They call this the Information Age, but it could just as easily be labeled the Inundation Age, what with the cacophony of messages assaulting our senses on a daily basis. It's easy for journalists to get disheartened when our efforts to illuminate an injustice or societal ill get lost in the glare of a thousand other spotlights competing for the public's attention. Until, that is, our readers remind us about why we do our jobs.
Anyone interested in getting involved with the Vermont Campesinos Alliance can contact Luis Tijerina at 660-7172. All information will remain confidential.
Such was the case recently when I learned that a group of Vermonters were moved to action by an article in the June 18 issue of Seven Days about the plight of Mexican farm workers in Vermont's dairy industry ["Green Mountain Campesinos"]. As readers may recall, the state's dairy industry has been plagued by a shortage of laborers willing to work the long, grueling hours dairy farming demands, especially for the low wages most farmers can afford to pay. As a result, more and more Vermont farms are hiring Mexican workers to keep their dairies operating.
As in virtually every sector of American agriculture, many of these workers are in the United States illegally. No one can say for sure how many work in Vermont, but one industry expert at the University of Vermont Extension Service estimates that as many as 75 percent of the ag workers in this region are here illegally. This situation can spell disaster for dairy farmers when an entire work crew is suddenly arrested and deported, leaving them with no one to milk and tend their cows.
But the situation is far more tragic for the campesinos, or Mexican workers, whose lives are typically marked by fatigue, boredom, loneliness and depression. Mexican-born laborers in states like Texas and California can often find communities of fellow Spanish speakers for camaraderie, cultural identity and even social services. But Vermont's campesinos often live for months or years in near isolation. Their housing conditions vary from passable to abysmal. Most speak little or no English and cannot get a driver's license, so they rarely, if ever, leave the farm. And their geographic isolation and ever-present fear of arrest prevent them from seeking out a community of other Spanish speakers.
The plight of Vermont's campesinos struck a nerve among many Seven Days readers. Within days of the article's release, people from around the state began contacting us to find out what they could do to help. We passed along their contact information to Luis Tijerina, a Spanish translator who helped on the article and who had lived and worked for years among the campesinos. The result was the formation of the Vermont Campesinos Alliance, a group whose goal is to provide these men with health, educational and other services. Thus far, about 25 people have joined, most of whom speak Spanish, have lived or traveled in Mexico, and are interested in teaching these men English and becoming their friends.
Already, VCA has connected with workers on four Vermont dairy farms. And they know of at least a dozen other places where Mexicans are working. The article pointed out that most of the campesinos come from poor peasant backgrounds and have never seen a doctor or dentist. In response, a local dentist, a health clinician and a nurse practitioner who are willing to donate time and services have approached the VCA. In addition, a representative from the Vermont Workers' Center has begun attending VCA's meetings to discuss what rights, if any, these men have and what the center can do to help.
Needless to say, VCA's activities present some unique challenges and risks. "Our goal here is not only to bring education and health needs to the workers and whatever other needs they express, but also to not reveal their names or where they work," Tijerina reminded volunteers at a meeting in Burlington last week. "For us to reveal that information is to destroy their livelihood." All the campesinos interviewed for the story send their earnings back to Mexico to support wives and children there.
Another concern is the threat of hostility and even violence from farmers who may feel their own livelihood is threatened by VCA's work. To reduce that likelihood, the group has drafted a letter to farmers to inform them of their intention to help these workers and not disrupt farming activities. Still, many farmers may not welcome them with open arms. "This is not going to be a beautiful Impressionist landscape out there," Tijerina told the group. "There's serious activity going on out there and we have to accept the realities of it."
VCA is also looking into supporting a legislative proposal drafted by 85 dairy farmers from six midwestern states. This bill would modify work visa laws to allow dairy farms -- which require laborers year-round -- to legally employ foreign workers, as seasonal farm operations now do.
VCA volunteers admit their goals are ambitious and won't be accomplished all at once. "I'm concerned that we may not have enough people to actually meet all the needs here," says volunteer Emily Glick, who warns that the group should not make promises it can't keep.
Volunteer Matt Naik takes a more practical approach. "I think we should just go out there as friends and try to help them with conversational English and stuff like that," he told the group, "instead of trying to be saviors.