A Foot in Both Worlds Transcript

May 8, 2023

Back to A Foot in Both Worlds episode.

[speaking in Spanish for 1-2 seconds before translator begins]

Rubinay: So I come from the beautiful state of Chiapas, Mexico. That’s where my family and community are.

Ryan: This is Rubinay. Will Lambek from Migrant Justice is the translator.

Rubinay: I work on a dairy farm. I’ve been on farms since I got here in 2017 and I do a bit of everything. I milk cows, I feed the calves, really a bit of everything.

Ryan: Rubinay is one of about 1500 migrant workers from southern Mexico and Central America who work on Vermont farms, mostly dairies.

Rubinay: When you come here, you’re searching for a better life, but there are things you leave behind.

Every year Vermont Humanities chooses a book for communities across the state to read and discuss. The current Vermont Reads book is The Most Costly Journey (El viaje más caro). It’s a collection of cartoons that were created from the stories of migrant farm workers like Rubinay.

Ryan: The book describes crossing the southern border, struggling with English, adapting to winter, growing gardens, raising children, dealing with health crises, and working long hours.

Ryan: During our conversation, I asked Rubinay what he misses about his life in Mexico.

Rubinay: My mom, my dad, my siblings, my daughter. She was three years old when I left. I’ve been gone five years and now she’s eight.

Rubinay: What I wouldn’t give to have her with me now and to be able to hug her. But these are the sacrifices that you make. You have to leave home to try to work for a better life, for you and for her.

[theme music]

Noel: This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact. I’m Noel Clark.

[theme music]

Ryan: And I’m Ryan Newswanger. This episode is the first of a three-part series centered around Vermont farms. Migrant workers from Mexico and Central America are crucial to the state’s economy. But many other Vermonters don’t know much about our new neighbors.

Ryan: People speaking Spanish as they milk cows may not fit our traditional image of a Vermont farm. But migrant labor has a long history in Vermont.

Marjorie Strong: We’re looking at a farm journal kept by a farmer in Panton, Vermont, named Silas Pond, and it dates from the 1840s.

Noel: This is Marjorie Strong, Assistant Librarian with the Vermont Historical Society.

Marjorie Strong: He’s showing his farm life through his accounts and also some diary entries.

Noel: Marjorie wheels out a cart full of old Vermont farm diaries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which detail everything from what crops were planted and how many head of cattle were raised on the farm to the smaller things, like bringing home a bag of donuts or paying children for helping with farm chores.

Marjorie Strong: So a lot of farmers hired neighboring children to work on their farms. They sort of exchange them.

Noel: Panton, Vermont’s location along the southern shores of Lake Champlain also brought in a steady flow of French-Canadian migrants to supplement the local labor force. This was a common practice at the time.

Marjorie Strong: One of the more interesting features is that he lists his farmhands and farm laborers, and the payments to them. In one of the accounts he lists names—no last names—and he lists “other Frenchman,” which he does several times. This poor fellow never got a name. So clearly there were some immigrants, French-Canadian immigrants, who ended up working on his farm.

Noel: In order for the Ponds’ farm to prosper, they pulled in workers from the community as well as “outside” help.

Marjorie Strong: That’s how I perceive earlier Vermont: it was more of a web or network. And—clearly, as he says, “Frenchmen and other Frenchmen”—also, hired laborers who came in as well.

Noel: These hired laborers came from Quebec and many other places. Some came to Vermont against their will, as indentured servants or slaves. They spoke different languages and had different customs. But they all shared one thing in common –  hard work.

Marjorie Strong: We have another diary. Erastus Williams began in 1830s where he’ll say things like “hard work,” and “barn raising, the timbers were heavy.” So you can tell that it was not easy.

Noel: But it wasn’t all work. There was still time for fun, just like today as farm workers from Mexico have formed a weekend soccer league in Addison County.

Marjorie Strong: But then what’s always fun with these is things like “went to spelling school” or “went to singing school” and all the people who visited. So it wasn’t unrelenting labor. There were certainly a lot of activities that they can fit in around the farm life.

Noel: A poem by Robert Frost reminds us that New England has long had itinerant workers who existed in the shadows, the way migrant workers in Vermont do today.

Peter Gilbert: We have this vision of Frost as being a New England farmer or a New England country person.

Ryan: This is my former boss, Peter Gilbert. Peter has studied and lectured about Robert Frost for over 30 years. He was an English teacher and later the Executive Director of Vermont Humanities.

Peter Gilbert: And certainly he wrote poetry out of that landscape and out of his experiences as a farmer. But that isn’t the way he was raised.

Ryan: Frost was born in San Francisco, but when he was 11, his father died of tuberculosis. So he, his younger sister, and his mother moved east to Lawrence Massachusetts. They were penniless. He helped his mother in a small school that she started there. Later he worked in several mills in Lawrence.

Peter Gilbert: He made poetry out of his experiences, particularly in the rural world. He wasn’t so much a nature poet as he was a poet who dealt with humans in the world.

Ryan: Frost wrote his poem, “The Death of the Hired Man” in 1905, while he was living on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire.

Ryan: In the poem, Silas, a hired hand, has returned to a farm where he once worked, owned by Warren and Mary. Silas now rests inside their house, not looking well.

Ryan: Warren has just come back from a trip to town. His wife, Mary, meets him before he can step inside.

Peter Gilbert “She took the market things from Warren’s arms/And set them on the porch, then drew him down/To sit beside her on the wooden steps.” So she’s managing this. She doesn’t want Warren to interrupt or wake up Silas.

Ryan: A year earlier, Silas had left the farm just as haying began. Now he has returned.  Warren is surprised and annoyed.

Ryan: He speaks what may be the poem’s most well-known line: “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.’”

Peter Gilbert: I don’t know really whether Silas thought of them as home, but it is the place that he chose to go in his last moments, in his last chapter. So that’s a kind of a compliment, I think, to them and to their relation. Even though Warren is surprised and frustrated or annoyed initially that he’s heard that this guy has come back after he made it clear to him that, look, if you walk off the job now, I can’t take you back.

Ryan: The poem mentions that Silas has a well-off brother in town, a director at the bank, but they are pretty different. They don’t have a close relationship. Silas has no money: he’s homeless, jobless, and owns no property.

Peter Gilbert: You have to remember, this is well before Social Security. There was no unemployment insurance here. There is no social safety net, at least on the federal level or on the state level in terms of economics. There was a local one with poor houses and that kind of thing and private charity. But that’s it. It was a big hole that lots of people could get stuck at the bottom of, and they did.

Ryan: Unlike Mary, Warren hasn’t yet seen just how old and weary Silas now is. We hear Mary describe Silas’ condition, and we hear Warren’s hesitation to accept Silas back. It’s easy to think that Warren is a bad person, and that Mary is good.

Peter Gilbert: Some people would say, well, he’s for justice and she’s for mercy. That’s one way to look at it. But I think that even is too black and white, too separate.

Ryan: The poem hinges on Mary and Warren both eventually understanding and accepting Silas’ return.

Peter Gilbert: “Warren leaned out and took a step or two, picked up a little stick and brought it back and broke it in his hand and tossed it by.” He’s a little jittery. He’s a little uncertain, off balance. Frustrated, doesn’t know what to do about this situation. He’s trying to understand it, first of all.

Ryan: Later, Mary speaks. Silas might have done something that hurt them, she argues, but he still should be treated with compassion. Her perspective about what “home” is differs dramatically from what her husband had said, about home being something like an obligation.

Peter Gilbert: But then she says, the most beautiful line: “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Well, that’s grace. And, you know, in a religious sense, that’s grace. The love and the acceptance that you get, even though you don’t necessarily deserve it, even though you’re not without flaw.

Ryan: The poem asks implicitly: what is our responsibility to those on the margins, to those in need?

Peter Gilbert: Frost has another poem about that called “Love and a Question,” which is what is the obligation do you think we have if somebody comes to you late at night and it’s a cold night and they need a place to stay, should you bring them in? Well, what if it’s actually your wedding night? That’s what the poem is.

Ryan: As the title implies, “The Death of the Hired Man” ends with Silas dying. On the porch Mary and Warren arrive at a shared understanding, and then Warren finally goes inside.

Peter Gilbert: He goes in and discovers that Silas has already passed away in his sleep. That’s the way it ends.

Noel: Most of the Latin American workers on Vermont dairies are here without visas. Immigration policy – especially what some call “illegal” migration – can feel like an unsolvable problem. But there have been times when the US government encouraged migration from Mexico.

Roger Allbee: You know, if you go back to the history…the guest worker program and guest workers goes way back.

Noel: Roger Allbee served as Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture under Governor Jim Douglas for four years in the late 2000’s, a post once held by his twin brother Ronald Allbee.

Roger Allbee: It goes back to the First World War or 1917 when they needed workers. There was a program passed, an Immigration Act, to encourage guest workers. And then the Second World   War, with The Bracero program.

Noel: During both World Wars, the United States and Mexican governments agreed to allow what the US deemed “otherwise inadmissible aliens” entry to the country in order to replace Americans drafted to fight abroad. The program, considered to be a precursor to the current H-2A program for foreign nationals to be employed as temporary agricultural workers, ran until the early 1960s.

Roger Allbee: I mean, you look at our orchards today, any of them, they wouldn’t survive without having the H-2A program. And that’s the same across the country.

Noel: The H-2A visa program allows seasonal workers to reside in Vermont for a limited period of time. But it doesn’t help workers on Vermont’s dairies, as milking jobs are year-round positions.

Roger Allbee: was talking to somebody who runs maybe sort of a vegetable stand, but he also has an apple orchard and he does fruits and small vegetables. And he says the biggest problem he’s having today is year-round labor. He can’t find the labor he needs.

Noel: Allbee says that the problem of farm labor shortages hasn’t changed, it’s the people who have changed. French Canadian and Swedish workers eventually settled in Vermont and started their own farms. In other parts of the country, Syrian, Somali, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants fleeing turmoil have also become a vital part of local farm economies.

Roger Allbee: I mean, I’m on Rotary here and we’ve been involved in working with the Afghan refugees in Brattleboro. And it’s been wonderful, a wonderful experience. These people have the ability to contribute so much in many ways just like others did before them.

Roger Allbee: If we look at the needs and what our economy is doing and how it can do historically these guest workers are a very important part of who we are and what we are, and many of them will be part of our citizenry going forward and they will help guide us in the future.

Noel: As Agriculture Secretary, Allbee heard the voices of farmers who advertised in the local papers, paid decent wages, offered benefits and housing, but still couldn’t find local laborers willing to do the work. He also heard from migrant laborers afraid to report unfair treatment on Vermont farms for fear of retribution or deportation.

Roger Allbee: When I was AG secretary, about maybe once a quarter, or every half year, consul general from Mexico would come to visit.

Noel: A Consul General is the head of a US Consulate in Mexico, which works in coordination with the US Ambassador to handle more routine business between the two nations outside of major foreign policy affairs.

Roger Allbee: And he’d go to the governor’s office and then he’d come over, sit down with me, and we’d have a wonderful conversation talking about the importance of the guest workers and how they should be paid well and treated well. And the conversation always came around to also the issue of how they should be having better opportunities in Mexico as well in terms of wages.

Roger Allbee: I remember after I left Montpelier, the World Affairs Council and Vermont Technical College and others had a conference on guest workers and somebody from The Labor Department, Vermont, was involved. And I was on the panel and I spoke of the importance of guest workers historically as well as currently in Vermont, and how they should be paid well and treated well. And a woman in the audience, got up and said, publicly, “We should keep them out.”

Noel: This sort of anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t new towards guest workers. One of the pitfalls of the Bracero program was a backlash against migrant workers who often experienced outrageous charges for room and board, substandard living conditions, reduced pay, and discrimination from local businesses and communities.

Roger Allbee: And I said to her, “Do you know your history? Do you know your family’s history? Do you know that we all came from somewhere?

Noel: We’re a nation of immigrants. But we were also a nation of forced labor. African and Native American slaves helped build the country and keep it fed. Today, Mexican migrant laborers are asked to do much of the same hard and dirty work.

Roger Allbee: And I said, “My greatest hope is maybe a sometime in the future some of these guest workers from Mexico will own a farm here and be part of our economy.”

Ryan: In the time since Latin American farm workers started coming to Vermont, they have developed their own support systems. One is Migrant Justice – Justicia Migrante in Spanish – which was founded in 2009 after a young dairy worker was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper and strangled to death.

Rubinay: I think we’re a really tight community. We’re united, we help one another. So I like being part of this community and I like the work I do.

Ryan: Migrant Justice’s mission is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.

Rubinay: Some people are living in housing that’s not—how do you say—comfortable or dignified. And some people without their labor rights being respected, their rights as workers.

Ryan: Migrant Justice has advocated for many changes to improve the lives of Vermont’s migrant farm workers, including the Milk with Dignity Program, which brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains.

Ryan: It was first joined by Ben & Jerry’s in 2017. Rubinay has seen the difference.

Rubinay: Here I have my own room. Whereas on other farms outside of Milk with Dignity, it’s three workers sharing a room between them. I have a comfortable schedule here. I have time off. But on other farms, they’re working around the clock and they don’t have a day off.

Ryan: Traditionally, the migrant workers who came to Vermont from Mexico were young men. But that is starting to change a little.

Rubinay: My wife is here with me, she works at a cafe, I work on the dairy farm. And so we each have our own jobs. And then the cafe where she works, there are other young Mexican women working there with her.

Ryan: As the dairy industry consolidates in Vermont, the number of immigrant farmworkers in the industry has remained steady. But some migrant workers have moved to opportunities in other professions, such as in construction or in restaurants. Still, most plan to return to their home countries someday.

Rubinay: I see myself going back to Mexico because I have so many loved ones there that I want to be with. I feel good being here now because I’m working day in and day out, and I feel like I have a responsibility as a parent to provide what’s best for my family. But if you ask me if I want to go back, yeah, I see myself back there one day.

Ryan: Some are choosing to build a life in Vermont long-term.

Rubinay: But then others, they feel like from the get go, you know, they’re putting down roots here. They feel comfortable here and they feel like this is their new home. They want to stay.

Ryan: Rubinay used a Spanish term I hadn’t heard before, “Vermonteños.” Vermonters. Would he someday consider himself a Vermonter?

Rubinay: I think it’s about half and half. Maybe you have a foot in both worlds because you know you’re here, you feel comfortable here. You are getting accustomed to life here. But obviously you’re not going to forget where you came from and that you’re Mexican. You don’t lose that part of you. But, yeah, you know, I think over time, somebody could come to identify like that.

Noel: In part two of this series, we’ll look at technology and its impact on Vermont farms.

Dona Brown: And by the time you reach the point where you have to decide, “Am I going to put the money into the bulk tank or not?” You’ve already seen a lot of falling away of those small remote farms. The bulk tank is just the last decision, the last point to cross.

Noel: Look for that episode next month.

Ryan: Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Noel Clark and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Teresa Greene and Amanda Kay Gustin.

Noel: Thanks to our guests: Rubinay, Will Lambek, Marjorie Strong, Roger Albee, and Peter Gilbert.

Ryan: Visit our website, Before Your Time dot org, to find photos and videos related to this episode, including an extended interview with Vermont’s migrant farm workers. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about the podcast. Thanks for listening!