Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college

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On Chris Urban’s advice, I first engaged Mexican dairy workers in Vermont by attending the monthly meetings of the Addison County Migrant Coalition in fall 2006 and visiting Coolidge for the Spanish mass in winter 2007. At the mass in Coolidge I met Kathryn O’Reilly, who permitted me to interview migrants and spend time on her farm beginning in March 2007. I stopped regularly attending Coalition meetings in early 2007, since no Mexican migrants were members of the organization. My formal fieldwork began in July 2007 and has continued intermittently into May 2008. I conducted the majority of my fieldwork in August and September 2007, when I commuted to Coolidge multiple times a week and stayed over with the Mexican workers at the O’Reilly farm several times. At one point in August, the O’Reillys agreed to hire me temporarily as a milker after a Mexican worker unexpectedly quit, but rescinded the offer the next day when they were able to find an experienced Mexican milker to fill the job. During the months of less intense fieldwork, I drove to Addison County once or twice a month from my home in Hanover, New Hampshire located across the Green Mountains an hour and a half from Addison County.

On a typical day, I would drive from Hanover and arrive at the O’Reilly farm sometime after the morning milking ended at 9 a.m. I would spend a few minutes speaking informally with the workers in the farmhouse, getting an update on the going ons of the dairy. Later, I sometimes ate lunch at the farmhouse or gave rides to Middlebury for the workers to shop or send money to Mexico. I would often follow Juan around at least for the first few minutes of the afternoon milking shift that began at 2:30 p.m. and occasionally spoke with George in the barn before driving home.

Before I began my fieldwork, I imagined patrones would be reluctant to allow an outsider with an audio recorder on their property. This concern proved to be largely unfounded, as George and Kathryn allowed me unrestricted access to their farm. At first, Mexicans were willing to speak with me if only because I was an unusual curiosity that broke up the monotony of dairy work. My promise to maintain their anonymity also soothed migrants’ fears that they might be deported for speaking out. Many names and details have been changed in this thesis to protect my informants. Over time, implicit expectations of reciprocity strengthened my relationships with both the Mexican migrants and the O’Reillys. Mexicans at the O’Reilly dairy do not have access to transportation, so the rides I gave to grocery stores, churches, restaurants and medical appointments were one way I could thank migrants for answering my questions. In some cases, I even conducted interviews in my car. Migrants were also more comfortable accepting free rides when I explained that I saw the ride as an exchange of transportation for conversation. Migrants are accustomed to paying hundreds of dollars to reiteros [riders or drivers] for rides around the state. For George and Kathryn, I provided translation. attempted to explain various barn tasks to workers, and I helped Kathryn communicate details about the remittances she sent on migrants’ behalf or her demands that the workers clean up the farmhouse where they lived.

Nearly all of my close informants for this ethnography are young men my own age. My conversations with these individuals were uninhibited because of our shared gender and age. I found it difficult to have anything more than polite conversations with the few Mexican women I encountered, most of whom lived with their husbands. In these interactions I sensed both the women and I feared overstepping conventions of proper interactions between a young, unmarried Anglo man and a married Mexican woman. Young Mexican men are consequently the focus of this ethnography. There are many more Mexican men on the dairies than Mexican women, but I concentrate on young men not to deny the importance of women in the migration experience but due to the limits of my methodology (Pessar 2003).

Nativism, the prejudice against people based on their perceived foreignness, is the most important process affecting the interactions between Anglos and Mexicans in Vermont. Prejudice against Mexicans in Vermont is part of a long history of Anglo-American nativism directed against Mexicans in the United States. Prejudice against Mexicans is nativist because it depends on pre-judging people as foreigners based on arbitrary characteristics such as skin color that make them “look Mexican.”

The anthropological definition of nativism is an attempt to perpetuate or revitalize certain observable characteristics of a group that take on symbolic importance, such as language or skin color. In order to protect these self-proclaimed aspects of their culture, nativist movements exclude and discriminate against individuals who do not conform to these arbitrary characteristics (Linton 1943: 230-231). Nativism is rooted in the fear that supposed foreigners will erode aspects of the group that members believe ought to be socially reproduced.

The nativism examined in this thesis is nationalist because it involves the citizens of different nation-states. Nationalist nativism views foreigners as spoiling what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation. An imagined community describes the shared sense of solidarity, even kinship, among the heterogeneous members of a nation, most of whom will never even meet each other. Members of an imagined community perceive it as homogenous, bounded, and sovereign. Nativism delimits the imagined community by denying those perceived as foreigners from insider privileges. These foreigners are believed to lack the symbolic characteristics that mark membership in the imagined community. Nativism is therefore the xenophobic, exclusionary complement to the processes Anderson described, especially a shared sense of contemporaneity established by mass media that unite distant and disparate individuals into an imagined community (Anderson 2006: 7, 37-47). Drawing on Linton and Anderson, I define nativism as the prejudice against individuals based on their perceived foreignness.

Nativism is related to but distinct from racism. While racism describes a prejudice against people based on a presumed racial hierarchy of biologically based superiority and inferiority, nativism is the prejudice against people based on their perceived foreignness. Consequently, the difference between racism and nativism is dependent on how foreignness and race are perceived differently. Race is a social construct but is widely believed in the United States to be defined by biological ancestry and marked by physical appearance, especially skin color (Wagley 1968: 155-165). In contrast, foreignness (or its opposite, nationality) in modern nation-states is ultimately defined by citizenship, both in a legal sense of the privileges and obligations of being a citizen and in a social sense of conforming to homogenizing expectations of “proper” behavior. Despite the difference between the formal definitions, nativism in the United States remains racialized and racism nativized because foreignness and race are often marked by the same arbitrary, observable attributes.iv People who are perceived to be a different race because of their skin color or language are also often assumed to be foreigners.

Mexicans in Vermont are—or are presumed to be—unauthorized migrants, a criminal foreign status that makes them particularly vulnerable to nativism. As De Genova articulates in his discussion of “illegality,” legal status provides a justification for nativist discrimination against Mexicans: “the social space of ‘illegality’ is an erasure of legal personhood—a space of forced invisibility, exclusion, subjugation, and repression” (De Genova 2002: 427). For my informants, their actual or presumed illegality brings about more discrimination than their racial status as Latino. While recognizing that nativism is racialized, I therefore refer to the prejudice against Mexicans in this ethnography as nativist rather than racist. More broadly, the United States discriminates against Mexican migrants by expelling them to Mexico, a process that depends first on their presumed foreignness rather than an imputed inferiority due to their “race.”v

The foreignness of Mexicans in Vermont is marked by physical attributes such as height and skin color as well as cultural attributes such as dress and I separate these markers analytically, but in reality Anglo Vermonters almost always observe these characteristics as a whole to assume someone who “looks Mexican” is an unauthorized migrant. For example, a short, brown, Spanish-speaking Mexican wearing baggy clothes might be harassed in a grocery store parking lot by an Anglo man who wants him arrested because his appearance suggests unauthorized status. Even authorized Mexican migrants continue to suffer from nativism because their skin color, language, or other markers stereotype them as unauthorized (Johnson 1998a: 198-201).

While legal status in the United States cannot be observed outright but is assumed upon reading the bodies and voices of Latino migrants, there are instances where unauthorized status becomes more visible. On Vermont dairies, this happens when patrones examine documents provided by Mexican workers. Unlike many who express nativist discrimination towards Mexicans in Vermont to clamor for their deportation, patrones welcome unauthorized migrants because they provide reliable labor. Yet because of their particular knowledge of migrants’ unauthorized status, they sometimes insult their workers, deny them pay, or even hit them. Such abuses are discriminatory because they are committed with the knowledge that Mexicans are less likely to challenge such mistreatment because of their vulnerability as unauthorized migrants.

I avoid essentializing labels in this thesis; individuals are not called nativist, only their actions. Labeling people as nativist would obscure the complexity of life on a Vermont dairy. The actions of a patrón may be nativist in one moment and cooperative in the next. In addition, calling someone a nativist—like calling someone a racist—places a vilifying label upon them that usually provokes outright denials and precludes a meaningful discussion of the issues involved (Bosniak 1997: 283-284).

Nativism places Mexicans outside of the imagined community and consequently denies them full social status in the United States. The dominant Anglo society in the United States reduces Mexicans into braceros—disposable and exploitable sources of manual labor.vii The word “bracero” derives from the Bracero Program, a contract labor arrangement established by the U.S and Mexican governments between 1942 and 1964 that institutionalized the role of Mexicans as a source of disposable labor. “Bracero” literally means “arm-man” or “arm-er” and epitomizes how Anglo-American society has long sought to reduce Mexican migrants into a mere source of labor throughout the history of Mexican migration.viii In this thesis, I apply the concept of the bracero not only to contract Mexican agricultural workers of the 20th century who worked in the official Bracero Program, but also to Mexican dairy workers in the 21st century.

As they are valued for their labor and not their humanity, braceros are disposable. Historically, nativist movements have deported Mexican migrants when their labor is no longer wanted, regardless of legal status. Contemporary unauthorized Mexicans are also disposable. In the context of the increased immigration enforcement of the post 9/11 era, the U.S. government regularly deports unauthorized migrants who challenge their bracero status by asserting privileges reserved for citizens, such as driving a car. Classifying Mexican as criminal “illegal aliens”— regardless of their actual legal status—reduces them into braceros. Today and in the past, nativism has demeaned Mexicans into braceros.

The fear of being disposed by deportation renders braceros exploitable by limiting their power in relations with the U.S. government and Anglo Americans, the subset of U.S. citizens with whom the state is most closely linked. Migrants in Vermont rarely call the police for fear of deportation. In effect, the state allows for discrimination against Mexicans because the risk of deportation means they cannot petition the state to protect their rights or redress wrongs. The United States treats Mexican migrants as worth little more than the disposable products of the global capitalist economy in which they work.

Although I argue that Mexican dairy workers are disposable and exploitable braceros, they are also often trusted and respected employees. By calling Mexicans in Vermont braceros, I do not deny that they are often—even usually—treated well. Instead, I apply the bracero label to demonstrate how presumed illegality makes migrants disposable and consequently vulnerable to exploitation. Even when a generous patrón treats unauthorized Mexicans well, migrants remain braceros because they—and their patrón—recognize that good treatment is the prerogative of the patrón, not a guaranteed right.

The first part of this thesis concentrates on applying the concept of the bracero. Chapter two provides a broad historical and contemporary context for the ethnography, emphasizing how Mexicans have long been treated as disposable sources of manual labor across the United States. By elaborating primarily on how unauthorized status engenders nativism, chapter three makes the key argument of the thesis, that Mexican dairy workers in Vermont are reduced into braceros.

Despite their vulnerability, migrants in Vermont are not powerless, and later chapters examine how they attempt to cope with the challenges wrought by their marginalization. Chapter four describes the translocal coping strategies such as remittances, phone communication, and media that connect migrants in Vermont to the outside world. Chapter five argues that the development of local coping strategies among migrants in Addison County is impeded by isolation and nativism. Chapter six examines migrant coping strategies within the small superlocal sphere of the dairies themselves.

The conclusion of the ethnography reexamines the themes of nativism and braceros to argue that neither Anglo patrones nor Mexican workers are at fault for the marginalization of the latter. It is not individual actors but rather the structure of the society that demeans Mexicans into braceros.


I choose the terms I use because they best describe what I observe in my fieldwork, not for their rhetorical punch. Nonetheless, explanation for some terms used throughout the work is necessary because these words are so closely associated with political views.

I distinguish between the terms “migration” and “immigration.” Immigration is the permanent resettlement of individuals from one nation-state to another. I use “immigration” and “immigrant” only to describe permanent, international resettlement. I make exceptions for customary uses such as “immigration law” and “immigration controversy.” Migration is a broader term than immigration that refers to temporary or permanent resettlement within or across the borders of nation-states (De Genova 2002: 420-421). I describe Mexican dairy workers in Vermont as migrants rather than immigrants, since most of the people I met planned on returning to Mexico rather than permanently resettling in the United States. Dairy workers in Vermont are nonetheless not traditional “migrant farm workers” who migrate with the seasons following agricultural harvests. Although some Mexican migrants in Vermont do move frequently between dairies, cows are milked year around so no seasonal migration is necessary.

I use the term “Mexican” to describe individuals who are Mexican citizens and not legally authorized residents or citizens of the United States. I use “Mexican-American” to describe individuals who are authorized residents or citizens of the United States, but have Mexican citizenship or self-identify as Mexican-American, Mexican, or Chicano.

I avoid using describing people as “Americans” or the United States as “America” because these terms are ethnocentric. All people in North, Central, and South America may be referred to as “Americans” and all of the nation-states in these continents as “America” (Mato 1998: 607). Instead, I use the terms “Anglo-American” as an ethnic marker to describe individuals who self-identify as English as their first language, Christian, and of the white race. I use “U.S. citizen” to describe legal citizenship.

By far the most controversial terms in migration studies are those involving the legal status of migrants. I reject the terms “illegal” and “alien” because the terms are dehumanizing (Nevins 2002: 9). An act, such as crossing the border, or a substance, such as drug, may be legal or illegal, but in no other context outside the immigration controversy are people regularly called illegal. “Illegal” objectifies migrants, disparaging them into another illicit substance smuggled across the Mexico-U.S. border. Even the word “criminal” or “suspect” is in some ways preferable to “illegal” because at least the former terms presume the object they describe is a human being. The word “alien” is used in context outside of the immigration controversy to describe extraterrestrial invasion; its dehumanizing effect requires no further explanation.

“Undocumented” is a term used among those sympathetic to migrants to describe those migrants who might be deported. This term is not entirely accurate, since many migrants have some identification issued by either the U.S. or Mexican governments, or both. As discussed in chapter four, the Mexican consulate in Boston regularly travels to Vermont to issue Mexicans passports and photo identification cards. Given many of them have documents, a more accurate term than “undocumented” to describe migrants who might be deported is “unauthorized.” Formally, unauthorized migrants are those individuals who are neither U.S. citizens nor residents and do not have temporary authorization to be in the United States The vast number of authorized migrants are either people who entered the United States without valid documentation or people who entered with valid documentation but have overstayed their visas or otherwise had their authorization revoked (Passel 2006: 2).


In this camp, we have no names. We are called only by numbers.ix

Mexican Bracero Program Worker, 1955

A Mexican Bracero Program worker in 1955 appears to have little in common with Mexican migrants on a 21st century dairy farm in Vermont, but there is a great similarity between their two situations. Despite often amiable relationships between Mexicans and Anglos many of the Mexicans I met in Addison County remain little more than a numbered source of labor, just like the worker in 1955. This chapter reviews the historical and contemporary situation of Mexican migrants in the United States, focusing in particular on how migrants have been treated as an anonymous, disposable labor supply. Chapter three argues that Mexican migrant workers in Vermont, like their historical and contemporary counterparts discussed in this chapter, are also treated as braceros.

Although this chapter makes little mention of Vermont, it places the situation of Mexicans on Addison County dairies within the broad historical and contemporary context of Mexican migration to the United States. The way Vermont migrants arrive to the dairies, their legal status, the type of work they do, the nativism they face, and how they cope with life in Vermont are all influenced by this context. As Joseph Nevins explains, the past abuse of Mexican migrants influences the mistreatment they continue to face today: “we cannot ignore the weight and power of the historic practices of racism and exclusionism as applied to Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in trying to understand contemporary social relations in the United States” (Nevins 2002: 111).

Mexican migration to the United States has alternated between periods where migrants have been welcomed and periods where migrants have been thrown out. Mexicans have been encouraged to work the hardest jobs in periods of labor shortage, such as during World War II. When there is a labor surplus, as there was during the Great Depression, Mexicans have been attacked and expelled from the United States (Garcia 1998: 77). The close proximity of Mexico to the United States facilitates the expulsion of Mexicans in this “revolving door” migration (Carrasco 1998; Nevins 2002: 35). Throughout the historical ebbs and flows of migration, nativism has dehumanized Mexicans into braceros.

Mexico has claims to the land that is now the western U.S. that predates the presence, even the existence of the United States. The first non-native explorers and settlers of what is now the western United States were Spaniards and mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and indigenous American heritage) from colonial Mexico. The Spanish empire established the first non-indigenous claim to a great swath of sparsely populated territory that is now the western U.S. by founding the cities of San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, and San Diego all before 1800 (Nathani-Wane 2001: 17).

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican Republic found it increasing difficult to control its large, thinly populated northern territory due to growing Anglo migration into the region. In a movement lead by Anglo settlers from the eastern United States, Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836 and joined the U.S. in 1845. This affront to Mexican sovereignty in Texas, along with a generalized United States hunger for Mexican land justified by the nativist informed ideal of “manifest destiny,” provoked the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. With its victory in 1848, the United States upheld its annexation of Texas and seized one third of Mexican territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Crawford, et al. 1999; Gonzales 1999: 58-81; Nevins 2002: 17).

Map II: Territorial Expansion of the U.S. (University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Map Collection)

n addition to more or less establishing the basic contours of the current Mexico-U.S. border (see Map II), the war stranded between 75,000 and 100,000 Mexicans in what was now U.S. territory. Although the treaty promised protection for Mexican citizens, many faced nativist discrimination. Most importantly, Mexicans had much of their land seized by Anglos (Ganster and Lorey 2008: 30; Nevins 2002: 22). Since the United States invaded Mexico, Rodolfo Acuña and Ramon Gutiérrez argue that the mistreatment of Mexicans in this region after the Mexican-American War is a type of colonial oppression (Acuña 1998b; Gutierrez 1993: 46).

Just a few days after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered in California. The California Gold Rush of 1849 began a period of migration from Mexico that lasted through the end of the 19th century. During and after the gold rush, Anglos relegated Mexicans to working in miserable conditions in Anglo controlled mines, fields, and railroads. Migrants also suffered nativist attacks, such as denial of pay and, most egregiously, lynching. Racial and religious prejudice often fueled the attacks by Protestant Anglo-Americans on brown, Mexican Catholics. Lingering animosities from the Mexican-American War exacerbated the tension. Those Mexicans who chose to try their luck with their own mines rather than work for Anglos were treated the most brutally; they represented a potential “foreign” competitor to the wealth of the new frontier. After the gold rush, Mexican workers continued to migrate to work in agriculture and railroad construction, enticed by recruiters who traveled to Mexico on behalf of U.S. businesses. During this period, few laws regulated Mexican migration. Law enforcement along the border focused on transborder cattle rustling rather than immigration enforcement (Calavita 1992: 7; Carrasco 1998: 78; Limón 1994: 79; Nevins 2002: 24; Pitts 2001: 1138-1139).

The 19th century created a sentiment of Anglo-American superiority over Mexico that continues today. Military defeat in the Mexican-American War humiliated Mexico and established the geopolitical dominance of the United States that continues to characterize the Mexico-U.S. political relationship. The brutal treatment of Mexicans after the Mexican-American War also set a precedent for nativist discrimination against Mexicans in the United States that persists today. Even slogans of the current immigration controversy such as “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” or “remember the Alamo!” echo this era and reflects its continued importance (Chavez 2006; Davey 2006; Gonzales 1999: 79; Pitts 2001: 1144).

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