It was a Thanksgiving dinner that nine Mexican men will never forget. Seated at the dining room table of one of their employers, an Addison County dairy farmer who asked to remain anonymous, the campesinos, or farm laborers, partook in a bountiful Turkey Day feast that included all the fixings. And while most of the men could not speak English, it didn't require a translator to figure out that the stuffing was a huge hit.
"The camaraderie was fantastic," says Nancy Sabin of Charlotte, who organized the dinner with the woman whose family owns the farm. "The men couldn't believe that the patrones [bosses] had the men in their homes, sitting with them at their table."
Last June, Seven Days ran a story about the plight of the Mexican campesinos who live and work on Vermont's dairy farms. What began as a human-interest story about the warm-weather folks who brave Vermont's frigid winters for their paychecks quickly mushroomed into an expose about the lives of undocumented laborers in the dairy industry. Since most of these men speak little or no English and are cut off from their families and friends in Mexico by distance and economics, they live in nearly complete physical and cultural isolation. Vermont's campesinos often work long hours for meager pay and suffer from loneliness, exhaustion, depression, and the ever-present fear of being arrested and deported if they venture off the farm.
The story caused quite a stir among local Latinos, farmers, workers-rights advocates, and others who have lived or traveled in Mexico. Shortly after it ran, about two-dozen Vermonters formed a nonprofit group called the Vermont Campesinos Alliance (VCA) to offer the men camaraderie, English-language lessons, household goods, medical attention and other basic necessities. But those efforts also sparked anxiety among some farmers, who feared that VCA had ulterior motives. As a result, Vermont's Attorney General was asked to weigh in on the workers' legal rights to receive visitors. And now, legislation is pending before Congress that would allow many of these campesinos to become permanent U.S. residents.
Sabin, better known among local Spanish-speakers as "Mama Nancy," has long been the sole advocate for the Mexican farm laborers of Addison County. The straight-talking, no-nonsense Sabin, who describes herself as an "old radical fighting for the most abused of the abused," is their unofficial social worker, translator, taxi driver, even legal advisor. She provides whatever help she can afford -- food, clothing, household goods, even long-distance calls to their families back in Mexico. She's done it for years, usually with little or no outside help.
As Sabin explains, the living conditions of Vermont's campesinos vary widely depending upon the farm. As last month's Thanksgiving dinner demonstrates, many local farm families are generous and kind to their foreign-born farmhands and do their best to make them feel at home. On the other hand, others take advantage of the imbalance of power that exists between employer and employee, which can be further compounded by a worker's immigration status. Sabin knows of several farmers who provide their employees with substandard housing, meager amenities, few if any medical services and sporadic paychecks.
For example, she received a phone call two months ago from a Mexican worker she knows who told her that neither he nor his co-workers had been paid for more than 45 days. As a result, none of the five men had eaten for three days. Sabin immediately went out and bought them groceries out of her own pocket.
Unfortunately, such problems often go unaddressed because most of Vermont's social-service agencies are either unaware they exist or are ill-equipped to handle them. "One of the most disturbing things is that two or three Mexicans can't even walk down the road in Addison County without someone calling the police and asking, What are those people doing here?'" says Angele Court, a paralegal with Legal Services Law Line of Vermont. "And, of course, they get deported and they weren't doing anything but walking down the road."
Court, who was hired part-time to assist the state's foreign-born workers -- most of them seasonal apple pickers from Jamaica -- was once told there were no Mexican workers in Vermont. In fact, she doesn't even speak Spanish. Moreover, her organization is not permitted to provide direct assistance to undocumented workers. As a result, if one of them complains to her about unpaid wages, he is referred to the U.S. Department of Labor, which may verify his immigration status before launching an investigation.
But the plight of Vermont's Mexican laborers may be slowly improving. As Sabin notes, "Your article got me into a loop of people that I wouldn't have been in." Last summer, VCA volunteers set out to break down the language barriers that exist between workers and employers and improve the workers' living conditions by collecting and distributing donated clothing, household goods, books and other necessities. Thus far, VCA's volunteer teachers have visited at least five Vermont farms to provide English-language lessons. A dentist and nurse practitioner have also donated medical services and referrals at no cost.
Although VCA's mission statement speaks only about promoting cross-cultural good will and providing humanitarian assistance, in September the group came under fire from Agri-Placement Services, a Macedon, New York-based employment agency that provides many Vermont farms with their "Hispanic labor force." On September 30, the business sent out a form letter to farm owners throughout the state warning them not to associate with VCA.
"In our professional opinion, the core motive of this group does not have the best interest of the farm owners in mind, causing a breakdown in the relationship they value with their farm workers," the letter read. It also alleged that VCA volunteers "promote farm worker unions and litigation against farm owners. When in privacy with the farm workers, we believe involvement with a group such as this may compromise the stability and productivity not only of each farm worker and farm owner, but also of Vermont businesses as a whole."
The letter's author, F. Brandon Mallory, would not comment further on what had sparked the letter. But VCA Chairman Luis Tijerina calls Mallory's claims unfounded and completely without merit. In response, his group sent out its own letter to Vermont farmers introducing them to VCA and explaining that its volunteers pose no threat to farmers or their livelihood. Nevertheless, several VCA English-language instructors have met with resistance and even hostility from farm owners. A few were prevented from visiting the farms and meeting with campesinos.
As a result, the Vermont Attorney General's office issued a legal opinion paper in October that outlines the rights of persons living on Vermont farms to be visited by people of their own choosing. According to Assistant Attorney General Elliot Burg, denying farm employees access to visitors is considered an unfair trade practice, "oppressive to workers, particularly where they are isolated from the larger community." The AG's office advises farm owners as well as state and local law-enforcement agents to fully respect those rights.
"Being in contact with legal staff, health workers, educators, and others is all the more significant for farm workers who come from other countries and who may be isolated from the outside community by barriers of culture, language, lack of mobility and even fear," Burg notes. "In at least some cases, denial of access will cause workers substantial injury, where the visitor is trying to provide legal advice, health care, educational classes or other important information or services that would benefit the worker."
Despite those legal assurances, VCA faces other obstacles to fulfilling its mission. Due to the remoteness of the workers they're trying to reach, providing them with ongoing assistance on a regular basis is both expensive and time-consuming. Tijerina says that because it's crucial to protect the privacy and confidentiality of these men, he cannot give their names and locations to just anyone who offers assistance. And since many of the volunteers who have joined VCA are college students, Tijerina says it can be difficult getting a long-term commitment of time and resources.
Nevertheless, Tijerina, Court and others are encouraged by the legislation now working its way through Congress. The bill, which was negotiated between national farm groups and organized labor, enjoys broad bipartisan support and is expected to pass. It would allow tens of thousands of undocumented workers to apply for temporary resident status if they can prove they have worked in the United States for at least 100 days over a 12-month period. And since Vermont's campesinos tend to remain on one farm for months and even years at a time, many of them would likely be eligible to become permanent residents, thus allowing them to finally emerge from the shadows and live normal lives.
In the meantime, Mama Nancy is trying to make this holiday season as special for the campesinos as their Thanksgiving was. She says the Salvation Army on Williston Road has been wonderful at providing toys for the men to send to their children back in Mexico, since many of them cannot afford to buy presents on their own. "They're getting really excited about Christmas this year," Sabin says, "but at the same time, they're really depressed, too."
To volunteer to help the Mexican campesinos or donate goods or holiday gifts, contact the Vermont Campesinos Alliance at 660-7172 or Nancy Sabin at 425-2886.