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A Vermont Folklife Center exhibit gives critical exposure to the state's Mexican migrant workers


Published September 10, 2008 at 5:56 a.m.


About three years ago, Chris Urban bought a notepad at a Middlebury stationer. He was preparing to teach English for the Vermont Migrant Education Program, and his "students" were among the 2500 Mexican nationals living on Vermont dairy farms.

Partly because the Mexican workers hardly ever leave their places of employment, Urban became a de facto confidant. Often they asked him, "Why can't I go to the store?" Urban, 26, jotted their concerns on his pad, though for what purpose he wasn't sure. He also wrote poems about the workers and read them at local coffeehouses. But all along, he had something bigger in mind.

About a year into his migrant-education job, Urban took a daylong ethnography workshop at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Gregory Sharrow, the center's director of education, liked Urban's idea for an exhibit that would encompass both Vermont's Mexican farm workers - the majority of whom are undocumented - and the cash-strapped farmers who depend on them for a livelihood. A few months later, Urban met Brandon-based freelance photographer Caleb Kenna, and a documentary project was born.

Two years in the making, "The Golden Cage" - its title comes from an eponymous 1986 song by the California band Los Tigres Del Norte - will appear through December 18 in the VFC's Vision & Voice Documen-tary Workspace. While bilingual listening stations playing Urban's interviews with workers and farmers were not yet installed as of this writing, Kenna's 25 untitled color photographs are on view. The photos, accompanied by anonymous quotations, offer sobering glimpses of Vermont's iconic $342-million-per-year dairy industry (that figure comes from 2002 USDA census data).

The show's most startling image shows a Mexican woman standing in a sunny milking barn, her back turned away from a cow. A closer look at the 2-by-3-foot frame reveals that the woman's infant son is resting in a pink-and-green mosquito net suspended from the ceiling. "That's the way things are," reads one of several captions attributed to farm workers. "You are trapped, from the house to work, unless you have your papers in order."

Kenna also trained a sensitive eye on local dairymen (and one dairywoman), many of whom seem almost as ambivalent about an "illegal" working relationship as do their Spanish-speaking counterparts. In another 2-by-3-foot portrait, for instance, it's not clear whether a silhouetted farmer is smiling or brooding under his baseball cap. ("It's uncomfortable to me as an American citizen," reads a caption, "to have to feel that I'm doing something wrong.") In another portrait, Kenna metaphorically imprisons a farmer by placing him - not a nearby worker - behind the protective cage of a small tractor.

Such images could have emerged only from trusting relationships with his subjects, Urban explains on a recent afternoon in a Vergennes café. "Both the farmers and the Mexicans spilled their guts," says the wiry, blue-eyed teacher, "and I'm so moved that I feel other people need to hear and see what they say."

Gregory Sharrow suggests that "The Golden Cage" reflects the center's overarching interest in "seeing the world through other people's eyes." Last school year, a VFC video associate helped disabled children address stereotypes through filmmaking. Earlier in 2008, Ned Castle's mixed-media exhibit "In Their Own Words" (now at the Flynn Center's Amy E. Tarrant Gallery) offered an ethnographic perspective on several Burlington-area refugee groups.

"Chris isn't an ethnographer, anthropologist or folklorist, but he's thinking about this experience culturally," notes Sharrow, a folklorist who researched Vermont farm life for his dissertation in the 1980s. "I'm just delighted that this work is being done, and that it's being done so thoughtfully, intelligently, passionately and responsibly."

Cheryl Mitchell, co-convener of the Middlebury-based Addison County Farm Workers Coalition, seconds Sharrow's praise for "The Golden Cage." Because Mexican workers are periodically deported from Vermont farms, her grassroots advocacy group used to resist efforts to publicize them, Mitchell recalls. But, she says, Urban helped coalition members realize that responsible exposure can tear down "systemic barriers" to change. "Until stories are told openly and until people understand," Mitchell asserts, "the compassion and the wisdom of the public won't come into play and change policy."

As public awareness of Mexican migrants has increased over the last four years, local activists, students and health-care workers have responded. In Addison County, an "open-door" clinic offers free medical services to farmers and workers; Spanish-speaking Middlebury College students donate translation services; and a local church holds a regular Spanish-language mass. Mitchell reports that similar local initiatives are catching on in Franklin and Washington counties.

That local energy appears to be inspiring state-level action. In 2007, Addison County Democrats Claire Ayer and Harold Giard sponsored S.90, a bill that would establish a citizenship-blind public-health program for agricultural and food-service workers. (The bill is still in committee.) Around the same time, the group People of Addison County Together sponsored a Department of Health survey of migrant farm workers living in Franklin, Addison and Grand Isle counties. (The workers suffer from skin ailments, repetitive-stress injuries and gastrointestinal ailments, according to the report, but lack of insurance and access to transportation, as well as a fear of apprehension by federal authorities, pose "barriers to [their] care.")

Urban, who says he would support legislation creating a formal legalization process for Mexican workers, hopes that "The Golden Cage" inspires a fresh series of statewide forums. Members of Mitchell's farm-worker advocacy group will attend the September 19, Vermont Folklife Center opening, and several state lawmakers have been invited. But Urban maintains that the exhibit isn't "political." He sees it more as an opportunity to put a "human face on an issue that is largely overshadowed by laws and policy."

Indeed, while Kenna's photographs allude to political realities, they also reveal a sensibility that's keenly attuned to interpersonal dynamics. Side-by-side portraits of two couples, for example, might invite comparisons of features and postures across ethnic boundaries, but, if anything, there's an absence of polemics. Similarly, a 1.5-by-2-foot photo depicts Urban playing pick-up soccer with his students beside a dairy barn. Another shows a farmer and a worker standing together by a fence. "Yeah, there's been nights where you worry about them, you know?" reads a Vermont farmer's caption. "I guess they're just like my own children, and that's the way I treat them."

When these portraits are viewed alongside more sobering images suggestive of isolation and hardship, though, a viewer can feel uneasy. "Who would do anything around here?" a farmer's caption asks, referring to the prospect of an immigration raid. "You hear about it in other places where they've gone in and taken all the workers, and you just wonder, are we going to be the next ones?"

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