Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college

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Like their compatriots who have migrated north over the last two centuries, Mexican migrants on 21st century Vermont dairies are reduced into disposable and exploitable braceros. This chapter substantiates this argument that Mexican dairy workers in Addison County are new braceros by explaining the demeaning consequences of unauthorized legal status, nativism, and the language barrier. Unauthorized status is a key element not only through its direct effects of disposability and isolation, but by rendering migrants as vulnerable to nativist discrimination. The language barrier is a third factor unrelated to legal status that provokes nativist attacks and restricts monolingual migrants to working as manual laborers.


One day in October 2007, I sat in the kitchen at the O’Reilly farmhouse with Antonio, a cleanly shaven, tall, handsome, young migrant from Tabasco. Antonio had replaced Emilio after he left for a different dairy earlier in the month. Antonio had arrived in Vermont with his dad five months earlier. Father and son worked on different dairies, and they had not seen each other for weeks. Antonio had no ride to visit his dad. “It’s my second time coming here [to Vermont],” he told me. “The first time I came it was about a year ago.”

He paused to look out the window, watching a pick-up truck pull into the driveway and park in front of the milking barn. “The police, they caught me, where my dad and I were working. I was here in Vermont… I never thought they would come… I was calling home to Mexico, but to call Mexico from here you have to dial 011, and instead of dialing 011, I dialed 911. Instead of dialing one, I dialed nine… the patrón was not at home. The police came and arrested us.”

“We did not want to open up the door, so they broke it down with their feet,” he told me with a sad laugh. “I hid beneath a table, but they had a gun and told me to come out.”

“From there, they took me to Albany. Three days imprisoned there. After, they took me to Boston. I stayed fifteen days there. Then they took me in a plane to Texas, to the border... The prison was bad. They gave me nothing more to eat than hard bread and a carton of frozen milk. Three more days in another jail there. And after, they sent me to Mexico in the middle of the night… without any money.”

“I did not want to come back, because they told me in deportation that I could not come back for five years. If I came back and they caught me, they would send me to prison.”

After pausing again, Antonio continued. “Está duro.” It is hard. “I have family in Mexico, and… it is hard. [I came back] because we do not have enough there.”

“How old are you?” I asked.


“Me too,” I told him.

Veinte uno. Veinte … uno,” he repeated after me, slowly, “and look where I am. Imagine, so far from my family.”

Under the increased immigration enforcement of the post 9/11 security agenda, unauthorized migrants such as Antonio face a risk of deportation from every part of the country, including Vermont. I met two people who were deported from Vermont, and both had returned to work in the state again. Status as an unauthorized or authorized migrant is beyond the direct control of migrants and patrones. Since the institution of the U.S. government, not individual actors, determines immigration law, I refer to unauthorized legal status as a structural condition on the dairies. Individuals may react to structural conditions, but have little power to change them. For example, some patrones and reiteros exploit Mexicans who are unauthorized migrants, but they do not have the power to change a migrant’s legal status.

Many migrants believe the risk of deportation in Vermont is higher than in other states because of the intense nativism. “There is a high risk [of deportation] here in Vermont, more than in other parts of the United States,” explained Miguel, who, in addition to Vermont, had lived in California, Texas, Georgia, and New York. The Mexican consulate in Boston reports that even though Vermont had the lowest Mexican population of any New England Sate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 123 Mexicans from Vermont in 2006, more than any other New England state (Hemingway 2007d).xvii

Deportations from Vermont occur in a variety of situations. Some migrants, such as Antonio, are arrested on the dairy due to a police call or ICE stake-out (Dillon 2006). Police arrest some migrants outside of the farm during traffic stops. Stories circulate that Mexicans have been arrested at restaurants, the bus station in Burlington, or as they shop for groceries. George and Kathryn O’Reilly are confident that police are aware of the location of migrants on dairies, and look for any excuse to arrest them. Miguel and others also said that the risk of deportation is higher on farms in the northern part of Vermont because border patrol is stationed on the nearby Canada-U.S. border. Miguel decided to leave a dairy even though el patrón was buena onda, a great guy, because it was close to the border where immigration enforcement is more intense.xviii

Fear of deportation is especially pronounced in migrants who are new to the United States. Emilio, the eighteen-year old who arrived at the O’Reilly dairy directly from Tabasco in July 2007, showed a reluctance to leave the farm in his first few weeks in Vermont. One afternoon in August, George suggested that the workers and I visit the county fair. Miguel and Juan jumped at the opportunity to leave the farm. Juan was especially enthusiastic, since he had fond memories of visiting la feria in Georgia before moving to Vermont. Emilio refused to go to the fair both times because he feared getting stopped by immigration. Juan tried to convince him to come with us on our second trip.

“The police will not stop you if you are going the speed limit,” Juan told him, “and he always goes the speed limit, man! You don’t want to go out? Don’t be afraid, they are not going to catch you at the fair, there were a lot of Mexicans there!” Still, Emilio resisted Juan’s prodding and remained at home. As we saw him gazing out the window as we pulled out of the driveway. Miguel commented that it was necessary to get out of the farm sometime, or you would go crazy.

Emilio’s reluctance to leave the farm shows how a fear of deportation discourages migrants from leaving the dairies. Juan recalled Emilio’s behavior months later: “he was afraid of immigration… he had just arrived, that is why he did not want to go out. He wanted to avoid problems.” Many migrants describe this isolation as being encerrado—locked in.

The fear of deportation is less pronounced in migrants who have lived in the United States for long periods of time. “I’m not afraid [of deportation]. If the police come, I will just go to Mexico… They’ll send me to my home, nothing more,” Juan said nonchalantly. Still, Juan carefully avoids situations that might bring him into conflict with Anglos when he leaves the farm. Once, Juan’s actions at a grocery showed that he would rather lose a one hundred dollar bill than risk any conflict with an Anglo stranger. As the clerk finished scanning the tortilla chips and soda, Juan dropped a one hundred dollar bill on the moving belt to pay for the purchase. The belt continued to move, and we watched wide-eyed as the bill got sucked below the surface of the machine. Instead of turning to me to ask for translation to determine how to retrieve the bill, Juan immediately tried to hand a second one hundred dollar bill to the clerk to pay for the groceries. Juan wanted to avoid potential conflict with Anglos in public, because, if for any reason the police were called, he would risk deportation. When I asked Juan about this incident later, he agreed with my initial interpretation that the incident exemplified how he tries to avoid problems with Anglos: “Everything cool is better. If you lose the money, you lose it, better the money [than you]. The important thing is to be okay.” When he is in a store Juan tries to attract as little attention as possible: “I try to buy my stuff quickly and avoid running into police.” Although Juan and other veteran migrants told me they no longer feared deportation, the risk still made them avoid conflicts with Anglos that might provoke police involvement.

Some patrones also fear ICE will deport their workers. This concern discourages farmers from allowing migrants to leave the dairies. Although George O’Reilly does take his workers out of the farm to go shopping, he knows this puts them at higher risk for deportation because of potential police contact. When I took Juan and a few other migrants to a restaurant in Burlington, Kathryn O’Reilly called my cell phone to explain she was concerned because she heard that migrants had been deported from Mexican restaurants. Juan said the O’Reilly’s were more generous than many other farmers he had heard stories about: “Many patrones don’t let you go out… They buy the clothing, and they buy the food... You cannot go out for any reason.”

In addition to the fear of deportation, a second consequence of unauthorized status that isolates migrants is a limited access to transportation. Most Mexican migrants do not have access to vehicles in Addison County. Even in the rare case when migrants have access to cars, they risk deportation by driving since they do not qualify for valid licenses. Chris Urban believed Mexican migrants drove cars at only five of the fifty farms he knew of in Addison County.

Miguel is one of the few unauthorized migrants I met who tried to drive in Vermont, and his experience illustrates why migrants might choose not to drive, even if they are lucky enough to have access to a vehicle. One afternoon during August, Miguel described to me life on the farm closer to the Canadian border as we sat in the shade of the porch at the O’Reilly farm. As we looked out onto the dirt driveway and the fields of corn beyond, Miguel explained how he drove a truck at this farm: “When I arrived in Vermont for the first time, the patrón gave me a truck. But sometimes a lot of police passed by… uno que ven mexicano quiere chingar a uno [one who sees a Mexican, wants to screw one]. I was driving and saw a policeman, but I didn’t talk to him. I parked the car and ran for the house. [After] I gave the patrón the key; I didn’t want to drive anymore.” His unauthorized legal status and consequent fear of deportation deterred Miguel from driving even when he had access to a car. His use of the verb chingar suggests that immigration enforcement symbolically feminizes Mexican men by curtailing their individual autonomy, in this case, by preventing them from driving.xix

George and Kathryn O’Reilly discouraged Juan from purchasing a car in Vermont or bringing a car from Georgia. The O’Reillys feared police would stop and arrest Juan because he had no license as an unauthorized migrant. Although he did not drive in Vermont, Juan drove regularly when he lived in Georgia: “In Atlanta, Florida, New York, there is not as much immigration. The police come and they just give you a ticket. You pay the ticket and keep going. You can drive. Here, the first time the police stop you, you cannot drive, because you are already on your way to Mexico.” Juan blamed his inability to drive in Vermont not just on his unauthorized status, but on the especially high risk of deportation in Vermont compared to other states.

The inability to drive is especially handicapping in rural Vermont, where isolation means driving is the key to living independently. Consumer services such as stores and restaurants cannot be reached from most dairies without a vehicle. The majority of Mexican migrants in Vermont are dependent on the patrón or reiteros to leave the farm and go shopping, send money, or visit friends.

Typically, farmers give a ride to their workers once every fifteen days to go grocery shopping and to send remittances. From the many requests I received from migrants to go shopping, eat in a restaurant, or visit a church, I learned that these trips with the patrón, offered little opportunity to do anything more than buy groceries and send money. For several months I received calls at least a few times a week: “could you do me a favor and give me a ride?”xx I also arranged via phone for taxis, a service Mexicans apparently did not usually use because of the language barrier.

Reiteros provide rides but often charge more than a hundred dollars for short trips around Vermont. Longer trips cost even more. Emilio paid a reitera three hundred and fifty dollars for a ride from outside of New York City to Addison County. The particular reitera who gave Emilio this ride is connected to national human trafficking networks, and she transports people to Vermont from North Carolina and Georgia as well as New York.

Fear of deportation and limited access to transportation spatially limits migrants’ daily lives to the “superlocal” sphere of the dairy farm. Mexican migrants live in isolation, segregated and hidden from the rest of Vermont society. In addition, the isolation wrought by unauthorized legal status influences many of the daily struggles migrants face on the dairy.

Boredom is one challenge made worse by isolation on the farm, as workers have nothing much to do besides work. Juan always laughed and smiled more when we went to the grocery store, a restaurant, or even to the dentist. The boredom of the dairy is deadening, he explained: “Yah, I do not feel so much [now]. I’m used to the work, but sometimes the work feels really tough because I have so much time here doing the same stuff every day. I get bored…. The work is what makes you bored every day, [getting up] at five every day.” Juan contrasted his boredom in Vermont to his more exciting life in Georgia: “In Georgia you can drive to work, you can go out to dance, whatever you want. You are not so bored.”

Loneliness is also intensified because of isolation. Migrants from farms spread across Addison County have difficulty meeting up, which exacerbates the loneliness many migrants already suffer from. Antonio, Miguel, and Juan had relatives on dairies across Vermont, but had few opportunites to visit them. The young unmarried men on the O’Reilly farm especially missed spending time with women their age. Separation stressed their romantic relationships with girlfriends in other U.S. states or in Mexico, and when these relationships end, it magnified the sense of loneliness. One of the young men on the O’Reilly farm coped with a break-up by drinking his way through the night, barely managing to stagger through the morning shift the next day. Older migrants who have left their children or spouse behind also must cope with separation from these family members who depend on them for support. I witnessed a emotional phone call once between a migrant named Gabriel and his children as he prepared to return home to Mexico the next day. The usually jocular Gabriel did not hold back tears as his children told him they looked forward to seeing him the next day after months of separation.

“Cabin fever” is another consequence of the isolation experienced by Mexican dairy workers. Conflicts are commonplace between migrants who are forced to live and work in close quarters with little respite. At the O’Reilly farmhouse, baring music is one source of common dispute. One person turns on reggaetón music at a deafening volume, marking it impossible for anybody else in the house to watch TV, listen to music, or talk on the phone. Use of the phone line also becomes problematic when someone calls Mexico multiple times a day and prevents others in the house from using the phone. Conflict also occurs between migrants of different ages who have different expectations about how to treat each other. Ignacio and Juan, for example, disliked an older, married migrant, Javier, who worked briefly at the O’Reilly farm in summer 2007. Juan complained that Javier was too serious and would not joke with the other younger, unmarried migrants. Juan and Antonio agreed that the opportunity to get off the dairy more often would dampen these conflicts.

The isolation on the dairies is especially intense during winter, when the darkness and cold weather unfamiliar to new migrants from Mexico makes the grind even more difficult. The conversations I had with Juan in winter were punctuated by periods of intense silence, interrupted only by his reflection that Vermont life was duro. His pale face drooped. During winter, I could see the psychological cost of months of snow and darkness just walking through the farmhouse. Slouched in chairs or lying on couches around the house, the men looked as if they were moving in slow motion. After a few hours in the darkness of the farmhouse, I could not help but want to rush out of the depressing house as soon as possible. During the summer, the scene was different. We would sit on the grass in the farmyard after playing soccer, drinking sodas and listening to the cow moo in the barn. In the summer, Juan and others would laugh as they told me stories about tough patrones and life in Mexico. In the winter, they sat mostly silent and withdrawn in the darkness of their house.

Juan told me that being less isolated on the farm would improve the lives of migrants considerably: “If you could go out for a while, it would distract you and you would not get so bored. You would forget what had happened on the farm. If you fought with the patrón, [going out] would distract you and you would forget the problem, but here you cannot go out. If you fight with the patrón, you come back here to the house bitter and you go to your room bitter. You end up angry. There is no other option.”

Unauthorized legal status is the most important factor that reduces Mexican migrants in Vermont into braceros. As Susan Coutin explains, legal status influences every aspect of the life of an unauthorized migrant: “Illegality of the undocumented materializes around them wherever they go, like a force field that sets them apart from the legally privileged” (Coutin 2000: 30).xxi Unauthorized migrants are literally disposable because they may be arrested at any time. The fear of deportation affects unauthorized migrants everyday they spend in the United States, even if they are never deported. For Mexicans, patrones, and other Anglo Vermonters, the fear of deportation serves to reinforce the implicit perception that Mexican migrants are temporary labor and may be abused and discarded if they become problematic. Furthermore, the fear isolates migrants on the dairies where their role is limited to that of a bracero. “You have to be working, nothing more,” explained Juan.


I never witnessed an overtly nativist episode while in public with migrants, but we did attract attention wherever we went. Considering that Vermont is the whitest state in the country, it came as no surprise that Mexicans stood out (U.S. Census Bureau: 2006). Many people made a special effort to be kind to us, others did their best not to stare at us, while a few subtly showed with their eye contact and tense shoulders they saw Mexicans as an unwanted presence.

I observed the most uninhibited reactions to Mexicans in the local sphere during my two visits to the Addison County Fair with Juan and Miguel. The fair was set up in a field next to a dairy farm off of a state highway. From the hundreds of cars parked in the lots and the long lines for the stomach-churning rides, it appeared to be the climatic summer social event for Coolidge and the other towns in the area. We walked through the gate, and were immersed in a sea of Anglo Vermonters. Kids ate cotton candy as their exhausted parents tried to drag them back to the car, teenage girls screamed as boys chased them around, and older couples holding hands walked a slow promenade around the fairground. Most people ignored Miguel, Juan, and I as we walked, a few people offered a welcoming smile, and a few others had a more negative reaction. One man gave us a wide berth as he passed us and stared at me with a cross, disapproving look, as if to suggest I should be embarrassed to be enabling Juan and Miguel’s presence. When we were forced to pass a police officer walking in the opposite direction, Miguel and Juan quickly scooted around to be as far away from him as possible, trying to fade into the crowd. Towards the end of the evening, Juan tried his luck on a rodeo ride. A crowd gathered around to watch Juan try to hang on to the plastic bull. The ride operator gave a commentary in a Texas accent over a loudspeaker. After a few seconds he punched up the power on the machine saying, “I think he’s been on there long enough now. Let’s throw this guy off!” Juan fell onto the mats. The crowd clapped and cheered as he walked back to Miguel and I, but I noticed a few unsmiling men on the edges of the crowd. They looked as annoyed by the crowd’s positive reaction as by Juan’s presence.

A few days later, the commentaries on the website of the Burlington Free Press in response to an article written about the dairy workers gave voice to the silent resentment of Mexicans I observed at the Addison County Fair. I found the same nativist sentiments on the newspaper’s forum as I had seen at the fair, but the anonymity of the website allowed the opinions to be less inhibited. One commentator calling himself the Green Mountain Patriot wrote a comment that exemplifies how nativist rhetorically dehumanizes unauthorized migrants: “Roger Allbee [Vermont Secretary of Agriculture] needs to be removed from that position IMMEDIATLY for aiding the invasion. We are talking about ILLEGAL ALIENS… not ‘immigrant workers’” (Burlington Free Press: 2007). Another commentator attacked politicians and farmers, arguing that they compromised national sovereignty in order to exploit unauthorized workers: “The state is in cahoots with these cheap paying farmers… getting tired of all these excuses for breaking the law myself…. what they want is slave labor. Pay them starvation wages and let the state take care of their needs” (Burlington Free Press: 2007). These nativist commentaries written only days after the Addison County Fair represent a more overt expression of the subtle resentment migrants encountered as they walked through the fairgrounds.

Nativism explains the comparatively high rate of deportations from Vermont compared to other New England states. Migrants who had spent long periods in Vermont, such as Juan and Miguel, felt there was a higher risk of deportation because there was more racism in Vermont than in other states. Migrants I interviewed referred to the prejudice they faced as racist rather than nativist. They are correct in describing the prejudice against them as racialized, but I choose to classify it as nativist rather than racist since it predicated on their foreign status.xxii

Juan sees discrimination in Vermont as intensifying the risk of deportation inherent in unauthorized status: “If they [the police] know you’re a Mexican, and, well, they want an illegal, the first time they catch you, they stop you and call immigration. They should just give you a ticket and tell you have a good day. They don’t need to call immigration, and that is why I say there is a lot of racism here.” When police officers “call immigration” they phone the National Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC) in Williston Vermont. LESC identifies people in custody by state and local law enforcement across the country as unauthorized or authorized migrants (DHS 2007a: 26-27). According to Juan, racism also explains why Mexicans have to be cautious whenever they are outside of the farm to evitar problemas—avoid problems—with Anglo Vermonters: “You’re in the store, and if there is a racist American, he can call immigration. They call immigration because they are angry, they don’t like Mexicans for nothing. They are racists.”

Juan’s apt analysis that his experiences exemplify racism in Vermont shows how “Mexican looking” people are assumed to be unauthorized migrants based on observable attributes such as language, dress, and skin color. Once they are stereotyped as potentially unauthorized migrants, “Mexican looking” people are discriminated against by those who attempt to have them arrested, which allows their legal status to be formally investigated. George O’Reilly told me he wished his workers would make a greater effort to conceal attributes such as dress and language that mark them as foreigners and put them at greater risk of deportation in public: “We went to Wal-Mart the other night, and I told them don’t speak any Spanish, and don’t look like a Mexican… the first thing they do when they walk into the store is start talking Spanish. Well, if there is any of the them INS or whatever the hell they are around, they are going to pick up on them like that… we usually go on Sunday night because… I don’t think anybody will be around. ” In public, nativist discrimination further degrades unauthorized migrants into disposable braceros by increasing their deportation risk.

Reiteros who visit many dairies across Vermont also discriminate against unauthorized Mexicans in the local sphere. Chris Urban, the former migrant education teacher, told me how the same reitera who gave Emilio a ride to the state often extorts money from migrants for rides or job placements by threatening to call immigration. Since the unauthorized status of Mexican migrants enabled the exploitation, it is a form of nativism. “They charge four times what they should,” Juan told me. “To drive you fifteen or twenty minutes, they will take two or three hundred dollars.” “Es un negocio,” [it is a business] explained Antonio. Juan put it more bluntly, saying that some of the reiteros are “personas que se dedican a chingar al mismo Mexicano” [people dedicated to screwing their fellow Mexicans]. Again, the verb chingar suggested that reiteros symbolically feminize male migrants through their coercion.

Within the local sphere of Addison County, nativist discrimination contributes to the reduction of Mexicans into braceros. Still, Vermont has no organized nativist movement like those that have emerged in many other states. In 2005, out-of-state Minutemen, apparently unaware of the dairy workers, visited Vermont to patrol the border, but were met with protests of “flatlander, go home” (Fahrenthold 2005). When I contacted the national headquarters of the Minutemen organization in Arizona about the Vermont dairy workers, they referred me to a Ken Pittman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Pittman, a conservative radio talk show host and leader an organization named WALL (“We’re Americans Legally and Loyally”), said he was unfamiliar with the presence of unauthorized Mexicans in Vermont, and did not know of anyone else involved in the Minutemen who would be.

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