su valentía. Irma Valeriano me extendió la mano y me apoyó con su confianza y sus comentarios durante el proyecto. Agradezco mucho el esfuerzo y trabajo que desempeña para ayudar a los trabajadores Mexicanos en Vermont.
A Gabriel le doy las gracias por sus enseñanzas sobre susto, y además por sus llamadas. También quisiera agradecer a Emilio por haber compartido memorias tan difíciles de pasos fronterizos igual que memorias alegres de su novia. Gracias a Miguel por hablar conmigo ese día en la sombra de la casa. Antonio, gracias por compartir tus memorias tan duras de la deportación. Finalmente les doy gracias a Javier, Omar, Alicia, Félix, Víctor, Rosa, y a todos los otros Mexicanos en Vermont que me echaron la mano con entrevistas, fútbol, y comidas.
Desearía poder haber hecho más.
I thank George and Kathryn O’Reilly. Your blessing made this research possible; your compassion is an inspiration. I thank Chris Urban, for helping me make my first ventures in this hidden world and for your willingness to speak out on behalf of Mexican dairy workers.
For granting me permission to adapt his survey for Latino dairy workers, I thank Professor Thomas R. Maloney at Cornell University. I thank my advisors Professor Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera and Professor John Watanabe for your selfless dedication to this research over the last two years, your questions and critiques, and for believing I could finish this thesis even when I was not so confident I could. For their invaluable assistance and support with translations, field research, and editing chapters, I thank my fellow Dartmouth students: Kathleen Moriarty, Elizabeth Mendoza, Emily Frank, Glavielinys Cruz, Carlos Mejia, Karem Coronel, Lizzy Hennessey, and Federico Sequeda. I thank my parents, Theodore and Kathryn, and my sisters, Emily and Amanda. For teaching me how to work, I thank Steve Fulton, among many others. Finally, I thank Lawrence Goodman and the Claire Garber Goodman Fund for their generous support of this research.
In winter 2006, I traveled to Mexico to study introductory Spanish. I intended little more than to fulfill my language requirement for Dartmouth and escape from winter. I imagined the program would probably culminate my intermittent study of Spanish and Latin America. Instead, Mexico enchanted me.
One of the many things I took home from the three-month trip is the memory of a truck. The old, gray Ford was parked on the side of a dusty road. It was a chilly morning in a Latuvi, a tiny village carved into the side of one of Oaxaca’s innumerable mountain valleys. The truck sat beside a row of halfway built houses painted vibrant blues and yellows. There was only one reason the truck ever caught my attention: the license plate read “California.”
I had studied the figures; I knew millions of Mexicans came to the United States. Yet it was not until I saw the truck in a village that seemed so far from the United States both geographically and culturally did I appreciate how fundamental the migration experience has been in the lives of so many Mexicans.
I returned to Dartmouth wanting to learn more about Mesoamerica, an interest that soon lead me to major in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I assumed at the time that I might travel back to Mexico, or at least to a state like California. I lamented that northern New England seemed to be the only region of the United States where the influence of Latin America had yet to be felt.
The summer after I returned from my trip, I heard a report on Vermont Public Radio about Mexicans working on dairies in Vermont. I was shocked to hear the melodic accent of rural Mexican Spanish once again, this time coming over the radio in Hanover, New Hampshire. My ignorance of the Mexican migrants who lived right around me only speaks to their invisibility; I grew up in New Hampshire and thought I knew the area inside and out. Listening to the radio report began a long process of accessing a hidden world embedded within my own community and inhabited by Mexican migrants who are mostly my own age, or younger.
Occasionally, people ask me where I learned my admittedly mediocre Spanish. I used to say I picked up a bit in high school, improved my grammar with a few college classes, and worked on my accent with a trip to Mexico. Talking with Mexican dairy workers in Vermont, however, has taught me as much Spanish as anything else. Now, when people ask me where I learned my Spanish, I tell them proudly that I learned it on a dairy in Vermont. I give that answer—and I write this thesis—to validate the presence, work, and humanity of a people who remain strangers in our midst.
We called for workers, and there came human beings.
I slammed the door of my car and tentatively looked around the snowy farmyard. In my hand I clutched the directions Kathryn O’Reilly had given me over the phone to her and her husband’s dairy in Coolidge, Vermont. I had met Kathryn a few weeks before at the monthly Spanish language mass in Coolidge, and she agreed to let me visit her farm and interview some of the men who worked for her husband. The old yellow farmhouse I had parked in front of matched the description Kathryn had given me. Dirty clothes were strewn around the house’s porch, and the door was shuttered with the shade drawn. To my right, a few hundred meters farther down the muddy driveway, stood an L-shaped red milking barn. Melting snow was still left on the roofs of the rusted tractors and trucks that sat to the side of the barn. Water dripped from the roofs down the metal sides of the vehicles, like tears running down a child’s face. Through the barn windows I saw the hides of the black and white Holsteins. The landscape of snowy fields was dotted with silos and red barns of neighboring farms. In the low areas the snow had already melted, the ground emerging wet and brown. It was silent except the occasional lowing of a cow.
It was March 9, 2007—my first of many visits to the O’Reilly dairy. I walked onto the porch and knocked on the glass window of the door. Nobody answered. I knocked harder. I felt the vibrations through my feet as someone approached from inside. Daniel, a twenty year old migrant from Tabasco, Mexico whom I had met at the Spanish mass, unlocked the door and shook my hand. I had talked with him on the phone the day before, and he had invited me to come by the farm. Daniel wore a baseball cap over his short black hair, a plaid shirt and a pair of black pants too big for his small body. His shoulders were tight and his lips were curled apprehensively.
“Tenemos un problema.” We have a problem, Daniel told me. He wasted no time in sitting me down at the kitchen table. He explained that he had been staying with his cousin Juan at the O’Reilly farm for sometime but had been unable to find reliable work with the O’Reillys or at other nearby dairies. He had decided to return to Georgia where he had family and hoped he might find more reliable employment. He wanted to know if I could give him a ride to a bus station. I told him I would. He left me to talk to his cousin Juan in the kitchen and disappeared into the dark back rooms of the house to pack his things.
Juan’s round face looked pale. He spoke and moved slowly, as though the darkness of the long winter had depressed his mood. He offered me a coke. At the time, Juan was nineteen-years old. He explained to me how he arrived in the United States when he was sixteen and had spent most of his time as a migrant in Warner Robins, Georgia. Juan had fond memories of Georgia, where he felt secure enough to drive a car. Here in Vermont he could not drive a car because the police would stop and deport him. Juan remembered Georgia as an oasis for unauthorized migrants compared to the racism he encountered in Vermont.
Daniel rolled a single black suitcase through the kitchen and out the door to my car. I told Juan I would come back tomorrow to speak with him again, and we both followed Daniel out the door.
“Take a picture of us,” Daniel said, handing me a disposable camera. I framed Daniel and Juan standing in the driveway with the red milking barn in the background. I saw the two men, the barn behind them, and the gray March sky through the plastic viewfinder.
“No, no” Daniel stopped me, “I do not want to remember that place!” he said, tilting his head towards the barn. He grabbed Juan and shifted them both so the peeling old house where they lived would be the background of the photo instead of the barn. Daniel said he just wanted a picture to prove he had seen snow.
The cousins stood arm and arm in the driveway and smiled. I took the photo. They quickly shared a restrained embrace as I got into the car. Daniel’s bag was already in the trunk. He had packed up his entire life in about fifteen minutes.
When we reached the bus station, it was almost dark. I told the agent Daniel wanted a ticket to Atlanta, Georgia. The teenager wearing a Red Sox hat who stood behind the counter typed on his dusty computer for a minute, “okay…” he mumbled. The ticket cost over two hundred dollars. Daniel handed over the fare in cash. The tickets began to print, but got stuck midway through when the printer ran out of paper. A line of impatient travelers formed behind us as the agent searched for more paper. Daniel stood alert but unmoving, like a set mousetrap. Soft rock played quietly over the tinny PA system. Finally the guy found the paper, and as the last tickets printed out he asked me, “You guys milkin’?” He mimicked a milking motion with his hands.
I nodded. “Yah,” I said. I stared back at him to indicate that would be the end of the conversation.
We headed to the bathroom. A bus driver wearing a uniform walked in behind us. Daniel must have thought he was a police officer, as he abandoned the urinal and slipped into a stall as soon as he saw him.
We sat in my car to avoid waiting in the public bus terminal, where Daniel might risk arrest because of his unauthorized status. We listened to the radio and I asked Daniel what he would do when he got to Atlanta. He told me he would get a ride from someone back to Warner Robins. When he returned to Georgia, it seemed, he would no longer be so fearful of deportation.
When it was time to leave, I walked Daniel to the bus. We stood in the puddles as the driver took Daniel’s bag and shoved it in the luggage compartment.
“Buena suerte,” good luck, I told him. He shook my hand and disappeared behind the dark windows of the bus.
My first visit to the O’Reilly farm began to chip away at my preconceptions about the lives of Mexican dairy workers in Vermont. I began my fieldwork thinking that experiences for Mexicans on Vermont dairies were somehow intrinsically different from the experiences of prejudice Mexican migrants faced in other states. Newspaper articles that described idyllic relationships between Mexican workers and Anglo dairy owners influenced these assumptions. One article quoted a gushing Anglo farmer as saying, “I’ve been down in the dumps about something, and I’ll go into the barn. They’re in there working and playing their Mexican songs, singing and whistling. In a couple of minutes, I’m on Cloud Nine” (Hemingway 2007b). My image of Vermont as a progressive state made it easier for me to swallow these select, happy anecdotes as a comprehensive account.
From the first day, my research forced me to question these assumptions. Daniel wanted to forget Vermont, and he was afraid to wait in the bus terminal for fear of deportation. Juan called the state racist. Through the process of learning from Mexican dairy workers in Vermont over the following year, my assumptions were turned upside down. I heard horrifying stories of workers deported, listened to some of the nativist remarks passed around barnyards, and witnessed the devastating effects of unauthorized legal status on boys younger than eighteen. I finished my field research in winter 2008 convinced that the situation of the dairy workers could only be described by the most condemning rhetoric. Mexicans on Vermont dairies were unquestionably oppressed.
Yet as I began to write this thesis, my opinions shifted again. I found I could not characterize what I had observed on the dairy farms in black and white moralistic terms. The reality had been so varied that such a one-sided abstraction would obscure more than it would reveal. There was truth in the opinions I held both at the beginning and the end of my field research. Relationships between Anglos and Mexicans on the dairy farms can be pleasant and cooperative, indeed, almost idyllic. At the same time, Mexicans on Vermont dairies are often treated as something less than human. When I finally realized these seemingly opposed views were not wholly exclusive of one another, my goal shifted from proving migrants were marginalized to presenting the many ambiguous situations I had observed and rationalizing why events played out as they did.
Although this thesis is more than simply a categorical condemnation of the treatment of Mexican dairy workers, I do not claim an objective or politically neutral perspective. This work is colored by my belief that human rights supersede provincial laws that classify some as “illegal” and others as “legal.” I reject the argument that the abuse of unauthorized migrants is justified because they are somehow morally suspect for breaking a law to come to the United States or because living conditions for migrants are presumed to be better than in their host countries. Regardless of how they arrived, I believe migrants recruited to work in Vermont should have basic rights such as fair pay, access to public safety services, protection against discrimination, and freedom of movement and assembly. I found that many Mexicans were denied these rights. My privileged position as a United States citizen allows me to denounce such offenses while my informants would risk arrest if they spoke out. Following Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois (2004: 25-27), I consider advocacy for marginalized informants to be one of the responsibilities of the ethnographer. I therefore write in part to shed light on this hidden oppression in which young people are denied the right to live full lives. At the same time, I anxiously wait for the day when these individuals may speak for themselves in public. I have strived to ensure my political opinions do not preclude a critical presentation of my observations, and I only hope the ethnography itself, as subjective and select as it may be, informs the reader’s own opinions on immigration policy in the United States.
This thesis is about how people react when they come into contact with different types of people and environments. It examines how a small number of people have responded to the inevitability of interethnic contact. More specifically, this ethnography examines the lives of Mexican migrants on Vermont dairies and the challenges they face. By untangling culture—the often unspoken and inconsistent conventions and structures that regulate social interaction—the aim is to understand what happens to migrants in Vermont, and why.
Coolidge is a rural community of around 1,500 residents dotted with dairy farms in the southern Champlain Valley of Vermont.ii The town’s fields gently slope down from the Green Mountains in the east to Lake Champlain in the west. The community is geographically and socially centered in a compact village of plain houses, white churches, and a single gas station. The village occupies the area around the intersection of two state highways, and the dairies are spread across the rural areas of the town.
Map I: Physical Map of Vermont. (Geology.com)
oolidge is located in Addison County, home to 37,000 of Vermont’s 624,000 residents and approximately 207 of the state’s 1,376 dairies (see Map I) (U.S. Census Bureau 2006; USDA: 2002). The exact number of Mexican dairy workers and the number of unauthorized versus authorizes migrants in Addison County is unknown. In addition to Addison County, Mexicans also work on dairies in Franklin and Orleans counties along the U.S.-Canadian border. Vermont Mexican dairy workers were too new to the state to have been reported in the 2000 Census, and even if they had been present, migrants would have been difficult to count because of their transience and fear of deportation.
George O’Reilly, a Coolidge dairy owner, believes most, if not all, dairies in the area have Mexican workers. Even a dairy owned by relatives of Vermont’s governor Jim Douglas openly employs unauthorized Mexican workers (Hemingway 2007b). Chris Urban, a former English as a second language (ESL) teacher, regularly visited fifty dairies in Addison County to teach English to Mexican workers under twenty-one. Assuming that each of these fifty dairies employs five Mexican workers, Urban estimates there are no more than 250 Mexicans working in Addison County. He believes that the often cited figured of 2,000 Mexicans on dairies across Vermont is inflated, and that this figure might also include the few Mexicans also working in the timber, construction, and garden nurseries across the state. On some dairies, the Anglo patrón (“boss” in Spanish) employs both Mexican and Anglo workers, while on others, only Mexicans are employed. Mexicans first arrived on Addison County dairies in 1999 from nearby New York farms, and they gradually came to dominate dairy employment in the area. In New York state, Mexicans have been employed on dairies at least since the mid-1990s (Maloney and Grusenmeyer 2005: 3).
Although I never directly asked migrants about their legal status, many people volunteered the information, describing how they crossed the border clandestinely or how they were sin papeles, without papers. Dairy farmers and other Vermonters who interacted with the migrant community also characterized the population as unauthorized. This qualitative evidence suggests that at a majority of the Mexican migrants working on Vermont dairies are unauthorized.
Before Mexican dairy workers began to arrive in the state, dairy owners had difficulty finding reliable employees among the U.S.-born population. Few young people in Vermont want to do the dirty, early-morning dairy chores seven days a week for little pay. George O’Reilly described his employees before he began hiring Mexicans in 2003 as a seedy group. “We had another guy who shot a cow and threatened to shoot me,” George told me. “We called the State Police. It took them four hours to get here. By the time he got here the guy was gone.”
In Vermont, Mexicans work in a small-scale dairy industry that has struggled to remain economically viable. During the 1980s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempted to cut the national milk surplus through the whole herd buyout program, which paid small or marginal dairies to close by taxing larger dairy operations. In the 1986 whole heard buyout, thirty-one dairies closed in Addison County and many more dairies were sold during this period outside of the USDA program (Brady 2005: 74-90). More recently, 2006 was described as the “worst year in at least the last thirty years” for Vermont dairies due to bad weather, low milk prices, and high fuel and feed costs (Hemingway 2007a). A one-time $3.2 million bailout from the state of Vermont in 2007 failed to prevent the closing of dozens of Vermont dairies in 2006 and 2007 (Hemingway 2007a, 2007c). Cheap Mexican labor likely becomes only more attractive to Vermont dairymen when business is tough.
Small, isolated, and thousands of miles from the Mexican-U.S. border, Vermont is not a typical migration destination for Mexicans. As far as I know, the state has never before hosted a significant number of Mexican migrants. Although Latinos are scattered around the state, there numbers are small. According to the 2006 American Community Survey, Vermont is 96.3% white, making it the whitest state in the country (U.S. Census Bureau: 2006). The establishment of even a small number of Mexicans in Vermont suggests how Mexican migration has become a national phenomenon, touching even the most remote, Anglo corners of the country.
Mexicans in Vermont have not been the subject of any known published academic research, probably due to their recent migration to the state and their small numbers. Mexican dairy workers and Vermont Latinos went entirely unmentioned in the 2006 volume Latinos in New England (Torres 2006). A 2005 survey of 111 Latino dairy workers in New York State provides some quantitative information about the population consistent with my qualitative observations in Addison County. The survey found that 98% of workers in New York were male, 84% were age thirty or younger, 75% Mexican, 24% Guatemalan, and 1% Honduran (Maloney and Grusenmeyer 2005: 8). In Addison County, the majority of workers were also young men, although a few women, usually living with their husbands, were also employed on dairies. The youngest migrant I spoke with admitted he was only eighteen years old, and Chris Urban told me he had met boys as young as fourteen. All the dairy workers I met were from Mexico, save one lone Guatemalan. The workers came mostly from southern states, such as Chiapas, Guerrero, Morelos, Oaxaca, Puebla, Tabasco, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz. Many of the workers at the O’Reilly farm were tabasqueños from Tabasco who had previously lived in a more established migrant community in Warner Robins, Georgia.iii Maloney and Grusenmeyer reported that workers made an average of $7.51 and that virtually all migrants remitted money to kin outside of the United States (Maloney and Grusenmeyer 2005: 19). These figures are consistent with my observations of Addison County dairy workers. In New York State, about one in ten workers reported being deported since they first began to work in the United States, which also reflects the unauthorized status of Vermont workers and their deportation risk (Maloney and Grusenmeyer 2005: 14). A sizable 68% of workers in New York said they planned to “work here for a time and return home” while 31% planned to “live in the U.S. long term” (Maloney and Grusenmeyer 2005: 24). Most migrants I spoke with in Addison County also planned on returning to Mexico within a year or two, but many said they would consider returning again to work.
My field research centered on a dairy farm owned by George and Kathryn O’Reilly, about ten minutes down a dirt road towards Lake Champlain from the center of Coolidge. Although I met most of the people in this thesis at the O’Reilly dairy, I visited Mexicans at six others farms in Addison County, attended Spanish church services, and attended a Mexican Consulate visit to place the particulars of the O’Reilly farm in the context of the more general situation across the county.
Varying personalities of Mexicans and Anglos and particular circumstances on individual farms mean there is a great diversity in the experience of migrants within Addison County. At one farm Mexicans and patrón (what Mexicans call their Anglo employers, meaning “boss”) may have the highest regard for one another, while down the road, migrants might have gone weeks without being paid. Even on a single farm, the treatment of Mexicans by the patrón may vary significantly. One day the patrón is screaming at a migrant, and the next day he might be taking him to the doctor or joking with him in the barn.