Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college

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Both Mexicans and Anglos attempt to cope with the language barrier by learning the basics of English or Spanish. Migrants under the age of twenty-one are eligible to receive free English classes by the Vermont Department of Education. Department of Education ESL teachers, such as Chris Urban visit migrants in their homes to teach them English, focusing on dairy vocabulary. The Vermont Department of Agriculture has also organized Spanish classes for Anglo dairy owners in St. Albans and Middlebury that focused on farm vocabulary (Hemingway 2007e). In addition, both migrants and dairy workers use books, CD’s, and newspapers to educate themselves.

Outside of their official role, Department of Education ESL teachers often help Mexicans and Anglos cope with the language barrier by translating. One afternoon I sat in on a lesson Chris taught in the kitchen at the O’Reilly farmhouse to Juan and another young migrant. As we played lotto with English words for farm vocabulary, George drove up to the farmhouse in his pick-up truck and walked into the kitchen. Exasperated, he asked Chris to tell the migrants they needed to put their trash in the dumpster next to the milking barn everyday. After Chris translated, George stared at Juan with his penetrating blue eyes. It was a tense moment, and suddenly, everyone started to laugh. It was nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless, and the tension in the room dissipated. George went back out to his truck. Chris thrived in the broker role; as a young, bilingual, Anglo, native Vermonter who was already familiar with dairying, he seemed to garner the respect of both patrones and migrants.

Chris told me that he did a “considerable” amount of volunteer translation outside of his role as an ESL teacher to support what he called “the basic survival needs” of migrants. He translated in health care situations, in the milking barn, and over the phone. He explained that many of the translations were similar to the incident I witnessed at the O’Reilly dairy because they involved explaining misunderstandings or mediating conflict resolution.


Several professors and students in the local sphere from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont assist migrants in coping with the effects of their perceived or actual unauthorized status, nativism, and the language barrier. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Irma Valeriano regularly helps migrants buy plane tickets to return to Mexican and explains to them how to negotiate air travel. She is also one of the organizers of the Spanish mass in Coolidge. During 2007 and early 2008, a group of University of Vermont medical students also ran a series of public health workshops after the monthly Spanish masses, but the project has ended.

At least one student from Middlebury College has been asked to help translate on the dairies, and Middlebury students now regularly volunteer at a free clinic in the town of Middlebury where migrants receive medical care. My own limited ability to help Anglos and Mexicans by translating or giving rides helped me initially gain access to the dairies and develop rapport with both groups. I first visited the milking barn at the O’Reilly dairy to help George teach Gabriel how to identify cows with mastitis and manage the milking machines to maximize speed. Although I doubt that I translated anything Gabriel did not already know, the help was valuable enough to George that he tried to pay me.

At the lunches that follow the monthly Spanish language mass in Coolidge, I would help broker the purchase of phone cards to migrants from a patrón who bought the cards in bulk. At the request of a patrón, I once even helped a migrant fill out parts of an Internal Revenue Services form in English after lunch. I left much of the form blank, since the migrant had no social security number because he was unauthorized.

Much of the translation I did was over the phone. Migrants called me on behalf of kin who had recently arrived to Vermont and were looking for work. I would copy down the number and name of an Anglo farmer they were wondering about and call him to ask if he had work available. I tried to ease any anxiety the patrón might have speaking with a total stranger about unauthorized labor by mentioning casually that “I met the Mexican at the church in Coolidge.” The few times I asked for work on behalf of migrants in this way, the patrón had already filled the position, and I called the migrant back only to pass on the disappointing news.

Mexican dairy workers often offered to pay for the rides I gave them to other farms, stores, or medical appointments. As we would say goodbye in the driveways of mobile homes and farmhouses, some migrants would always ask me several times if I was sure I did not want money for gas. Like the reiteros, I provided rides, translations, and the occasional assistance looking for jobs, but, at least for myself, I could distinguish myself from the reiteros by refusing to accept money.


New migrants depended on veteran migrants to establish themselves when they first arrive in Addison County. Migrants I spoke with did not arrive in Vermont at random, but came because they already knew someone working on a dairy in the area. I classify the support new migrants receive as a local rather than a translocal coping strategy because veteran and new migrants are both located in Vermont, even if they knew each other previously from Mexico or other parts of the United States. The assistance Emilio received from veteran migrants, which he described to me just a few days after his arrival in Addison County, is typical.

La Reitera brought us to the house. The father of the two guys who came with me in the minivan [to Vermont from New York] lived there,” Emilio told me, sitting in an old chair in the O’Reilly farmhouse.

“These guys’ dad was the brother of my cuñado [brother-in-law], ” he explained. Emilio’s cuñado had fronted him the three hundred and fifty dollars to pay the reitera for the ride from New York. “This man talked to my cuñado [on the phone].‘Your cuñado is here,’ he said.”

“‘Yah?’ my cuñado asked, “I’ll come and get him.”

“We arrived [from New York] at about one in the morning,” Emilio continued. “We slept, ate, and, at about two in the afternoon, my cuñado arrived with the patrón who he worked for.”

“They brought me to the trailer where my cuñado lives with two other guys. They let me stay there for two days…,” Emilio explained. Over these two days, his cuñado taught him the basics of milking.

“Later, I don’t know, I think the patrón [that my cuñado worked for] knew the patrón [George]. He knew [George] was hiring, and this señor spoke with la patrona [Kathryn]. The patrona called us and asked if it was true that there was…” Emilio hesitated and smiled as he searched for a way to describe his own status as a migrant, “an undocumented Mexican without work.”

“My cuñado told her, ‘yes, he just got here, but he is looking for work and is ready to start.’ The patrona said she would come and look for me Saturday.”

“On Saturday at about two in the afternoon, she came and picked me up… and when I got to the farm she brought me to meet the patrón.

“‘This is the patrón.’ she said.”

“‘Ohh,’ I said.” Emilio looked up at the ceiling of the farmhouse wide-eyed, indicating to me how tall George had seemed to him.

“The patrón began to laugh and said, ‘George grandisimo. Emilio pocito!’”

“The patrona told me he was good guy. She brought me to the farmhouse and introduced me to Gabriel and Juan.”

Emilio’s experience illustrates the importance of already established kin in facilitating new migrants’ arrival. Potential migrants are more likely to come to Addison County if they have connections with an established migrant in Vermont through a shared translocal social field. Veteran migrants provide housing for new migrants and finance travel by lending new migrants money to pay polleros and reiteros. They can also act as brokers to dairy work, explaining the tasks new migrants need to learn. This “network effect,” the increased probability that kin of migrants will migrate themselves, is typical of migration patterns in the United States and across the world (Bashi 2007; Levy and Wadycki 1973; Massey and Espinosa 1999: 106).

Veteran migrants assist newcomers in part out of an obligation to reciprocate for the help they themselves received as new migrants. For example, Juan’s kin clothed and housed him when he first arrived in Georgia from Tabasco, and a relative who had already worked in Vermont helped him migrate to Coolidge from Georgia. Now a veteran migrant himself, Juan has hosted several new migrants at the O’Reilly farmhouse. Juan’s willingness to sacrifice for new migrants affirms his membership in a translocal social field. Juan is a “node,” a well-established, veteran migrant who gains prestige by facilitating the migration of other members of a translocal social field (Bashi 2007; Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004: 1009).

The assistance new migrants receive, and then, if they find success over time, give back to other newcomers, produces a convention of reciprocity (Bashi 2007: 97-108). xxxi Emilio’s cuñado may call on Emilio or other members of their shared social field for favors in the future. Assisting new migrants is thus a coping strategy for both new and veteran migrants. New migrants get help on arrival in Vermont; veteran migrants may point to their generosity to receive assistance themselves when circumstances change and new challenges emerge.xxxii

Despite the empty pews and bored expressions I witnessed during my first visit to the Catholic Church in Coolidge, the monthly mass in Spanish does provide some reprieve from the monotony of the daily grind for migrants who are able to attend. Although the Catholic Church is a translocal organization, I classify religion as a local adaptation to Vermont because it connects people living in the local sphere, not the translocal sphere.xxxiii

On the day I first visited the church, the mass ended with a rite of peace. Mexicans and Anglos shook hands or hugged while smiling and whispering, “paz” to one another. The four men in the back pew reached over each other to shake my hand. We then filed slowly down the aisle, shaking the priest’s hand on the way out the door. Outside, drivers passing by turned their heads to look at our mixed crowd of Mexicans and Anglos. Immediately following the mass, a free lunch is served in the parish hall across the street, providing migrants with an opportunity to socialize. A group of elderly Anglo women wearing aprons greeted us at the door with smiles and “hellos” in English. Several local churches rotate cooking meals for the lunch. A combination Mexican and American fare was laid out on a long table, tortillas, beans, shredded beef, lasagna, and brownies. The priest made his way into the room and gave a blessing in Spanish and then in English, thanking the cooks for preparing the food. The Mexicans stood together on one side of the room, reluctant to serve themselves. To persuade the men to help themselves to the food Irma Valeriano and Kathryn O’Reilly invited them to eat and guided them to the serving table.

Many of the migrants took their paper plates of food and sat alone eating silently. Others sat in groups, chatting. Most of the Anglos sat next to or across from a group of Mexicans, but had no way to communicate with them. As we sat at the tables and ate, a large, Anglo woman, whom I would learn later is a reitera, yelled at the Mexicans, demanding that they announce to the cooks and other Anglos present their name, age and home state. Some migrants clearly did not want to introduce themselves, but mumbled out the information anyway, following the reitera’s order. Juan later described this woman as “racist and bad-tempered.”

Soon after the meal, the patrones began to bring migrants back to the farms for the afternoon milking shift. The Anglo women came out from the adjacent kitchen and wiped down the tables as the Mexicans gathered near the door to wait for rides back to the farms. The cooks brought some of the migrants tupperware containers filled with leftovers to bring home. A few minutes later, the Mexicans had left, and the event was over.

The monthly mass in Coolidge provides migrants the opportunity to participate in a familiar religious ritual and socialize with each other. Juan explained to me that he liked to attend mass because “you get to meet people there. Sometimes, you have a friend from back there, from where we live [Mexico], and you go to the mass and suddenly you see them.” Coming together at church relieves some of the boredom and loneliness migrants must confront in Vermont, but it is only a secondary means of coping with these challenges.

When I began my fieldwork, I expected the Catholic Church to be the backbone institution of an emerging local Mexican community, but I found the church plays a minor role in migrants’ lives. The Catholic church in Coolidge remains peripheral in the lives of Mexican migrants because Mexicans come to the mass, but Anglos control it. The diffidence of Mexicans at the church and parish hall suggests they still consider themselves guests in these spaces. The gatherings at the Catholic church are organized in part by the Addison County Migrant Coalition, a group of concerned social service professionals that aim to support Mexican migrants but which has no migrant members. An Anglo migrant coalition organizes the gathering, an Anglo priest leads the mass, and Anglos cook the food. Without the efforts of Anglos, the mass would not exist; the gathering exemplifies local Anglo efforts at charity more than local Mexican efforts at building community.

The importance of churches as supportive social organizations for migrants in other parts of the United States suggest that the Catholic church in Coolidge may emerge as an important local coping strategy for migrants in Vermont. However, the church will not become important to Mexicans until Mexicans themselves become the leaders of the church gatherings. This process is already occurring at other Vermont churches. One Sunday in August 2007, I visited a Pentecostal service for Mexican migrants in another Vermont town. Although there was an English speaking service going on simultaneously in another room, the Spanish service had its autonomy. Two Latina women who were not dairy workers lead the service with songs, Bible readings, and allegorical personal histories. The room was crowded, and members of the congregation also volunteered to recite Bible passages. Professor Valeriano believes these Pentecostal services have been attracting parishioners away from Catholic masses. Unlike the Catholic mass in Coolidge, I was the only Anglo present. The monthly mass in Coolidge remains a minor means for migrants to cope with life in Vermont, but could play a much more important role as Mexicans themselves take control of their own pastoral care.


The Mexican Consulate of Boston visits Addison County at least once a year to provide Mexicans with passports and matricula consular photo identification cards. A Mexican passport allows unauthorized migrants to fly home to Mexico, even though they do not have legal permission to be in the United States. The matricula consular is a photo identification that includes a migrant’s local address in the United States. In part, the matricula consular is designed to protect migrants from deportation by providing law enforcement with evidence that they have no criminal record in Mexico and have a local residence. Through the consulate services, the Mexican government attempts to act as broker by mediating the interactions between Mexican migrants and the U.S. nation-state by easing the nativist discrimination migrants face in the United States.

Passports and matricula consular cards do help migrants cope with life in Addison County. The Middlebury Police Department recognizes the matricula consular as a valid form of identification. Hannafords in Middlebury also accepted the matricula consular as identification for migrants to buy alcohol. Irma Valeriano reported that dozens of unauthorized migrants had returned to Mexico from Burlington without incident using their Mexican passports.

I attended the Mexican Consulate visit to the Coolidge Elementary School on a Saturday in May 2007 to issue documents. About a dozen Mexican consulate officials set up computers, fingerprint scanners, and cameras in the school gym. The Migrant Coalition provided an extensive spread of donuts, coffee, orange juice, and milk. When I arrived at ten in the morning with several migrants who had asked me for a ride, there were at least thirty Mexicans and ten Anglos in the gym; it was the largest gathering of Mexicans I have witnessed in Vermont. The pressed shirts and light skin of the consulate officials seemed to shift the control of the space from the well-intentioned Anglo supporters to the Mexicans themselves. The presence of the consulate officials boosted the confidence of the Mexican dairy workers, creating a different atmosphere from the mass in Coolidge. Groups of men spoke and laughed with each other as they stood in line, and a toddler ran freely around the gym as her mother spoke with a consulate official. Unlike the lunches at the church in Coolidge, the gym was a place where migrants felt comfortable to socialize with one another on the local sphere, if only for a few hours. As with translocal phone calls, the opportunity to speak with other Mexicans counteracts the isolation of living on a Vermont dairy. Migrants seemed truly happy to be there, unlike the mood I have often observed at the mass in Coolidge.

As Irma Valeriano explained, the visit of the Mexican consulates created a Mexican controlled space and also suggested how migration itself sometimes reduces the importance of class and ethnic differences that would separate the consulate staff and the dairy workers:
When in the presence of our paisanos [compatriots], we feel more ourselves. At ease, protected, self-reassured, relaxed, almost at home. This feeling happens to me even after so many years in Vermont with papers, so it is easy to imagine what it is like for them [unauthorized dairy workers]… [The consulate staff] are whiter, less indigenous-like, but language and gestures, common “signs of identity” erase the color and physical differences between [the consulate staff and the workers].
The mobile consulate creates, however transiently, a place where migrants no longer feel they are constantly battling the effects of their foreignness, and it unites Mexicans as paisanos, regardless of the different identities that might be accentuated in Mexico. By providing services that help Mexicans cope with nativist discrimination, the mobile consult visits are an attempt by the Mexican nation-state to maintain migrants’ membership in a Mexican imagined community, and the remittances associated with such membership (Goldring 2003: 345-346).

Coping strategies for migrants in the local sphere are limited in importance. Migrants use brokers such as reiteros and ESL teachers to manage the language barrier, but these brokers are not present during the daily grind of the milking shifts. For the most part, patrones and Mexican workers are left alone to struggle to communicate. Although new migrants depend on veteran migrants when they first arrive in Addison County, migrants have little opportunity to come together and socialize because of their isolation. The rare local social gatherings at religious services and mobile consular visits seem less important as coping strategies than translocal means of socializing.

As I discussed in the introduction of this chapter, the local migrant community in has a diminished role in part because migrants are isolated on farms and lack the transportation they need to congregate. In addition, the lack of women in the Mexican dairy worker population partly explains the limited role of local community. Among Mexican migrants, women tend to be central in the development of a local migrant community by organizing social visiting between families, cooking, and leading educational, religious, and school-based organizations (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 175-185; Pessar 2003: 29-31). When migrants do come together in Addison County at the Catholic or Pentecostal churches, it is still women, although women from outside of the community, such as Professor Valeriano or Kathryn O’Reilly, who lead the gatherings.

A second factor that explains the marginal role of the local community is the continued Anglo control over migrant gathering places. Even when migrants come for Spanish mass at the Catholic church in Coolidge, they have not adopted the mass as their own, perhaps because they are unwilling to challenge the Anglos who organize the event on their behalf. Migrants are reluctant to assert ownership over their own church service because they have been reduced into braceros. Only the presence of the Mexican consulate seemed to break the timidity of the Mexican dairy workers in public.

Given the marginalization of migrants into braceros, I wonder if individuals like Juan, a young, successful, veteran migrant whom newcomers depend on when they arrive in the state, could emerge as leaders of a local Mexican community. Will migrants be given the space to develop their own local churches and organizations, or will they continue to be an underclass offered the occasional charity by Anglo Vermonters? The answer to this question depends on the willingness of Vermont Anglos, and especially dairy farmers, to push for measures that give migrants the space to emerge from bracero status. One such measure has already been enacted. On September 12th, 2007 the Middlebury Police Department put in place a policy of accepting the matricula consular as valid identification and reporting unauthorized migrants to ICE only when criminal activity is suspected. Such policies may reduce the inhibitions migrants feel in congregating and organizing locally. Nonetheless, the barriers are still great. A few weeks later, I asked a migrant living in Coolidge if he had heard about the new Middlebury policy. He had not. When I tried to explain that he could visit the stores in Middlebury without worrying about immigration, he nodded, but said nothing further. I remain pessimistic that he understood my unreliable Spanish, or if he did, whether he believed me.


Entiende lo que dice nada más por parte, y si no por sena. Ya no queda ni otro. [One only understand parts of what he says, and if not, through signs. There is no other alternative.]
From the porch, I watched Juan and Emilio walk onto the bumpy field that separates the house from the milking barn. From a loop of twine, a pair of old tennis shoes, and a few wooden stakes, they fashioned two goals one hundred meters apart, transforming the uneven field into a fútbol pitch. I dribbled a soft soccer ball down the steps of the porch and onto the field.

We played barefoot in the August evening; Juan and I matched against Miguel and Emilio. The three Mexicans played in bursts, walking one moment, and then in the next instantly exploding with powerful speed to chase down a ball. Juan played an especially physical game, using his body to push me out of the way as we fought over the deflated ball.

A few goals into the game, I saw George’s pick-up turning into the dirt driveway. George waved to us as he drove by the field and parked the pick-up truck in front of the barn. A blue sedan followed closely behind, and a young Anglo couple and a kindergarten-age child got out of the car and followed George and his German Shepard into the milking barn. Juan explained in between goals that the man was the patrón’s son-in-law, and the child was his grandson.

After only a few minutes, I was gasping breath and my bare feet ached, but Juan, Emilio, and Miguel showed little sign of fatigue. I turned towards the milking barn again and saw the kindergarten-age boy peeking his head out of the barn doorway, watching us. Juan turned to look at him too, calling the boy’s name. Knowing he had been spotted, the child darted back into the barn, and Juan laughed.

We played on for another few points before Juan and I admitted defeat and collapsed on the grass. George and his family soon left the barn, waving again as they drove away. Juan, Emilio, Miguel and I sat and talked in a circle as the sun disappeared behind the blue-green Adirondack Mountains. “Right now it feels as cold as Mexico in December, man!” Juan complained.

As he lay in the grass, Emilio grabbed the gray barn cat that had been wandering closer to us and shoved him into his lap. They took good care of the cat, buying him Friskies brand food at the grocery store and searching for him whenever he was lost for more than a few hours.

“My mom in Mexico has a cat,” Miguel said.” When he sees me with my slingshot…” Miguel imitated the cat’s cry, “Ayy!”

“Son of a bitch, he’s a cat killer!” Juan laughed.

The cat escaped from Emilio’s grip, and Emilio called after him, “Gringo!”

“He is not going to come,” Juan said. The cat meowed, eyed Emilio wearily, and kept his distance.

“One time, my dad had a twenty-two,” Miguel continued. “He shot the cat, and he had to sell the rifle. They asked him why he was selling it and he told them, ‘It’s because I shot our cat!’”

“It’s bad to kill cats… except for the stupid ones that eat chickens,” Juan replied. The men continued telling stories from Mexico as the crickets chirped around us and the light faded. The lingering sweat from the game made us cold, so we walked backed to the farmhouse to make dinner, watch television, and talk on the phone.

Futból and the after game conversation gave the men the chance to relax and joke at the end of a busy summer day on the dairy. Futból is one of several ways that migrants cope with the daily grind within the superlocal sphere of the O’Reilly dairy. This chapter examines futból, humor, alcohol, and various means of managing the language barrier as superlocal coping strategies, which involve only the Mexican migrants and Anglos on a single dairy. The fear of deportation and the limited access to transportation mean that migrants spend the vast majority of their time on the dairies with the same Anglo and Mexican workers within the superlocal sphere. The intensity of isolation forces migrants to find ways to cope with conflict because tensions between individuals cannot be relieved simply by taking a break from one another.

Futból, the national sport of Mexico, is a diversion from the boredom, loneliness, fear, and conflict migrants must face on the O’Reilly farm.xxxiv As described above, the game creates the context for migrants to joke and reminisce about Mexico with each other. Chris Urban was especially adamant about the importance of futból for the young men who worked on dairies in Addison County. “These are young people you are talking about,” he said. “You got to play.” Futból also provided a means for social interaction between the Mexicans worker and the Anglo family of the patrón on the O’Reilly farm.

One evening, I found two of the patrón’s grandchildren kicking the soccer ball around with Emilio and Juan. I recognized the younger child as the boy who had previously watched our game from the barn, and he was accompanied by his middle school age sister. Their father’s blue car was parked in front of the milking barn, but he was hidden inside. As a more formal futból game began, Emilio asked me to translate to the boy that he was too young to play. As I explained this to him, his mouth fell open in obvious disappointment. Emilio and Juan allowed his older sister to play goalie. The Mexican men each bet twenty-five dollars on the game, and Juan offered up an extra twenty-five dollars on behalf of the girl. When her team won the game, the patrón's granddaughter hurriedly pocketed the fifty dollars Juan gave her. She saw her brother watching her. “Don’t tell Dad!” she whispered, warning him.

The brief participation of the children in the futból game suggested the potential the sport has in bringing together Anglos and Mexicans. Although it is not a traditional sport in Vermont, soccer is popular with younger people. A shared enjoyment of the game might curtail some of the distrust between Anglos and Mexicans on the superlocal and local level. The interaction between the Mexican men and Anglo children also hints at the complexity of relationships between Mexicans and Anglos on the dairy. Despite their status as braceros, migrants at the O’Reilly farm were trusted by an Anglo—if only momentarily—with the most sensitive and human of tasks, the supervision of children.

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