Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college

Download 350.3 Kb.
Size350.3 Kb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9


In August 2007, I accompanied a Mexican dairy worker named Gabriel on the first leg of his journey home to Tabasco. Gabriel was thirty-five year old and had worked as a milker on the O’Reilly farm, for a few months. Skipping the morning milking shift, Gabriel and I woke up late, at 7 a.m. He put his new black suitcase with all of his belongings in the back of my car, and we drove to the Burlington Airport. With a valid passport and matricula consular [consulate issued identification card], Gabriel would be able to fly on an airplane to Mexico, even though he was an unauthorized migrant. Irma Valeriano, a Spanish professor at the University of Vermont originally from Oaxaca, met us at the airport. Professor Valeriano had helped Gabriel and dozens of other unauthorized migrants buy flights home over the last three years. The three of us stood in the terminal, which was empty early in the morning. Before checking in for his flight, Irma explained to Gabriel how to navigate an airport. “Sometimes the gate changes for a connecting flight,” she told him, “so you have to look on the screens to find your new gate.” This was Gabriel’s first flight on an airplane.

Before leaving the airport, I shook Gabriel’s hand. His hair was combed and his shirt tucked in, but I still feared he would attract attention in security because of his dark, tanned skin, black beard, and the three inch gold cross he wore on a chain around his neck. He had bought the cross at TJMaxx a few days earlier when I had taken him shopping. Professor Valeriano told me later she thought it made him look like a supercristiano. I assumed it would be the last time I ever saw Gabriel.

Unbeknownst to Gabriel’s wife, Professor Valeriano, and me, one of Gabriel’s connecting flights later in the day was delayed because of a storm. Trying to avoid attracting attention, Gabriel was too fearful to call any of us to let us know what had happened. At midnight that same day, Juan and I received a phone call at the O’Reilly farm from Gabriel’s wife. Lying on the air mattress, I heard her panicked voice as Juan stood next to me and spoke to her on the phone. She feared he had been arrested in transport. She had spent all evening at the airport in Villahermosa waiting for her husband. The last plane of the evening arrived, and Gabriel was not on board. Sleepily, Juan tried to calm her, explaining that we would make inquiries the following day to see if he had been arrested. The next morning, I spoke with Irma and she began to call the airlines to determine if Gabriel had boarded all of his connecting flights. Gabriel had given me his home number before leaving, so I called his family in Tabasco. I spoke with his elderly mother on the phone twice that day, as his wife had returned to the airport in Villahermosa to wait for him. The second time I called Tabasco in the afternoon, Gabriel’s mother told me he had arrived in Villahermosa.

A week later I got a call from Tabasco. It was Gabriel, calling just to dar un saludo [say hello]. He thanked me for my help driving him to Burlington, and told me that if I ever came to Mexico he would offer me his apoyo [support]. As he talked on the phone, I could hear laughing and talking in the background. He told me he was sitting around with friends, telling stories about his time in the United States. He passed the phone around to his friends and I greeted them. Seguimos en contacto [stay in touch], we told each other. I was confident however, that this would be the last I would hear of Gabriel.

A few months later in November, Gabriel called again. “Benja!” he shouted into the phone. It had been so long since I spoke to him that it took me a moment to place his voice. He called for no particular reason, just to chat. I told him about the snow in Vermont, and that the O’Reilly dairy was just the same. Again, we ended with seguimos en contacto. I have not heard from Gabriel since, but I would not be surprised to receive a call from him today, and I expect he would not be surprised if I called him either.

Communicating with Gabriel and his family after he left for Mexico illustrated for me the importance of the phone as a translocal adaptation strategy for migrants in Vermont. Isolated on rural dairies, the phone is a lifeline, providing migrants with a means to relieve loneliness and maintain relationships with kin from afar. All migrants I met in Vermont had access to a phone, and Juan told me he knew of no migrants who did not have phone access. Migrants at the O’Reilly farm pay for phone calls with phone cards they buy at stores, from reiteros, or patrones. Antonio and other migrants told me they felt calmer after speaking on the phone and said they spoke with their family at least once a week. Phone communication also serves non-migrants by assuaging their fears about migrants’ arrest and deportation. Phone conversations are also needed for remitting, as the pin number for transfers must be communicated to non-migrants who receive money in Mexico. The telephone is the most important glue that binds together the relationships that make up translocal social fields.


“Can you send money for me?” Javier asked me as we sat at the kitchen table at the O’Reilly farmhouse. Javier, the middle-aged migrant who worked only briefly on the O’Reilly farm during summer 2007, was unable to get a ride off the farm that day from George or Kathryn, but wanted to send money home immediately. He asked me to stop in a grocery store or pharmacy on my way home and send the money for him to Tabasco.

“No problem,” I said. Javier grabbed a blank Moneygram form off a stack of them sitting on the hutch. Evidently the forms were swiped from a grocery store so Javier and the other migrants could complete the forms inside the farmhouse and give the forms to the O’Reilly’s on their behalf. On the form, Juan carefully wrote down his name, the name of his wife, and the town where she lived in Tabasco. He signed the form and handed it to me. The field for a local address in the United States was left blank, so I called Juan in from the living room and asked to look at his matricula consular identification card. The matricula consular issued by the Mexican Consulate in Boston included the O’Reilly farm’s address. The Mexican Consulate issues these cards to unauthorized migrants to register them as living in the United States, provide them with photo identification, and attempt to reduce deportation by reassuring U.S. law enforcement that the cardholder is not a criminal. Javier did not have a matricula consular, so I borrowed Juan’s card to copy down the address.

With the form now complete, Javier pulled a thick wallet out of his back pocket, counted out five one hundred dollar bills, and handed me the money without looking at me. I stuffed the bills in my back pocket. Javier did not say a word; he did not remind me to keep track of his money, or to call him with the pin his wife would need to receive the transfer in Mexico.

“I’ll call you later tonight with the pin,” I told him

“No problem, no problem,” he finally said.

A few minutes later, I said goodbye and headed back home toward Dartmouth. I was amazed to be driving away with five hundred dollars of Javier’s money. I arrived at the pharmacy in Middlebury, only to find they used Western Union to wire money, not Moneygram. I needed to fill out the Western Union form, but could not sign for Javier, nor did I expect the pharmacy employee to believe my name was Javier Ramirez. I put my own name and address down, and I signed the new Western Union form myself. The pharmacy employee looked sleepy and sent the money as if she had repeated the task hundreds of times. She seemed unsurprised that I was sending money to Mexico. Her reaction suggested that Anglo’s sending money on behalf of Mexicans was not an infrequent occurrence. She accepted the money and gave me a receipt with the pin number. Western Union not only charged around thirty dollars for the transfer itself, but also made about fifteen dollars exchanging the money into Mexican pesos.

Back at Dartmouth later that evening, I called Javier when I knew the afternoon shift would be over. After I gave him the pin number his wife would need to receive the money, I told him what had happened, that I had to use my name instead of his because we had filled out the wrong form. He said his wife would also need my name because it was on the form. After struggling with the language barrier over the following ten minutes spelling my name, Javier could finally call his wife to pick up the money at a Western Union location in La Venta, Tabasco.

Over the course of my fieldwork, I sent money on behalf of Javier and Miguel several times, and also accompanied several migrants when they went to a grocery store or pharmacy to send remittances. All of the migrants in Vermont that I asked told me they remitted to Mexico. For some migrants, such as Juan and Gabriel, remitting is best described not only as transnational but also as translocal, since they transferred money to kin in Georgia as well as in Mexico.

Remittances are a central part of the transnational migrant experience for Mexican migrants in Vermont and across the United States. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), Mexico received nearly $24 billion in remittances in 2006 (IADB 2008a). In a separate study, the IADB estimated that about $9 million in remittances were sent to Latin America from Vermont in 2006 (IADB 2008b).These statistics demonstrate the quantitative economic importance of remittances to Mexican families, but remittances are about more than just money.

Remitting is a translocal adaptive strategy for migrants because it affirms that the challenges they endure in Vermont are not in vain. For Juan, and many other Mexicans in Vermont, sending money is the reason they identify for coming to the United States: “It is important [to send money home] because you have to help your family. This is why you come here. This is the propósito [purpose]. You come and make money, and after a while, you return to Mexico. You do not come to stay here.” When Juan and other migrants remit, they are succeeding in the role of a migrant, as defined by themselves and their kin. Remitting gives migrants the satisfaction of knowing they have achieved the propósito, despite the challenges they face in Vermont due to perceived or actual unauthorized legal status, nativism, and the language barrier.

Migrants are proud of the ways their money is supposedly being spent. Eighteen-year old Emilio was quick to tell me where the money he had just begun to earn was going to help pay for his girlfriend’s high school education: “If I can help with her education, of course I will. I will give her a hand paying tuition.” Blushing with pride, Emilio continued, “just the other day I sent her one-hundred dollars to pay for tuition for her third semester of high school.” Juan’s family has bought him a truck in Tabasco with his remitted money, and he also plans to build a house. Gabriel told me that his propósito was to “to get together some money to pay for a house.”xxviii Pedro, another middle-aged married migrant, told me he had come to the United States to pay for his family’s medical expenses in Veracruz.

The financial sacrifice of remitting demonstrates a migrant’s continued commitment to faraway kin. The phone call between sender and recipient, which is necessary to communicate the transfer’s pin number, can also strengthen social ties from afar. The combined financial sacrifice and phone call often serves to affirm for migrants that, despite their low status as braceros in Vermont, they belong to a translocal social field in which they have a prestigious role as a breadwinner.

Migrants who fail to remit neglect their responsibilities of membership in their translocal social field and are consequently admonished by other members. In one instance, Omar, a serious, middle-aged, married migrant from Hidalgo who had worked on the same farm in Vermont for more than one year, complained to me about his housemate. Omar criticized the man for yelling on the phone to his wife and not sending remittances to support his children. It seems that migrants who fail to remit risk their prestige not only with remittance recipients, but also within the wider translocal social field.xxix


Whether it was a favorite old Mexican comedy, soccer, or the news, the television seemed to be always on in the O’Reilly farm. Several times I sat in the dark living room at the farmhouse with Juan and others, watching an old Mexican movie or television show. As Juan simply stated, “two or three hours watching TV—it’s a good time.” Migrants on the O’Reilly farm have access to more than just a few U.S. channels they cannot understand; they watch hundreds of channels of Spanish language television via satellite. From my visits to other farms and interviews with migrants, Spanish language television appears to be a necessity for Mexican migrants in Vermont. Most of the old farmhouses and mobile homes I visited where Mexican migrants lived had a satellite dish installed on the roof. While some migrants pay for the satellite service, at other farms, such as the O’Reilly’s, the patrón foots the bill. In addition to television, I also met several migrants who purchased portable DVD players the size of small laptops to watch movies privately.

For migrants, Spanish language television is a means to reconnect with Mexico. News from Latin America and Mexico may keep them aware of current events in their home country. Soap operas, soccer, or movies on television takes the edge of the boredom of the farm by providing entertainment.

Whether in the kitchen, living room, or bedrooms, I also heard Mexican and Spanish language music playing almost continuously (and concurrently with the television) at the O’Reilly farmhouse. The two favorite genres in the farmhouse were the loud, rap-style dance tracks of reggaetón or the more traditional ranchera. The lyrics and style of reggaetón is aggressive, with highly produced songs such as rompe [break] and machete by the Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee. Much of the ranchera songs played in the farmhouse were ballads about lost love.

Unlike most other areas of the United States, Vermont has no Latino radio station, so music is played and shared via CD’s. Samuel, a reitero, sold CD’s door-to-door across Vermont as part of his business. Juan also gave me CD’s of music, such as the Mexican rock star Maná to copy at home on my computer and return to him. At his request I also made several CD’s for Juan of American pop music (Britney Spears was a favorite). Whenever I drove Juan anywhere off the farm, he would bring another CD of reggaetón or ranchera music for us to listen to.

Accessing media is a coping strategy to the isolation of Vermont because it provides distraction and entertainment. Unlike phone communication or remittances, music and television media do not involve maintaining specific relationships between people on the translocal level, but it does provide a means to engage the broader Mexican, U.S. Latino, or pan-American culture. The media accessed by Mexicans in Vermont consists of Spanish-language programming produced in any number of countries, including the United States. Media provides one example of how migration transforms identity, as migrants may identify with the growing sense of shared U.S. Latino imagined community (Mato 1998; Sanabria 2007: 342-344).


“When I walk in the house,” Antonio told me, “I feel like I’m in Mexico.” Referring to the reggaetón music, Spanish language television, and transnational phone conversations that form the ambiance of the O’Reilly farmhouse, Antonio’s description speaks to the importance of these translocal connections for migrants as they attempt to cope with the challenges of Vermont. Through remittances and phone conversations, migrants maintain translocal social fields spread across North America. Despite its geographic location in rural Vermont, television and music connects the O’Reilly farmhouse within the emerging U.S. Latino and pan-American Spanish speaking culture. The behaviors described in this chapter help migrants cope with unauthorized legal status, nativism, and the language barrier.


I first met Mexican dairy workers in Vermont at the monthly Spanish mass held in Coolidge. It was a crisp, clear Saturday in January 2007. As I drove towards Coolidge, the wind blew across the snowy fields and pulled the car towards the shoulder of the road. The white, wood frame Catholic church sat on the side of the two-lane highway in the center of town, lacking any ornamentation beyond a brown wooden cross at the roof’s peak. Coolidge, Vermont seemed the last Catholic parish in the United States where I would expect to hear a mass in Spanish.

Yet the mass had already begun when I sneaked in the side door and slid into a pew. Inside the church, a dozen rows of wooden pews, enough to seat forty people, faced an altar. Winter sunlight trickled into the dark nave through simple stained glass windows depicting New Testament scenes. The quintessential image of Mexican Catholicism, a portrait of the praying Virgen de Guadalupe was set up on an easel next to the pulpit. I thought of the ornately gilded churches I had visited in Mexico where I had last seen a picture of the Virgen; the stark, Catholic church in Coolidge was a far cry from the gilded baroque churches of Mexico. Across the aisle from me, four Mexican men my age sat together. In the cold church, the men wore winter clothes they must have found lying around the farm—old ski jackets and duck pants. Whispering and laughing among themselves, they paid only intermittent attention to the Anglo priest reciting verses of the Bible in halting Spanish. A dozen other Mexican men and two or three Mexican women sat slouched alone or in small groups in the back half of the rows, looking equally disengaged. As many Anglo Vermonters as Mexicans made up the congregation. The mostly middle-aged Anglos were bunched in the front, attentively listening to the priest give mass in a language I presumed most of them did not understand. Irma Valeriano, the Spanish Professor from the University of Vermont, was the only Mexican who sat in one of the first pews, and she was the only volunteer to read a verse in Spanish midway through mass. When the Eucharist was offered to the congregation, most of the Anglos, but only Professor Valeriano and one of the Mexican men, approached the alter to receive holy communion.

The empty pews and bored expressions in the church surprised me. From my experience of Catholic mass in Mexico and my readings about the importance of religion for Mexican migrants in the United States, I had expected the church to be full of devout Mexican Catholics excited to translocate an aspect of Mexican culture into Vermont (Dolan and Hinojosa 1994; Gonzales 1999: 241-244). I expected to find a scene similar to the one a Mexican-American friend at Dartmouth, Elizabeth Mendoza, had described to me of her own parish in Yakima, Washington: “In Yakima, the Catholic Church confirms the magnitude and presence of the Mexican community; Sunday mornings about half of the masses are in Spanish and packed to the brim.” At the very least, I expected a congregation that was more energized than the funeral-like atmosphere I found in Coolidge.

The Spanish mass in Coolidge illustrates the limited role of the local migrant dairy worker community in Addison County. In many other parts of the Untied States, churches, schools, restaurants, and stores that cater to Mexicans provide support to migrants on the local level (Ruíz 1998: 33-50 [citation must be expanded]). In comparison, coping strategies based on local community have a diminished role for Mexican dairy workers in Addison County.

The secondary importance of the local sphere is, at least in part, explained by the isolation of migrants on the dairies. For migrants, the practical distance between dairies, stores, and churches in Addison County far exceeds the geographic distance. Without reliable access to transportation, family members who work just a few miles away from each other rarely meet in person. Contact between kin working on dairy farms across Vermont is often limited to phone conversations more typical of translocal communication rather than the face-to-face interactions that usually constitute local social life. The difficulty migrants have in coming together, at church or elsewhere, impedes the formation of a local migrant community and limits the importance of local coping strategies.

Nonetheless, relationships among migrants and with Anglos in the local Vermont sphere do provide some support to migrants. Interethnic brokers help migrates mediate their relationships with Anglos. For new migrants, relationships with veteran migrants are critical, as veterans often provide housing, funding, and help with the job search. The occasional visits of the Mexican consulate to give migrants identification is another opportunity for Mexicans to come together on the local level. This chapter describes the limited ways in which Mexicans use local relationships to adapt to the challenges of life in Addison County. At the end of this chapter, I reconsider what factors explain the limited importance of the local community.


Following Wolf (1956), I define brokers as individuals who mediate interethnic interaction. In order to act as what Wolf calls “crucial junctures or synapses”, brokers must be fluent in the culture of both ethnic groups involved (1956: 1075). Brokers accrue power and sometimes wealth by bridging a cultural gap, but their gains depend on maintaining that gap. If the groups find a way to interact directly, brokers lose their advantage and becomes obsolete. As Wolf explains, the position is both profitable and dangerous, as both groups can accuse brokers of exploitation and retaliate against them: “The position of these ‘brokers’ is an ‘exposed’ one, since, Janus-like, they face in two directions at once” (1956: 1076).

In Addison County, some brokers such as reiteros, language teachers, professors, and students mediate between Mexican dairy workers and Anglos through Spanish-English translation. Translators are especially important as brokers because bilingualism is rare in Addison County among migrants and non-migrants. Few Mexican dairy workers understood more than a few English phrases, and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1% of Vermonters speak Spanish at home, the lowest of any state in the country. Public schools in Vermont have focused on teaching rudimentary French rather than Spanish because of the state’s border with French-speaking Québec (U.S. Census Bureau: 2006). Veteran Mexican dairy workers act as a different type of broker than the translators by explaining dairy work to new migrants. By providing Mexicans with passports and matricula consulares, the Mexican consulate is a third type of broker that attempts to mediate the interactions between migrants and the U.S. nation-state.

Acting within the local sphere of Addison County, reiteros provide services that help migrants cope with the challenges they face, often by brokering between Anglos and Mexican migrants. As discussed in chapter three, reiteros help migrants counteract their isolation by providing them with rides to arrive in Vermont, meet friends at other dairies, or go shopping. Reiteros also bring consumer services to the dairies themselves by selling food, phone cards, and CD’s door-to-door. There are no Mexican mercardos in Addison County, so reiteros bring in tortillas from New York City. For a fee, reiteros also provide employment services to patrones and migrants. Recently arrived migrants, or veteran migrants looking for a new job, use reiteros to find work, and patrones contact reiteros when they need new workers. All these services come at a high cost. Many reiteros exploit the vulnerability of migrants perceived or actual unauthorized status to extort high fees.

In the course of my fieldwork, I heard of four reiteros in Addison County, and interviewed one, Samuel. All four reiteros were bilingual to varying extent, and three of them were Latino. Samuel, who was born in Mexico, attempted to distinguish himself from other Mexican migrants by referring to himself as American. As I interviewed him in the O’Reilly kitchen with several Mexican dairy workers present, he repeatedly code-switched between English and Spanish as he spoke with me and referred to himself as an American rather than Mexican. By identifying himself as American and speaking with me in English, Samuel attempted to indicate to the migrant dairy workers present that he had status as a member of the imagined community of the U.S. Samuel’s self-identification shows how brokers in Addison County must maintain the perception that they have a special ability to bridge the cultural gap between Anglos and Mexicans.

Both Anglos and Mexicans accuse brokers of taking advantage of their position in morally questionable ways. Complaining about their high fees, Juan called reiteros people “who are dedicated to screwing their fellow Mexicans.” Two Anglos separately accused one reitera of selling drugs and prostitutes in their interviews with me. These commentaries suggest that although they wield significant power, reiteros are vulnerable to retaliation from both Anglos and Mexicans.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page