Originally published June 18, 2003.
Pedro is reluctant to give his last name. He looks up from his work and stares wide-eyed when my translator, Luis Lazaro Tijerina, greets him in Spanish. At the sound of his native tongue, Pedro flashes a big, toothy grin and shakes our hands eagerly. Luis explains why we’re here, and we follow Pedro down into a recessed pit at the center of a horseshoe-shaped milking pen.
Pedro is one of three Spanish speakers on this medium-size family farm, but there are many more Mexicans working in the surrounding area. Pinched by low milk prices and a shortage of workers willing to put in long, grueling hours for low pay, Vermont dairy farmers are increasingly looking south of the border for hands to keep their operations running. As is the case in every sector of American agriculture, Vermont’s los sinpapeles —or “those without papers” — have become an essential link between our farms and our food tables.
Despite their growing presence in the state, these workers remain virtually invisible to most Vermonters. Even if you lived nearby, you might never notice Pedro and his compatriots; the men tend to stay out of sight. Although their basic needs are met, their day-to-day existence is marked by constant fatigue, loneliness, boredom, physical and psychological isolation, and the ever present fear of arrest and deportation.