Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college


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The same trends in Mexican migration of the 1990s, 1980s, and earlier dominant in the 21st century: unauthorized Mexicans continue to make up a substantial portion of the total migrant population and total U.S. population (see Table I), nativism endures within the U.S., and increased resources continue to be spent on immigration enforcement. The first years of the 21st century have also seen the issue of immigration reform emerge as a principle political issue as perhaps never before in U.S. history.

The diversification of settlement location, employment, and background of unauthorized Mexicans that emerged in the post-Bracero Program period has continued into this decade. Women and children are now a sizable portion of the unauthorized population; in 2005, women making up 42% and children 16% of the 11.1 million unauthorized people in the United States. In employment, unauthorized migrants have expanded well outside of the traditional agricultural sector. In 2005, 31% of unauthorized workers were employed in service occupations and 19% in construction, while only 4% were in agriculture.xv Despite the small percentage of unauthorized workers on farms, they make up a fourth of the total workforce in this industry (Passel 2006: 7-11). Agricultural jobs also remain an important point of entry into the U.S. workforce for less established, new migrants from southern Mexico. This is consistent with my observation that the majority of Mexican migrants in Addison County come from southern Mexico. Mexican migrants continue to move out of the southwest and Texas to live in non-traditional locations, such as, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina and even Vermont (Martin 2005: 443-448).

Despite zero evidence that terrorists have entered the United States via Mexico, the reorientation towards increased domestic security after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 has influenced Mexican migration in the present decade. The administration of President George W. Bush tabled plans for legalization of unauthorized migrants and turned its focus towards tighter border security after the September 11th attacks. The potential in Washington for new legislation that would shift policy away from the bracero model was lost (Ackleson 2004: 176-178; Bean and Lowell 2004: 263).

In a 2002 document, the new Department of Homeland Security framed border and immigration enforcement as a new national security issue: “[the border is] a conduit for terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, illegal migrants, contraband, and other unlawful commodities” (Ackleson 2004: 178). The Bush administration used the misplaced perception of the relation between terrorism, the Mexican-U.S. border, and unauthorized Mexicans to justify increased spending on border and immigration enforcement. According to the White House, the budget for border enforcement has grown from $4.8 billion in 2001 to $12.3 billion in 2008. By the end of 2008, there will be 18,000 Border Patrol agents, double the number in 2001. Since 2001, 165 miles of new fence has been built on the Mexican-U.S. border (White House 2008). The rhetorical grouping of unauthorized migrants with “terrorists” and “other unlawful commodities” demonstrates that the government response to the September 11th has continued the nativist depreciation of Mexican migrants into braceros.

Despite the refocus on enforcement and the reluctance to ease immigration law following September 11th, President Bush still made an effort in 2003 to push for immigration reform, but the Iraq War and the 2004 elections delayed congressional discussion of the issue until 2005. In 2005, the House of Representatives passed a restrictionist bill that would have increased deportation efforts and made it a felony to assist unauthorized migrants. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators with the President’s support advocated for a reform law with guest worker and legalization programs. Both the restrictionist and reform efforts failed in 2005 (New York Times: 2007).

After the failure of the 2005 bills, migrants organized on an unprecedented scale to push for meaningful immigration reform. On May 1st, 2006, hundreds of thousands of migrants across the country skipped work and school to march in support of immigration law that would favor migrants. I attended a rally in Manhattan where thousands of migrants and supporters from countries across the world shouted a slogan adapted from the United Farm Workers, sí se puede—yes we can. A sea of waving U.S. and foreign flags filled the streets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities. Estimates of the size for the largest rallies were 500,000 in Los Angeles, 400,000 in Chicago, and at least 100,000 at the rally I attended in New York. The rallies were a breakthrough moment; 63% of Latinos surveyed, including both U.S. citizens and foreign-born migrants, indicated that the marches “signal the beginning of a new and lasting social movement” (Archibold 2006; Ferguson 2006; Suro and Escobar 2006: ii-iii). In spite of the success of the rallies, neither the restrictionist nor reformist camps in Congress were able to pass an immigration bill in 2006 or 2007. The only result of the protracted immigration reform battle was the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a mostly ceremonial law that authorized Homeland Security to devout even more resources towards border security (White House 2006). Although a new legislative push will most likely have to wait until after the 2008 election, Mexicans in Vermont continue to ask my opinion about the likelihood of their prospects for legalization in the future.

Accompanying the calls for immigration reform and the pro-migrant rallies of 2006 was a renewed anti-migrant movement. Founded in 2004, the Minutemen Project has become a leading anti-migrant organization, sponsoring armed civilians to patrol the border searching for unauthorized migrants and advocating for stricter immigration law and increased border security. On the day of the pro-migrant rallies on May 1st, 2006, Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen Project, told the New York Times: “when the rule of law is dictated by a mob of illegal aliens taking to the streets, especially under a foreign flag, then that means the nation is not governed by a rule of law—it is a mobocracy” (Archibold 2006). In the New York Times quote, Gilchrist clearly uses nativist rhetoric to degenerates migrants from people to “aliens” and evokes a nationalistic fear of foreign infiltration. Gilchrist’s comments reflect the same nativist rhetoric that has constructed the bracero pattern throughout the history of Mexican migration.

The present decade has seen unauthorized migration emerge as a central political controversy. After the attacks of September 11th, a claimed connection between terrorism and unauthorized migration has been used to justify increased efforts to deport unauthorized migrants and lock down the border. Anti-migrant organizations, such as the Minutemen, are attracting significant support. At the same time, Latino migrants and a large U.S.-born solidarity population has organized to protest for an end to the bracero pattern.


The brief examination of history in this chapter illustrates how Mexican migrants have been consistently demeaned into braceros. This pattern began in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, when Mexican citizens living in the new U.S. territory lost their land and rights. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States invited Mexicans to work in the southwest but deported them when their labor was no longer needed. The Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964 institutionalized the status of Mexicans as disposable sources of labor. Both unauthorized migration and anti-migrant sentiment continued in the post-Bracero Program era. In the last decade, pro-migrant and anti-migrant groups have organized to advocate for new immigration laws. At the same time, the post 9/11 security agenda has redoubled immigration law enforcement and border security. Today, Mexican migrants, especially unauthorized migrants, often remain nameless new braceros comparable to the old bracero quoted in 1955 at the beginning of this chapter. Unauthorized Mexican migrants are tolerated because they provide an indispensable source of manual labor, but nativism prevents their membership in the imagined community of the United States. The next chapter considers how the specific circumstances of dairy farms in Vermont demean Mexican migrants into braceros.

Despite the importance of the historical and contemporary structure to the situation of Vermont migrants, these larger processes do not determine the lives and decisions of the migrants I met in Addison County. Individuals still retain the power to make the decision to come to Vermont, move to a different farm, or return home based on their own unique needs and wants. As anthropologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo explains, the type of macroscopic historical and contemporary processes presented in this chapter are the “parameters for Mexican immigration.” History and laws form the structure under which migrants act, but they do not preclude them from making decisions that determine the course of their own lives (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 32-33).


Tienes que aguantar. [You have to bear it.]xvi
The alarm is already buzzing at 4:45 a.m. It is time to get up. The daily grind begins before dawn at George and Kathryn O’Reilly’s dairy in Coolidge, Vermont. I roll over on my air mattress to dampen the noise, but Juan wakes me up with his heavy footsteps as he stamps into the kitchen to prepare coffee.

Buenos Días, I mumble to Juan as I walk into the kitchen.

Café?” he asks. Juan mixes hot water, instant coffee mix, and into a red plastic cup. He sweetens the coffee with tablespoons of sugar, and throws the empty Hannaford’s milk jug into a trashcan buzzing with flies.

Juan is already dressed for work. He wears a t-shirt and hand-me down work pants stained with dried cow manure from yesterday’s chores. He has short, black hair and a round face with an inch of stubble growing on his chin. Juan is twenty years old and grew up on a farm in rural Tabasco, Mexico. His muscular shoulders and arms suggest the physical labor that has been his life’s work. At sixteen, he dropped out of school and came to the United States with his aunt and uncle. After crossing the border, Juan settled among other Tabasqueños in Warner Robins, Georgia where he worked in construction and landscaping. He came to the O’Reilly farm from Georgia in November 2006. He started out milking cows, but worked his way up to better chores like feeding the animals and running equipment. Juan has not returned to Mexico since he first crossed the border.

The two other men living in the house file into the kitchen as Juan and I gulp down our coffee. Emilio is a skinny, short eighteen-year old from Tabasco who arrived at the O’Reilly farm only a few weeks before. Miguel is from Las Margaritas, Chiapas, close to the border with Guatemala. Like Juan, he has been in Vermont for months, but arrived at the O’Reilly farm only recently. Miguel is the shortest of the four of us, just over five feet tall.

We sit around the kitchen table under a fluorescent light, drinking the coffee and eating pan dulce, sweet bread from a Mexican bakery in Brooklyn, New York. From the kitchen window, we see the red barn where the cows wait to be milked. Behind the barn, the rising sun emerges from the clouds and fog of the Champlain Valley. Placing the empty plastic cup in the sink, Juan steps out onto the crooked wooden porch of the house, reties his shoes, and walks quickly down the driveway towards the barn. I run to catch up behind him. It is a minute walk from the old, peeling, yellow farmhouse where the three men live to the milking barn; this walk is often the farthest distance the workers travel on any day.

The barn smells of manure, hay, and diesel fuel; the scent is strong enough to linger on my clothes and shoes days after. As we walk into the barn, Juan stops at the first Holstein. “She is the patrón’s favorite,” he explains, rubbing the cow’s head for a moment. He walks to the corner of the barn, grabs two shovels, and hands me one of them. Juan’s first chore is to clean out the mierda (shit) from the stalls, so Miguel and Emilio do not get too dirty as they milk the one-hundred thirty or so cows. The animals are arranged in two rows. The heads of the cows face out towards two outer aisles and the barn walls. The rumps of the cows face a third aisle located in the middle of the barn. In the middle aisle, a moveable conveyer belt in the floor winds its way beneath the cows and moves the mierda out of the barn and into a waiting trailer to be spread on the fields. Juan and I move down the center aisle of the barn with shovels, pushing the mierda onto the conveyer belt. After cleaning the stalls out, we use the shovels to throw sawdust into the stalls to keep the smell of the manure down.

Miguel and Emilio are already milking the first of the cows. Together, they manage ten milking units at a time. To attach a milking unit, the milker must wedges himself between the warm bodies of the animals. I watch as Miguel kneels down and cleans each of the cow’s four teats with an iodine solution and paper towel. He quickly hand milks each teat to ensure the milk looks normal and the cow does not have mastitis, a bacterial infection affecting a cow’s udder that spreads quickly in the milking barns. He attaches one end of the milking unit he carries over his shoulder into the overhead electrical source and milk tube. The other end of the unit is a vacuum pump apparatus that he attaches to the teat of the cow. The milk begins to flow visibly through the plastic lines of the unit, into the larger pipes that run above the cows along the side of the barn, and finally into a refrigerated milk tank in an adjacent room. I estimate it takes Miguel about thirty seconds to set up this particular cow to be milked. The unit makes a cycling sucking noise as the vacuum pumps suck the milk rhythmically, imitating the sound of a suckling calf. Five minutes later, the cow is milked out, the milking unit is removed, the teats are cleaned again with iodine, and Miguel attaches the unit to the next cow. Milking involves a lot of mierda, getting it on your clothes, stepping in it, and putting your hand in it.

After cleaning out the stalls, Juan and I feed the cows using a gas-run feeding cart that spits out hay as Juan drives it up and down the two outer aisles in the barn. To fill the feeding cart, Juan parks the feeder under the silo and cranks a handle to open a trap door. Dust flies everywhere as Juan and I use pitchforks to pat down the hay that falls from the silo into the feeder. It takes about eight cartloads of hay for Juan to feed all the cows.

The birds in the rafters are singing now; it’s almost 6:30 a.m. and the sun is beginning to light up the barn. A panting German Shepard running down the central aisle alerts us that the patrón must have just arrived. With the noise of the feeding cart and the milking units, we did not hear his truck pull up. George O’Reilly strides into the barn wearing a cowboy hat, steel-toed boots, and jeans with a tucked in flannel shirt and a silver belt buckle that reads “Made in Texas.” Well over six feet tall, George towers over the Mexicans and me; he is sixty-two and remains a commanding presence. George begins his day by walking down the outside aisles of the barn with a wheelbarrow full of grain feed. He gives each animal a scoop or two of the mixture, which he describes as cow “candy.”

Juan and I begin the next chore, feeding the young calves formula and dry food. Each calf has its own wire-fenced, plastic white house in front of the milking barn. Juan and I fill two pails with warm water, mix the water with powdered formula, and carry the pails out to the calves. The calves greedily suck the formula from the bottles. As I hold the bottle for a calf, I look out onto the dirt road and watch a silver milk tanker truck rumble by.

When we come back into the barn with the empty pails, Emilio and Miguel are more than half way done milking the cows. Juan’s next chore is to move a pile of sawdust closer to the barn using the “Bobcat” farmloader. George asks me to tell Juan to be careful not to hit the barn wall when he moves the sawdust. The wall is already visibly buckling, he explains. Standing between the two of them, I repeat George’s instructions as best I can. “Okay?” George asks. He stares down at Juan with his, intimidating blue eyes. Juan nods, walks into the muddy barnyard, climbs into the Bobcat, and starts moving the sawdust.

While Juan works in the Bobcat, I follow Emilio and Miguel around as they milk the cows. I dodge falling mierda from a cow as Miguel and I stand in the center aisle of the barn, watching the milking units. When Miguel allows me to connect a milking unit to a cow, he warns me not to electrocute myself as I attach the unit to the overhead power supply. My tennis shoes sliding in the mierda, I kneel beneath the cows and feel the warmth of their huge bellies on either side of me. The vacuum pump attaches to the teat easily and milk begins to flow.

Suddenly, I hear a crash. I look behind me through an open window towards the back barnyard, and see Juan backing up the Bobcat, his face expressionless. A few minutes later George comes by. “Did you hear that sound?” he asks.

“Yah, what was it?”

“He hit the rafters,” George explains. “These guys should know I don’t miss a trick. I hear everything and see everything.”

“Yah,” I manage to say.

I go back to help Emilio and Miguel finish milking the last cows. A few minutes later, Juan is back inside, using the cart again to feed the animals a second time. After milking the last cow, Emilio, Miguel and I carry the milking units into a smaller room where the refrigerated milk tank and a set of industrial stainless steel metal sinks are located. The tank is about ten feet long and six feet high. Miguel stands on a milk carton to disconnect the line that feeds the milk into the tank. As I watch, Emilio and Miguel clean the milking units in the sinks with bleach and steaming hot water. It is difficult to talk over the loud whirring of the tank as it runs at full capacity to cool down the milk. Juan joins us in the tank room as the cleaning is wrapping up. George uses a stick gauge to check how much milk the shift yielded, and pulls out a notebook and pencil from his back pocket to write down these figures. Juan, Miguel, Emilio, and I shuffle out of the barn and head back to the yellow farmhouse. It is 9:00 a.m.; the morning milking is now done.

After the morning shift, the men leave their dirty work clothes in piles on the farmhouse porch or hung haphazardly over the porch railing. Work shoes brown from their daily immersion in mierda lay scattered around the concrete surface of the porch. During the summer, the mierda on the clothes and shoes dry slowly in the rising sun, attracting more and more flies as the day wears on. The porch stunk, but at least the clothing was not inside the house.

Emilio and Miguel head into their rooms to take a nap. Despite the sun outside, the house is dark. The living room windows are covered with old green drapes, and an assortment of ragged lazy-boy chairs and couches are set up facing a TV that is turned on to a Spanish language sports channel.

I watch TV as I wait for Juan to take a shower. Today I am taking Juan off the farm for a dentist appointment. Most days, Juan returns to the barn again at 10:00 a.m. to feed the cows and clean the stalls. Miguel will cover for him today. Kathryn O’Reilly, the patrona, arranged the appointment for Juan after he explained he had pain in one of his molars. Kathryn asked me if I could give him a ride and translate the appointment.

Juan comes out of the bathroom with his black hair gelled and spiked. He is wearing baggy black pants and a t-shirt with a surfing company logo on the front.

Listo?” Ready, I ask Juan.

Sí,” he replies. We get into my car parked in front of the farmhouse and Juan puts in CD of bass-pumping reggaetón dance music in Spanish. I pull out of the farmyard onto the dirt road towards town, just after the silver milk tanker pulls in to the farmyard to collect the milk from the morning shift.

I drive carefully with Juan in the car. I watch the speedometer, being sure my speed hovers around the speed limit. While a traffic stop would mean no more than in inconvenient ticket for me, for Juan, an unauthorized migrant, it could mean a potential arrest and weeks in jail before deportation back to Mexico. After years in Georgia and Vermont, Juan seems less concerned about this risk than I am. He is content listening to the music and staring out the window, his eyes halfway closed as he squints into the morning sun.

When we get to the dentist’s office, the receptionist asks Juan to fill out a health history. We laugh in the waiting room as I ask him deadpan if he has ever had a heart attack. The only other people in the waiting room, an Anglo mother and daughter, try their best not to stare. When the dentist calls us back to an examining room, Juan sits quietly in the gray leather dentist chair. I sit in the corner of the room with my Spanish-English dictionary. “Open your mouth” is easy to translate, but soon I am flipping through the dictionary frantically looking for “root canal.”

The dentist explains that Juan will have to return to have a root canal and a second tooth extracted. “Okay?” he asks Juan. Juan nods, but remains emotionless, neither smiling nor frowning. As we get up I ask the dentist if he sees a lot of Mexican patients. “More and more, a few times a month now,” he tells me.

Juan pays the receptionist for the appointment with a crisp one hundred dollar bill. On the way back to the O’Reilly dairy, we blast the reggaetón again. I glance in the rear-view mirror every few seconds, looking for any sign of a police car on the dusty road behind me.

Mexican ranchera music is playing on the flashy, big stereo in the kitchen when Juan and I get back. There is a pile of dishes in the sink, a greasy pan on the stove, and a wilting bouquet of basil leaves stuck in a mason jar on the table. Juan offers me a coke from the refrigerator before wandering off to take a nap. Emilio and I watch news from Mexico on the TV in the dark living room.

Before long, it is time for the afternoon milking shift, which begins at 2:30 p.m. and ends around 6:00 p.m. Juan grabs some tortilla chips from a bag above the fridge before we trudge back out to the barn. The afternoon shift is more or less the same as the morning one. Emilio and Miguel pick their way down the barn again, shuttling the milking units from one cow to the next. Juan cleans up the mierda, spreads the sawdust, feeds the cows, feeds the calves, and feeds the cows a second time. As we pitchfork the hay into the feeding cart, Juan teases me. “Estudiante flojo,” he says, calling me a lazy student. Finally, the milking units are cleaned again in the tank room, and the day’s work is over. Miguel plays with one of the barn cats as we walk back to the farmhouse. George, still wearing his cowboy hat, climbs into his truck with his dog. He honks the horn and waves as he pulls out of the driveway to go to home just down the road, leaving us in the dust.

More ranchera music plays on the stereo as Emilio, the youngest of us, cooks dinner in the kitchen. I sit at the table with Juan as he laughs and curses on the phone while talking with his cousin Daniel, who works installing air conditioners in Georgia. Juan misses the freedoms he enjoyed when he lived in Georgia, such as driving a car. He hands me the portable phone, and I ask Daniel how life is in Georgia. He tells me it is better than Vermont because he can move around more freely. I met Daniel on my first visit to the O’Reilly farm, when I gave him a ride to the bus station to catch a three-day ride back to Georgia.

Emilio makes rice with chicken and a tomato sauce, and we sit at the table eating the food and drinking cokes. Outside it is dark now, it is mid-August and the days are getting shorter already. The crickets chirp loudly in the cornfields around us. I ask Emilio if I can help him clean up, “no,” he tells me, “it’s okay.”

After dinner, Juan calls his cousin Guadalupe in Mexico. I lie on an air mattress and Juan sits on an old couch next to me, talking to both Guadalupe and I at the same time. Guadalupe is his most beautiful cousin, he tells me, as he forces the phone into my ear. She tells me she is studying psychology at a university in Veracruz. Juan says I should come back with him to Mexico to meet her. I close my eyes, and try to pretend to be asleep. Juan says good-bye to his cousin, drops the portable phone on the floor, and crashes on the couch. It all begins again in a few hours, at 4:45 a.m. There is no day off at the dairy. The cows must be milked.

The car outside in the driveway is mine. At any moment, I can grab my keys and return to the world where milk means little more than something you buy in a plastic jug at the supermarket. As I drive away from the farm the next morning, I allow the smell of mierda and the constant tension between Anglos and Mexicans to fade from my attention. The workers on the dairy do not have this option. They cannot escape from the farm. Everyday they must face the unrelenting daily chores and struggles of the dairy.“Así es, es muy, muy difícil, explains Juan, dispassionately. “That is the way it is, it is really, really hard.”

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