Portrait of a migrant dairy farmworker; Mexican man flees violence, poverty to work in Vermont

Editor’s note: This newspaper has done a number of stories about Vermont’s immigrant farmworkers. In this article, the Independent’sagriculture reporter puts a personal lens on this issue. What follows is one person’s story, as told to the Independent.
ADDISON COUNTY — “Mateo” sits at the kitchen table in the trailer that comes as part of his work on a local dairy farm. He’s 32 years old. The last time he saw his two kids — a daughter, 11, and a seven-year-old son — was seven years ago, when his daughter was four and his son nine months. His two children live with his mother and father. He calls home often. About the children’s mother, he doesn’t say.
Every two weeks he sends half his paycheck home to his parents to take care of his kids and his larger family. The money he sends home buys essentials, like food and clothes, and pays for tuition, books and uniforms to send his kids to school. Primary and secondary education is not free in Mexico.
Mateo (not his real name) first came to the United States when he was 17. So almost half his lifetime has been spent working in the U.S. He’s crossed into the United States six times: three times through Arizona and three through Texas.
He’s been in Vermont, working mostly on dairy farms for six years. Before that he worked in Texas and in New York. Among his first jobs in Texas was working at a Chinese restaurant. In New York, he started doing farm work. In Addison County, he lives far from the nearest town (and nearest store), without a car. He has only a bike for transportation.
Why is he here?
“I came for work. I don’t have any education, and where I’m from there’s no work,” Mateo says, through a translator.
At his current wage, $8.50 an hour plus extra for additional tasks, he can make in one hour in Vermont about what he can make in an entire day in Mexico (around $10 a day, he says).
“Here, depending on your job and how much you work, you can make $500 to $600 a week,” he says; and that doesn’t include the housing that many farmers also provide.
Mateo is from Tabasco, one of Mexico’s southernmost states. His home is on a small farm close to Cardenas, population 200,000.
A 2014 study rates Tabasco as among “the five worst (Mexican) states for both employment and unemployment rate.” A 2012 study pegged Tabasco as the 12th poorest state in Mexico (out of 31 states), with a poverty rate of 50 percent.
Home to one of Central America’s oldest civilizations, the Olmecs, Tabasco is dominated by rain forest. Its lagoons, rivers and marshes provide some of Mexico’s most extensive wetlands. Traditional foods include corn, beans, chocolate, yucca, papaya, fish, shellfish — and even iguana.
For Mateo this place of weighty history, plentiful rains and tropical lushness has been a place where poverty combined with wide scale corruption and the threat of extortion, violence or kidnapping makes living there difficult.
Asked if these kinds of crimes are the result of gangs, drug trafficking, or corrupt authorities, Mateo says: “It’s a little bit of everything — because there’s no work.
“These narcos just come in,” he continues, “and you have to make some deal, you have to pay them some amount of money for them to allow you to have your own business. So that’s the problem.”
He gives an example of the kind of extortion that can occur.
“What’s going on in Mexico is that if you want to fix your house, even if it’s just a little bit, just fix the front porch or something, right away people will think that you have money and they will kidnap your loved ones — your daughter, your son  — just because you want to fix up your house.”
Other first-person farmworker accounts — such as those in the “Most Costly Journey” series of stories at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury — relate similar stories, not just of poverty and lack of education but of a kind of endemic crime and corruption that make just getting by an ongoing struggle. (See these stories at vermontfolklifecenter.org/elviajemascaro.)
At his present job, Mateo said he works six days a week, in two four-hour shifts, milking cows. The first shift is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the second is 7 to 11 p.m.
“I work six days a week, and I rest one day,” he says.
What he likes best, he says, is “just being here and being able to work, to have the opportunity to support my family back in Mexico … Just being able to wake up every day and morning, just being alive and having the opportunity to be alive the following day — I can’t complain.”
Mateo hit a rough patch earlier this summer when he suddenly had to undergo major surgery for a life-threatening illness. Post-surgery his doctors said he wasn’t supposed to lift anything or bend at the waist for about eight weeks — a tough sentence for someone who does manual labor for a living. He’s been trying to work things out with his boss until he can come back to work safely, without rupturing wounds or tearing muscle tissue before it healed properly.
He’s lucky, he said. Mateo has a brother and sister also working nearby, and they’ve helped him as he’s recovered.
“It’s a big help for me having my siblings around. They were able to help me and take care of me after my surgery. If it wasn’t for them it would be a little bit harder,” he says.
Having family nearby also decreases the isolation many farmworkers report feeling.
Mateo is frustrated that the surgery has required such a long recuperation, and he’s long past ready to get back to work. He worries about what would happen to his family, to his children if he were no longer able to work.
Yet throughout our conversation, Mateo punctuates his story with comments and observations that make even the interpreter laugh — a sign that he’s learned tolook at life with a sense of humor.
But his manner shifts when he recalls the most harrowing parts of his life story: crossing from Mexico into the United States.
Although nature presents many dangers — rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, heat, thirst — the most dangerous element, he relates, is man. The kind of grim news that hit America earlier this summer — when nine Mexicans died from asphyxiation and heat while locked in the back of a tractor-trailer parked at a San Antonio, Texas, Walmart — underscores the predatory nature of the human trafficking system by which migrants typically cross the border illegally.
When he first came into the United States at 17, it was easy, Mateo says. He was young and strong. That first time he traveled in a group of about 10, but was on his own.
“I thought it was easy, a piece of cake. I was much younger, so I helped the others carry their bags, helped them out. It was just my first time, and I was experimenting,” he says.
Other times didn’t go so easily.
On one crossing, he and his group were kidnapped by a group of rival “coyotes,” a term for people paid to help arrange passage across the border.
“When my group came from Tabasco, we arrived at a border post. And when we got there, another person took us to the coyote who was going to pick us up. And he tricked us. We went with this guy, and he took us to a house that same night. They grabbed us. They had some bags with water and stuff to drink and everything. They loaded us into a van without saying anything to us. And since they were carrying firearms, we couldn’t really do anything. We climbed on board, they dropped us in the desert, and we began to walk. We spent five days walking.”
The kidnapper/coyotes forced them to pay double the promised fee: $3,000 instead of $1,500, Mateo said.
Another time, they were crossing the desert in the pitch dark. Suddenly there was a bad smell in the air. They came across two dead people along the trail and a third, barely alive, moaning. Some wanted to stop and help, but the coyote forced them to walk on without rendering aid.
“It sticks in my mind,” Mateo said quietly.
Coyotes often take people’s money but don’t deliver on their end of the bargain, he says.
“A lot of people come to the border and say, ‘I’ll help you cross over, I’ll get you across.’ There are lots of people who come to a border crossing and they all say, ‘Come on, I’ll take you, I’ll charge you very little.’ And since so many people come with little money, but with the strong desire to cross, they trick us and leave us stranded in the desert.”
Asked about his plans for the future, Mateo says that he’d like to return home and raise buffalo.
He already owns a few cows, he says. But lately there’s been more cattle rustling and he’s already had five cows stolen. Buffalo, he thinks, might be a better investment because they’d be harder to steal.
“My plan is that I’m going to buy buffalos and not buy cows. Cows are easy prey for people. When thieves come into your farm at night, they throw a lasso around the cow and grab him. They grab him fast. But buffalos, by contrast — the buffalo is tame during the day, but at night you can’t mess with him because you won’t come out alive,” he says.
Mateo is unequivocal when asked to share his hopes for his children:
“I want them to have an education, not to be like I am now. I want them to keep studying and not have to go through what I’ve gone through, not to be so far from home.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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