Exhibit looks at the lives of Mexican farm workers in Vermont

09/23/08 2:48PM By John Dillon
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Caleb Kenna
(Host) For several years now, a cornerstone of Vermont's economy has relied on a workforce that lives in the shadows.

About 2,000 Mexicans are employed on the state's dairy farmers. Many are here without proper documentation, and they live in constant fear of arrest and deportation.

A new exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury shines light on this once-hidden segment of our society. The organizers hope the public will learn more about the lives of the Mexicans - and the connections they've made with Vermont.

VPR's John Dillon has this report on the exhibit.

(Dillon) The exhibit is called The Golden Cage - it's a reference to a Mexican song about life in the United States. "I'm in a golden cage," the song goes, "but I'm still a prisoner."

The Folklife Center show is a celebration of Mexicans in Vermont - an attempt to break open that cage.

(Jerry Connor) "And I think that's what we need around here, because the poor Mexicans are in hiding all the time. And we need to get them out in the open and have them not so fearful of getting arrested. And they need to be able to go places."

(Dillon) Jerry Connor is an Addison County dairy farmer who stopped by last week to catch the opening of the show. He's a tall man with a cowboy hat and his jean jacket bears the name of his farm. Connor employs Hispanic farmworkers, and he says he couldn't run his farm without them.

(Connor) "And I think it's been a shame the way this country treats these immigrants, because we all came from immigrants. And all they're doing is working. We don't have bad ones. They all came up here to do a job that nobody else around here will do."

(Dillon) The exhibit uses both images and audio recordings to illustrate the farmworkers' lives. Large color photographs by Brandon resident Caleb Kenna show Vermonter farmers working side by side with their Hispanic employees.

One striking picture captures the red glow of a setting sun reflected in the faces of two workers. One wears a Tee shirt that says "Proud American."

The pictures show the flat ground and broad fields of Addison County, but the stories of the inter-relationship between farmer and worker, of undocumented people living in fear of arrest, could be from any farm community in the country.

In audio recordings that accompany the photos, workers speak about the loneliness and isolation in Vermont. One farmhand talks about the long journey north.

(Mexican) (In Spanish) ... "When I crossed in the desert, I saw two, two bodies, two dead people. There are thousands that have stayed there. How do I tell you? They don't finish, they don't make their dream of arriving to the United States."

(Dillon) He says that when he walked across the Arizona desert, he saw two people who died trying to make the journey. He said they didn't reach their dream of making it to the U-S.

Like the workers, the farmers interviewed are also anonymous. Many are nervous about using a workforce that may be here illegally. One speaks frankly about the language barrier.

(Farmer) "The hard part of having Hispanics, especially the ones that don't speak or understand any English is that I can really butcher Spanish... You can show somebody how to run a shovel, you can show somebody how to milk a cow. You cannot explain to somebody why you need to clean to prevent bacteria because you cannot show bacteria."

(Dillon) Another farmer talks about his growing frustration with trying to find Vermonters to do the demanding job of milking cows. He says he was at first reluctant to hire foreign workers. He was worried about trying to communicate, and didn't know where the employees would live.

(FarmerWorker) "And it's been after that first initial six months all the fears went away until one Sunday night I think it was late in September we came home from church and the barn lights weren't on, and it's like hmm, no lights in the house, no lights in the barn, I thought maybe they overslept. I got a phone call about 20 minutes later from St. Albans Correctional, said ` ah, you need to milk the cows because we're in jail.' INS had been to the house, opened the door, walked in and took the guys right out of the house."

(Dillon) The interviews were conducted by Chris Urban. A few years out of college, Urban came to know the workers and the farmers through his job as a teacher for the Migrant Education Program.

He also became involved in the community, organizing pick up soccer games with his students, and volunteering with the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition. The coalition has provided support for the Mexicans - everything from setting up a health clinic to organizing a regular Catholic mass in Bridport.

So after he left the teaching job, Urban decided he needed to do more to tell their story.

(Urban) "It's been an interesting personal journey, teaching the migrant workers and working with the farmers -- that's sort of the internal work. They've shared a lot of information and stories and emotions with me and I've collected that for three years. And now it's sort of the external and sharing that information because it's been meaningful to me, and because I think we have a lot to learn from these people."

(Dillon) Urban says the farmers and immigrants have something in common besides their shared workplace. He says they are ordinary people living extraordinary lives, overcoming adversity in order to survive.

(Urban) "If you listen to the interviews a lot of these people are fathers or sons or mothers just trying to provide for their families. And I hope that the public can see these people first as who they are, as fathers or mothers, and not as an undocumented worker or as a farmer committing a crime or supposedly exploiting."

(Dillon) The exhibit at the Folklife Center is a public display of the worker's role in Vermont's Vermont signature dairy industry.

In a sense, the immigrants have come out of hiding. That's welcome news for Herman Murguia Mier, an official with the Mexican consulate in Boston.

(Mier) "I think it's a great effort to show something that is a reality in the state of Vermont, and something that maybe the importance of this is to show to others what is happening in the state of Vermont.. It could be different opinions, but at least to know the different views of this -- that's important to know."

(Dillon) Mier says one sign of changing attitudes is that in Middlebury, the Police Department has decided not to turn over Mexicans to federal immigration authorities unless they've committed a crime. The state police also may be re-assessing its obligation to pursue immigration issues.

But the workers still live hidden lives. One immigrant worker at the Folklife exhibit carefully studied the photos on the wall. But she did not want to give her name.

Susannah McCandless - an organizer with the Migrant Labor coalition - helped interpret. The woman said her biggest fear is getting caught and deported by federal authorities.

(WomanWorker) (In Spanish with English translation) "It's quite difficult because we really can't go anywhere unless our bosses take us, let's say to the store, to buy groceries, or to an event.. Otherwise we're really stuck on the farm."

(Dillon) The woman said she hoped the exhibit would educate the public and perhaps change some minds.

(WomanWorker) (In Spanish with translation) " I think that if they still have any small. soft place in their heart that this exhibit might help them understand the situation of the Mexican workers and induce them to do something to help."

(Dillon) The Golden Cage exhibit is on display at the Folklife Center through December 18 th.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Middlebury.

Photo: Caleb Kenna, Courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center

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