CORNWALL — A recent college graduate from Cornwall is hoping his senior thesis serves as a learning tool for politicians to change federal immigration laws and working conditions for the state’s migrant Mexican farm workers.
Bjorn Jackson, an aspiring filmmaker who recently graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., spent seven months — spanning September 2007 through April 2008 — making his documentary, titled “Under The Cloak of Darkness: Vermont’s Migrant Mexican Farm Workers.”
While only recently completed, the film is already taking on a life far beyond that of most school projects. It has earned a following among migrant worker advocates and may soon be screened as part of an exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center. Jackson plans to enter it in some film festivals for independent films.
“I never thought of this film for commercial success,” he said. “But it can be an educational tool for opening people’s eyes.”
Specifically, he hopes his work opens more eyes to the clandestine lives of hundreds of migrant workers — largely from Mexico — who toil in dairy farms throughout Addison County and the rest of Vermont.
Jackson’s 45-minute film examines the very difficult day-to-day lives of these laborers as seen through the eyes of local advocates, politicians, farmers and the workers themselves. Jackson skillfully sprinkles in footage of beautiful Addison County farmscapes as an ironic juxtaposition to the shadowy barns, milk stalls and trailers to which the workers must confine themselves or risk deportation to their native land.
With the help of a translator, Jackson was able to conduct on-camera interviews with two Mexican migrant workers who provided fascinating snapshots of their lives and the fear-filled road that led them to area farms and wages that have allowed them to support the families they have temporarily left behind.
One man recounts how he was mugged while making his way clandestinely across the Mexico-U.S. border. He notes how he has already been deported once, after authorities came to his residence when he mistakenly dialed 9-1-1 instead an 0-1-1 as part of an international phone number. Undeterred, he quickly returned after his deportation. The wages are a veritable king’s ransom compared to what can be earned for similar work in Mexico, yet not enough of an inducement for most Vermonters. As a result, many Vermont dairy farms are more than willing to hire foreign workers.
Another Mexican national tells Jackson about how he left a farm in Orleans County because his boss insisted that he work upwards of 95 hours a week — without breaks — caring for a herd of 75 cows and 30 horses.
“All I asked for was time enough to prepare food,” said the man, who subsequently relocated to an Addison County farm. Holding back tears, he tells Jackson of the isolation he feels knowing that while his labor is in demand, he cannot freely circulate in the community because he is considered an “illegal.” He refers to the lyrics of a Mexican song in summing up his current status in America: “I live in a golden cage but I am a prisoner.”
Others featured in Jackson’s film include Cheryl Connor of Bridport, a longtime advocate for migrant workers; Chris Urban, who helps teach English to foreign farm laborers; Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, a former farmer and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee; Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, whose department recently instituted a policy that officers will not seek to detain undocumented foreign nationals unless they have committed a crime; and Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin.
The camera follows migrant workers as they cautiously gather for religious services, immunizations and meals. Jackson also records footage of a meeting of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition as it debates issues facing foreign farm workers.
Jackson was candid in saying he hopes his film raises public awareness of migrant farm workers in Vermont, and serves as a vehicle to change federal laws that will allow foreign laborers to freely circulate in the communities in which they work.
“It’s very difficult to make a documentary without some kind of message,” Jackson said. “My approach was, there are some guys here and they are essential to the farm economy. They wouldn’t be here if (others) were willing to do the work. They are filling a role that is essential.”
Brent Bjorkman, director of the Folklife Center in Middlebury, said he hopes Jackson’s film can be screened as part of an upcoming exhibit titled, “The Golden Cage: Mexican Migrants and Vermont Dairy Farmers.” The exhibit, to run from Sept. 12 to Nov. 11, will feature images by former Addison Independent photographer Caleb Kenna and interviews of migrant workers and farmers recorded by Chris Urban.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Bjorkman said of the exhibit.
Anyone wanting to learn more about Jackson’s film — available on DVD — can do so by visiting www.bjornjackson.com.